Labels Suck (except when they don’t)

A recent TEDx talk discussed coming out of the closet, not just the “I’m gay” closet, but any closet— any secret that prevented someone from being themselves. After listening to the talk, I was tempted to post a big “I’m an Atheist!” status on FB, but decided against it. My reasoning is similar to why I seldom went out of my way to tell people I was a Christian.

Labels can be really helpful as a shorthand way to describe something. Knowing someone goes a Baptist church versus a Pentecostal Holiness one tells me something about their religious beliefs. Knowing someone identifies as a Libertarian rather than a Democrat or Republican tells me something about how they think politically. So labels can be a good way to give a general overview of a particular category of person’s identity. But while labels can work in broad strokes, they can also break down in the details. One person’s church, although Baptist, may do things differently than the other Baptist churches down the road. Or a particular Republican voter may disagree with the official party position on certain issues. So while labels can help identify someone, they can also misrepresent the person when the specifics don’t neatly fit the expectation of the label.

Labels can also have “baggage.” While many Christians are nice people- caring and loving individuals- there are other people who call themselves Christian who are hateful, arrogant, misogynistic or worse. Even “good” Christians can find themselves on the wrong side of a conversation when their beliefs conflict with those around them. So I was always hesitant to tell someone “I’m a Christian” because, well, what will they hear? That I’m a self-righteous know-it-all who looks down on others? That I’m a loving and caring (but naive) person who just plays by the rules? Or some other permutation of behavior they’ve come to label as “Christian” from their experience? I often found it was easier to tell someone what I thought about a specific issue and let them arrive at the label in time, rather than tell them the label and then have to address the fallout from their newfound perception of me.

I feel the same way about the label of atheist. I’ve already seen Ophrah’s misinformation when it comes to the label ( and I’m sure others have similar misconceptions, e.g. “atheists have no sense of wonder about the world,” “atheists have no morality” or “atheists are just angry at god.” I often wonder if it would be better to start with the label despite the misconceptions and work backwards, defusing those misconceptions, or start with what I believe, why I believe it, and then work towards the label. I honestly see benefits to both. For one struggling with their own “closet” knowing they are not alone can be empowering. Hearing someone else claim a label that is frightening to claim can be an important step in claiming it for oneself. However, I also see benefits to avoiding contentious labels and instead engaging people on a more personal level, issue by issue, while still remaining true to oneself.


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