“Atheist” is a word that provokes disgust or distrust in most Americans. See these studies (there are many more):
1. “: Disgust responses to rejected religious beliefs” — Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 2011.
2. “Distrust is central to anti-atheist prejudice” — Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
This distrust and disgust exist because most Americans equate atheism with immorality. This is not because they know immoral atheists, but because they view one of the main functions of their religion (a fear of god) as a check on bad human behavior. So to them a person who does not believe in God is dangerous because they don’t have a belief that will contain their bad behavior.
This sense of disgust makes it dangerous to come out as an atheist in America. But it is far worse in Muslim countries where most agree that “atheists” should be killed (see this Pew research — isn’t theism wonderful?)
So there are many strategies that religion-free people can use if they want to stay out of the disgust category when asked by religious folks, “Are you an atheist?”:
1. Deny your disbelief and just shut them down saying, “Yes, I believe in God.” Perhaps you can just tell yourself that “God” is that warm feeling in your heart when you do something good. Then certainly you believe.
2. Tell them, “Well, I am sort of a Taoist or a Buddhist.” The listener will not be disgusted with you if they feel you believe in some higher power or principles. Again, the reflex of disgust is hard to resist, so don’t tempt them.
3. Tell them you are an “agnostic”, then they will think you are open minded.
But I have a fourth suggestion for today where I suggest you don’t be tricked by the question. Question the question. Show the believer that their beliefs may be far fuzzier than they imagine. Tell them:
4. Well, if an “atheist” is someone who is not a theist, then I have to know what a “theist” is. “Theist” comes from the greek work theos which means “god”. So tell me what sort of god you believe in, and I will tell you if I don’t believe in that sort of god. For certainly you don’t believe in all sorts of gods, you just believe in one. Here is the standard kind of god that I think most Christians believe in:
a) All powerful being/principle/power
b) All knowing
c) All loving
f) Rewards those who believe in him, punish those who don’t
So, if you are asking me if I am am this sort of theist, I can confidently say “no” because I don’t believe in “e”, an interventional deity because we indeed have no evidence for an interventional all powerful, all loving, all knowing being. This is the classic theological question of theodicy But if you want to cut to the chase just point out the most extreme example is the classic “God has never healed a amputee”.
I can then tell that Christian theist that I can’t say with the same confidence that a,b,c,d are false. And as for “e)”, I hope to hell that is wrong. Smile !
So instead of taking the bait of classic questions, make the inquisitioner think about their questions, their words and their assumptions.
Though the questioner may think they know what the word “theist” means, they may be thinking of a specific narrow definition. If all the options are laid out, you may find that you are only atheistic about certain sort of theists, but agnostic about others or maybe even sympathetic to others. For instance, you might like thinking about a power in the universe that informs reality but is not personal, not interventional and does not punish unbelievers.
Remember, their are certainly forms of theism (see here) that other theists strongly disbelieve in. So all believers, are atheistic about some theism.
With all these explorations you may discover that you and the questioner have more important things in common than either of you can even imagine.