There’s been a bit of buzz concerning Obama’s referral to the “unbelievers” in his inaugural speech. Accusations include that this comes across as a negative term, that something like “free thinker” should have been used instead, and so on. So, at the risk of get buried in semantics, I figured it might be worthwhile to ponder this for a bit.
First, by itself, the term “unbeliever” means nothing. Most of us don’t believe in something. Christians don’t believe in Lakshmi or Ganesha. Muslims don’t believe that Jesus is the son of God. Nobody believes in Russell’s teapot (at least nobody’s admitting it yet). But Obama, in speaking to a predominately Christian audience, refers to a number of theistic beliefs and then includes nonbelievers. It is clear from the context that he means atheists or agnostics.
Is non or un-believer a negative term? It is in the sense that it is a negation of a belief in something. Beyond that is cultural context. Here in the U.S., unbeliever would probably carry the same weight of negativity that atheist does (Not that I think this is a good thing. I don’t.). Many of us atheists see atheism in a positive light and may see the term as implying a certain sense of rationality and humanism, in a way that simply not believing in something does not. For most Americans not actively involved in these religious/atheist debates, this implication may not exist (But it is an association that we would like to make mainstream, I’m sure.). That is beyond the definition of atheism, to be sure, but we all have word connotations derived from our experience. Even knowing that there are irrational atheists.
So saying someone is an unbeliever doesn’t really say what the person is for. Free thinker? Humanist? I would say that in some sense Obama is also a humanist and free thinker. He is also a believer, of the Christian variety. Would atheist have been better? My first inclination is yes, due to my own positive connotations of the word (not shared by most of my fellow citizens). But, then should he have distinguished atheists from agnostics, perhaps even giving a nod to Deists?
In the end, the speech was not about distinguishing between religious types or various flavors of “nonbeliever”, but a call for inclusiveness. To specifically include people who do not share in the various theistic beliefs that he or the majority of Americans share is a welcome relief. That governing should not be based on religious principles but on ideas that can be rationally reached and mutually agreed upon by reasonable people. I think we can probably all agree on that ideal.