All the brouhaha about Sam Harris and his call to stop using the word “atheist” to describe ourselves has generated umpteen posts in the Atheosphere. (Now, umpteen plus one.)
Some, like Spanish Inquisitor, have made an analogy between "atheist" and "gay."
... the word [atheist] has the capacity to become a wonderful umbrella term, much like “gay” is used to describe homosexual, lesbian, bi-sexual and even to a certain extent, the transgendered, along with not only a lifestyle and a sexual practice, but a culture. Atheism can include, despite its definitional limitation, a multi-faceted number of differing and complimentary world views and philosophies, if we allow it.
The above is a false analogy. "Atheist" is a common term for a nonbeliever, and always has been. But "gay" was not a common word for "homosexual" until homosexuals started using it to describe themselves. "Gay" used to mean "festive, colorful, merry," as in "don we now our gay apparel." Ever since the 17th century, it has also had a second, underground meaning relating to sexual conduct. Originally, though, "gay" was used to denote promiscuous heterosexuals: a prostitute was a "gay woman;" a brothel was a "gay house;" and a womanizer was a "gay man." Only after World War II, did a slow but concerted effort by the gay community change the standard meaning of that word.
The evolution of the word "gay" gave me an idea. While I'm perfectly happy with "atheist" to describe myself, I'd like to suggest an alternative.
Here's a future conversation I imagine.
So what do you think, fellow reasoners?
Theist: You can't call yourself a reasoner. Anyone who uses reason is a reasoner. Look it up in the dictionary! I'm a reasoner, too.
Reasoner: Do you believe in any gods?
Theist: Yes, of course.
Reasoner: Then you're not a reasoner. We reasoners don't believe in any gods.
Theist: But you can't just change the meaning of a word that way.
Reasoner: Why not?
Theist: Because that's not what "reasoner" means.
Reasoner: Yes it is. A reasoner is a person who doesn't believe in any gods.
Theist: What about all the other people who use reason? The ones who do believe in god?
Reasoner: Well, they may claim they're using reason, and they may even be using reason. But they aren’t reasoners, by definition. You're not a reasoner if you believe in any gods. That’s what “reasoner” means: a person who doesn't believe in any gods. Any reasoner will tell you that.
Theist: You can’t just take over a word like that.
Reasoner: Yes we can. You don’t have to use it if you don’t want to.
Theist: Well, I won’t. I’m still going to call you “atheists.”
Reasoner: That’s fine. Reasoners don’t mind being called “atheists,” although that word is a little old-fashioned, and viewed by some as pejorative. Still, you’re free to call us anything you like. Just understand that the accepted polite term for a person who doesn't believe in any gods is "reasoner."
Theist: I absolutely refuse to call you “reasoners.”
Reasoner: OK. But you should know that when you read a book by a reasoner, or when you see a reasoner being interviewed on TV, or when you hear a reasoner being quoted, that reasoner is a person ...
Theist: Yeah, yeah. A person who doesn't believe in any gods.
Reasoner: Now you're getting it.