Humans love labels. It allows us to express things in short hand. I don’t say, "Yesterday I saw a domesticated bird of the genus Serinus from the canary islands that was yellow in color." I say, "I saw a canary" and, while you might not know the genus part, will understand what I’m talking about.
We use other labels to try and identify ourselves in short-hand as well. Generally, when we ask someone about their religion, their politics, or their heritage, we’re looking for areas of commonality as well as trying to avoid areas of conflict. If I’m at a dinner party and I know the person I just met is a Republican, I’ll try to avoid talking politics, unless I’m filled with wine and feeling snarky.
Now, based on a one word label, I’ve made all kinds of assumptions about this person. They’re Christian, they’re pro-war, they think Bush is doing a good job, they think abortion should be illegal, they’re homophobic, etc. All or none of which may be true for this individual. Some Republicans, I would assume, are really social liberals, but feel more strongly about being fiscally conservative (you know, back when the Republicans were the party of LESS government…but I digress.) But based on the Republican Party Platform I’ve formed certain, unfavorable, opinions. Most likely, this person hasn’t read the platform. For them, the ideal of Republican means something completely different and when confronted with certain sections of the platform, they may say, "but that’s not what I believe."
Back when I identified as Catholic, someone could assume a lot about me, incorrectly. That I believed the Virgin Mary remained a virgin the rest of her life, that the Pope is infallible, that I don’t use birth control, that I was molested by a priest as a child (oops, my bad), etc. If I were confronted by someone else wanting to argue a point of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, I’d also be forced to say, "but that’s not what I believe." But it is what I was supposed to believe.
Most Christians haven’t read the entire bible. They have in their own minds a definition for Christianity that exists outside of the bible. And if you asked what they believe it would be along the lines of love thy neighbor and being a good person. Because of the fundamentalists and the extremists they’ve had to label themselves liberal or moderate.
I don’t know if any extremist has ever declared herself as such. Sam Harris or Richard Dawkins (I can’t remember which, so forgive me) said there are no moderates only failed fundamentalists. And I can see the appeal in saying so. It gives us a target to debate and it annoys us when people go moving the target by saying, "but that’s not what I believe." Damn it, sit still so I can poke you with my stick of reason!
As an Atheist, Skeptic, Freethinker, Secular Humanist, Anti-theist, and Bright, I sure as hell am not arguing for more labels. Perhaps what we need are less labels, less shorthand, and more dialogue. We shouldn’t accept a one-word answer the question, "who are you, what do you believe?" That might be where Sam Harris was going when he suggested we not self-identify as Atheist.
On the other hand I love the word Atheist. I love the way it feels in my mouth and rolls off the tongue. I admit to loving the in-your-face-ness of the word, because most of the time I’m not really interested in having a dialogue.
I am only human you know.