We’ve Got Work to Do

My post yesterday, “The Quiet Revolution“, discussed some of the positive ways in which atheists are organizing and making inroads into society. But as much as I hate to follow up good news with bad, I feel I would be doing my readers a disservice if I played down the magnitude of what we atheists must confront and overcome if we are ever to become a fully accepted part of society.

With that in mind, I call to your attention a recent study by the University of Minnesota, which identifies atheists as “America’s most distrusted minority“. Among its more discouraging findings:

From a telephone sampling of more than 2,000 households, university researchers found that Americans rate atheists below Muslims, recent immigrants, gays and lesbians and other minority groups in “sharing their vision of American society.” Atheists are also the minority group most Americans are least willing to allow their children to marry.

…”Atheists, who account for about 3 percent of the U.S. population, offer a glaring exception to the rule of increasing social tolerance over the last 30 years,” says Penny Edgell, associate sociology professor and the study’s lead researcher.

I mention these results not to discourage, but to paint a realistic picture of what we are up against. It seems that atheists are the last societal group against whom it is considered acceptable to discriminate (although the religious right is working hard to restore gays and women to that status). Even Muslims seem to be ranked higher than us, notwithstanding the fact that atheists have never flown airplanes into buildings in suicide attacks or banned women from driving or attending school. Clearly, if we are to ever overcome this prejudice, we have a lot of work to do. This study makes it all the more important for nonbelievers to speak out on behalf of atheism, as often and as strongly as possible, in every public forum open to us. Only by providing a strong voice to counter religious stereotyping and promote a positive view of atheism in its place can we ever hope to win acceptance. (On the positive side, this study could be a useful thing to bring up the next time your born-again Christian friend or relative opines on how Christians are discriminated against or oppressed in America.)

Despite these results, I still find reason to hope. After all, the vast majority of believers know almost nothing about even their own religion. That their dislike of atheism, by contrast, is a carefully reasoned response seems unlikely in the extreme. Far more likely, I believe, is that most people don’t know (or at least don’t know they know) any real atheists, and are forming their opinions based on what their preachers and ministers have told them. Given that this consists almost entirely of false and insulting stereotypes – atheists have no morals, atheists are evil and depraved, atheists want to make it illegal to worship God, atheists want to send thugs in jackboots to kick down little old ladies’ doors and confiscate their Bibles – and given that there is not (yet) a strong, organized atheist community to counter these claims with truth, it is no surprise that most believers have a negative view of us.

But the positive side is this – given the lack of an atheist voice, it is very possible that these prejudices exist only because they typically go unchallenged. If this is true, it will be relatively easy to change people’s minds. All it will take is to introduce them to some real atheists and show them that we do not fit the religious stereotypes, that we are ordinary people just like them. Despite Dr. Edgell’s quoted comments about atheists being an exception, the social movements of the past several decades have accustomed people to the idea of tolerance, and it is reasonable to hope that society will rapidly adjust and accept us if we can overcome these stereotypes.

And while mass media appearances can be effective at doing this, they should not be the only way we go about it and may not even be the best way. Equally important, in my opinion, is for all atheists to come out of the closet and announce their nonbelief to family and friends. Presenting a positive image of freethought from a trusted acquaintance can do far more to shatter religious stereotypes than any other tactic we could adopt.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • andrea

    I personally think that the reason most people fear atheists is that atheists aren’t “controlled”. By this, I mean, that atheists aren’t obeying what theists see as a fundamental force of the universe. This is a fundamental rejection of their world view. Most Christians (and any theist really) are much closer to even the plane-crashing Muslims than they would ever admit, so they can at least understand them, if only subconsciously. I think it’s a very atavistic reaction, somewhat like what I might have if I saw Lovecraft’s hounds of Tindalos appearing in the corner of my office:). Not that this is an excuse, people can think and can learn that atheism is quite fine, natural and normal, perhaps the most human a person can be.

    Many atheists are afraid of coming out of the closet. People just don’t know that their next-door neighbor is a atheist. She’s such a nice lady and well, the subject never comes up. Of course, she’s a Christians (not!).

  • BlackWizardMagus

    I think another part of the problem has been that we have little identification outside of atheism. Most religions also have a racial stereotype; Muslims are Arab, Protestants and British and sometimes German, Catholics are Irish, Italian (although this is less solid), and French, Jews are Jews, etc. It’s always been easy to categorize people, and because of that, they’ve always been driven to work together. If Islam is being attacked, you’ll probably see a group of people with mideastern decent (mixed in with some african and southeast asian), but atheists are rather scatter-shot. They do tend to come out of WASPs, but still, it’s not nearly definite, and so because we have never been able ourselves to see others like us, it’s kinda kept us weak and disorganized. It’s like if an indentured servant thought he was the only one in the whole country; he’s probably just give up. So, I think it’s also very important that we have sites like Ebon and Internet Infidels to galvanize atheists with information and the knowledge that he has help.

