Why should people call themselves atheist?
This article is not about why people should become an atheist, but rather, why people who already don't believe in gods should identify themselves as an atheist. I have spoken with several people who have told me they don't believe in gods, yet they still refuse to refer to themselves as an atheist. I think people should only adopt labels that they feel comfortable with, so I never try to press them into using it, however, I do tend to ask why they don't use the label, and here are my responses to those reasons.
This is by far the most common reason I've heard that people give for not wanting to label themselves as an atheist. In most cultures, the term atheist is still viewed very negatively to the point where the word is synonymous with evil. Atheists see this all the time being frequently told by religious people that they just want to sin or rebel against their god, and they're frequently asked "where do you get your morals?" or simply told, as an atheist, they can't be moral.
Of course, the reality is, when it comes to values, morals, and behavior, atheists are pretty much like everyone else. Personally, I live my life in such a way that I hope anyone who has gotten to know me will see me as a good person, and, when they learn that I'm an atheist, it will help decrease the negative stigma against atheists, similarly, I encourage others to use the label to combat these common misconceptions.
Religion is part of my cultural identity
A much smaller number of people I have talked to say they don't use the atheist label to describe themselves because their religion is an intrinsic part of their cultural identity. There are many ethic groups where religion is so deeply embedded into the culture that the two are practically insuperable. For example, Chaldeans are Catholic, Gorani are Sunni Muslims, Assyrians are Syriac Christian, Mandaeans are Mandaean; there are hundreds of other examples. These people tend to belong to cultures that have survived for centuries despite often not having an officially recognized nation to call their own, and they've done so because they have a very strong attachment to their cultural identity. So, even if they stop believing in their associated gods, they have no desire to abandon their culture, so they won't adopt the label atheist.
For these people, I tend to point to Judaism as a template for how they can still be part of their social culture and be an atheist. Those culturally Jewish people who no longer believe in gods, but want to remain in their culture, describe themselves as Humanistic or atheistic Jews. That is, they don't believe in the Jewish god, but still identify as a Jew and take part in the rituals, ceremonies, and traditions of Judaism. Atheist Jews now make up a large percentage of the ethnicity and have successfully been able to maintain their cultural identity while accepting the atheist label. I believe that other cultures can do this as well, but, it won't happen until members of the culture being outting themselves as atheists.
I don't feel like an atheist
For many years, the term atheist has been maligned and misidentified to the point where, when a person hears the term atheist, they picture an abrasive old man complaining about churches. However, atheism is simply the lack of a belief in gods. Ask yourself the question, "do I believe in any gods?" and, if the answer is anything other than "yes," you're an atheist. So, whatever you feel like, that's what it feels like to be an atheist.
I don't think it matters
There are many people who were raised in a secular home who don't actively believe in gods, but also don't see the point of adopting the label for their lack of belief; this is referred to as an apatheism. I can certainly understand this, after all, we don't have a special terms for people who don't believe in angels or pixies. However, the larger proselytizing religions like Christianity and Islam tend to be quite nationalistic and often use their large numbers to influence politics and force their views on other people. In politics, numbers play a very important role, and it helps for non-believers to use an easily understood term to show solidarity. For better or worse, the most popular term to describe those people who are non-religious, is atheist. By using the label atheist, a person is easily able to make clear to politicians their desire to be free from religion encroachment.