“That’s how I feel, too, except I’m not like THAT.”

I have finally read the study by Dan Dennett and Linda LaScola on Protestant clergy who don’t believe in God. If you have an e-reader, I recommend downloading the PDF, as it’s a fascinating read. Also: yay for a PDF that actually displays on my Kindle! I’m sure it’s fine to read on a computer, too, just bring the eye drops.

Now, far more qualified writers than I am have already done their commentary on the predicament of pastors who don’t believe what they’re retained to preach, and I won’t pretend to have anything original to add to that body of opinion. (In case you’re wondering: my heart goes out to these guys. I don’t blame them for staying in the heathen closet while keeping their jobs.)

Instead I’ll shoot my mouth off on something far more inappropriate. Notice my reference to the “heathen closet,” as if being an atheist is comparable to being gay? That’s not accidental. Something that caught my attention about the men who made it to the final draft — five Protestant ministers, each from a different denomination — was that they don’t all call themselves atheists, even for the purposes of the study. They don’t all even identify as agnostics, necessarily. Part of this semantic disagreement comes down to a certain ingrained fuzziness about just what it means to “believe in God,” which Dennett explores in Breaking the Spell. Beyond arguments over vocabulary, however, the pastors whom LaScola interviewed have this much in common with your garden-variety godless heathen: they reject original sin, the Biblical creation myth, the virgin birth, resurrection, substitutionary atonement, heaven and hell, pretty much any idea of an existent God outside of our own imaginations who gives a shit about how we conduct ourselves. Basically, they do not agree with any tenet of Abrahamic monotheism which is not readily available in any coherent secular philosophy. Define “God” as an entity which exists regardless of whether we have faith in it, and which has real power over our existence and concern for our lives, and these ministers are having none of it. That’s what brought them to the study.

As I was saying, at least a couple of them nonetheless do not accept the label of “atheist.” If the study hadn’t pursued that line further, I would probably think nothing of the semantics, but since the interviews did go into how they label themselves and why, the study showed a tendency I’ve seen before. Their explanations for identifying themselves as something other than “atheist” or “agnostic” felt familiar to me. “See, I don’t believe in God, but I’m not an atheist, because I’m willing to talk about God as a concept.” I’m not using his exact words, but it’s eerily close. It’s actually something we all do to some degree. The mechanism behind this semantic debate is that in order to separate yourself from a particular group, you must first specify a definition for that group. Let’s try a silly thought experiment first.

Am I a dancer? I like shaking my booty at the club, but I don’t consider myself a dancer. A dancer is someone who can do more than just shake her booty with the music.

Am I a poet? I’ve written a few poems in my life, but a poet is someone who writes poetry when left to her own devices. I’m a novelist, a prose writer.

Then again, someone else might tell me I’m not “really” a writer because I haven’t been paid for any of my writing. Who decides what makes a writer?

Who decides what makes a poet?

Who decides what makes a dancer?

Indeed, who decides what makes an atheist, or agnostic?

The familiarity I saw in the “but I’m not an atheist” self-definitions was with people who are actively bisexual, and even live openly as such, but decline to self-identify as bisexual. Some simply refuse to label their sexual orientation as anything, and I’m not going to pick a fight with that. Then there are others who insist that their orientation is something which does not include bisexuality, and some who even continue to look down their noses at those who do identify as bisexual. “Yes, I like people of both genders in a sexual way, but I’m not bisexual because it isn’t a 50/50 split.” That’s among the less obnoxious examples, and while I will agree that the term “bisexual” is not equal to the task of describing all that it includes, there is ultimately an assumption underlying this type of hair-splitting. It is an assumption that a person included in group X fits the criteria of ABCD.

As I said, we all do this. We do it every time we define ourselves either negatively or positively; in order to say we belong to group X (or don’t), we first assume a definition for that group using criteria which apply to us (or don’t). In most cases, there’s no discernible dissonance between our assumptions and the group’s view of itself. The similarity between the non-believing clergy and the but-I’m-not-bisexuals is that the people who identify with the disputed groups tend to define those groups much more generously (or at least more broadly) than the individuals who resist the label while sharing the basic attitude or behavior.

This is an important parallel between LGBT folk and non-theists. Both are invisible, marginalized minorities facing a different set of challenges from visible minorities and larger disadvantaged groups. For both sets, there is a “closet” that you can live in or come out of. For both sets, there are stereotypes imposed externally, which are uniquely challenging to combat because the existence of that “closet” allows much of the majority to ignore the individuals in their lives who defy those stereotypes. For both sets, those stereotypes are pervasive enough that many people who could theoretically be part of those groups instead cling to preconceptions and even contribute to the stigma against the invisible minorities in question.

All this is not to say that you must identify as whatever someone else says you are based on what you have in common with them, or else you’re part of the problem. I might not understand your reasons, but there’s the thing: they’re your reasons and I cannot presume to understand you better than you do. Our identities are ultimately what we say they are and we must make those decisions on our own terms. The question I mean to ask is not whether you accept a particular label, but whether you see it as a neutral descriptor or an insult. If you take it as an insult: why? From whence comes the umbrage?

This is all academic, however, for the non-believing clergy who have their own ideas about what makes an atheist. They’re in the closet about their non-belief and they don’t expect to come out in the foreseeable future. It doesn’t matter how they define themselves if no one else gets to hear it.