When I chose to not believe in God, I actually didn’t know what an Atheist was. The first time I heard the word “Atheist” was when I told my dad that night that I didn’t believe in God. I was 14.
“WHAT?!? Are you telling me you’re an ATHEIST?!?”
(sorry Dad, if that’s not how you remember it. That’s how it seemed to 14 year old me)
After that… pleasant… conversation I called myself an Atheist for quite a while. I mean, I did (and still do) disbelieve in the existence of supreme beings.
Honestly, I should give my parents more credit than that. I didn’t have to worry about them disowning me or not loving me anymore. I didn’t have to worry about being kicked out of the house or punished in any way. I was also never one of those… angry Atheists. My rationale was that I had only believed in God because people had told me that God existed – so I decided not to believe until I had another reason. I didn’t know at the time that I would never find a reason to believe, and instead find lots of reasons not to.
But in the past few years I’ve come to think of the label of Atheist as quite narrow. Imagine if you asked someone what color their hair was, and their reply was “NOT BROWN!” That… doesn’t tell you a whole lot, really. Especially since hair dye is a thing. That’s the way I relate to the word Atheist these days. Buddists are atheist for the most part, I’ve met quite a few Wiccans who describe themselves as Atheist. There are so many people who describe themselves as spiritual, not religious. Some of them are probably Atheists, some definitely are not. Most Indian and Chinese religions are atheistic, or not explicitly theistic. Just going around saying you don’t believe in God(s), which is what you’re doing when you say you’re an Atheist, doesn’t say what you do believe – if anything. It doesn’t say how you approach the world or what moral framework you look at reality through.
I guess, functionally, when someone describes themselves as an Atheist they are saying that they are not a believer in one of the major western religions. I’ve found that most Atheists that left a major religion retain most of the moral precepts that went with that religion. In fact, many Atheists I’ve encountered left because they saw too many members of their religion ignore their major teachings. I think for many people it would be more accurate to say that they were Christian, Muslim, or Jewish and are now Atheist. That’s going to tell the listener a lot more about how you view the world. But after years, or decades, of not following any religion, I don’t know if that would be very effective either.
I do think it’s important to have an Atheist community, whether or not some people want to call organized Atheism a religion. When I first discovered that I was an Atheist, I had no one to talk about it with for years. I felt totally alone in my lack of belief, awash in a culture that was predominantly Christian. Finding other Atheists and hearing and reading about their experiences was definitely a comforting experience for me (even if the organized Atheist culture can get going on some strange tangents).
As of now, if it comes up, I refer to myself as not religious. We could argue about whether or not that tells the listener any more than saying “I’m an Atheist” does, but at least the phrase “not religious” isn’t as incindiary for some people as atheism is.