    Adam, I have a quick question; how many atheists are there? I have read, recently, anywhere from maybe 5 to 30 million. You read more of this than I, so do you have a more solid idea about this?

  • Quath

    I once had a Christians address why atheists are seen as immoral. He said something like, “You have no God to answer to, so you can do whatever you want to do.” I asked if that was any different than doing whatever you want and then asking for forgiveness? However, in the conservation/debate I think I saw where he was getting at. We do not have fear. A Chrisatian may worry that they will anger God and He will smite them. Atheists don’t fear being “smoten.” (Simpsons reference).

    It takes some understanding of people to learn that good behavior is not born from fear, but from biology and following society’s laws.

  • http://intothecavern.blogspot.com/ Chimera

    I’d be interested to find out if Witches, Wiccans, Druids, and other Pagans were among the options for mistrust in this study.

    I’ll bet not.

    From personal experience, most proselytizing Christians I know think they have at least a chance of “reasoning with,” and therefore converting an atheist. They think that Pagans (which include Witches, Wiccans, Druids, and a few others — but not Satanists or devil-worshippers) are too bound to this “Satan” that Christians seem to believe in more than in their own father-god. And, of course, they believe that once this Satan has you in his clutches, you can’t be rescued. You can only be erradicated.

    For that matter, I wonder how far they trust Satanists?

  • JimBob Pollywog

    Today is March 23, 2006. As fast as you can, you must:

    1. Go to eBay

    2. Search “Jesus on a Tortilla Chip”

    3. Expect a Miracle

    It’s auction 9501037586 and it got more than 1,000 hits in its first three days.

    Proof that there’s a sucker born every minute.

    .

  • Azkyroth

    Uh… 1000 hits in three days would only make one sucker every 4.32 minutes [on average]. Just how far over 1000 are we talking about here? :P

    Hmm. I wonder whether it would be a good or bad thing to make a special effort to vocally attach ourselves as a community to positive social causes. On the one hand, it could help (reasonable) people see that we care about the same things they do, and that we’re as willing to work to improve the lives of others as they are (or more–I imagine that a bunch of “the godless heathens are making us look bad” type sermons, while doing little for the public’s perception of Atheism, would at least have a substantial motivational effect on moderate Christians to be more generous and compassionate in their actions). The problem, however, is that this could backfire, transferring the stigma associated with Atheism to those causes by association and making people less enthused about them. Adam, thoughts?

  • BlackWizardMagus

    I don’t think that’s likely. Perhaps if atheists, everyone in every first world country, suddenly descended on charitable work and such like a flood and practically take it over by simple attendance, it would indeed just stifle the efforts. However, if atheists in general merely make it a point to “become part of the community”, to help out with charities that perhaps are generally looked at as “good, god-fearing christian activities”, we would benefit our own image and help the charity as well. I don’t think that alot of volunteers down at the Red Cross near your place or mine would just up and quit on helping people who need it because 1 or 2 nonbelievers started helping out. It’s a…well, much like the fall of the Egyptians Adam outlines in “Let the Stones Speak”, if we simply start moving into their territory, peacefully and slowly, we would gradually break their dominant hold and at least move it to a healthy symbiotic relationship. Religion isn’t going to disappear anytime soon, but good natured help from atheists to people of all world views would definately make it clear that there is only one difference between theists and atheists; whether or not we believe in a cosmic big brother. We’d look the same in all other aspects.

    And I ramble when it’s late; sorry about that.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    Adam, I have a quick question; how many atheists are there? I have read, recently, anywhere from maybe 5 to 30 million. You read more of this than I, so do you have a more solid idea about this?

    That is a good question. The most comprehensive survey on the matter that I know of is still the CUNY 2001 ARIS survey (http://www.gc.cuny.edu/faculty/research_briefs/aris/key_findings.htm). If its findings are correct, and assuming demographics haven’t shifted dramatically since it was taken, there are about 1 million self-described atheists in the United States and about an equal number of self-described agnostics. Not that many, considering there are around 160 million Christians.

    However, that survey also included a blanket “non-religious” category, to which almost 30 million adults, about 15% of the American population (if the study’s extrapolation is correct) claim membership. Not all of these people are atheists, of course; many could be deists, New Agers, or other people who believe in some form of God but reject organized religion. However, I’m confident that a substantial percentage of these people would be best described as atheists, and are only avoiding that word because of its negative connotations (which, of course, this very post discusses). The best that can be said, then, is that there are between 2 and 30 million atheists in the USA. I don’t know of any data of equivalent quality for other countries, though I’m sure it’s out there, and I’m likewise sure that many other countries have significantly greater numbers of atheists than we do.

    Uh… 1000 hits in three days would only make one sucker every 4.32 minutes [on average].

    So P.T. Barnum was correct to within an order of magnitude? :)

    The problem, however, is that this could backfire, transferring the stigma associated with Atheism to those causes by association and making people less enthused about them.

    That’s certainly a possibility worth considering, though I see it as more of a concern for specifically political causes than for general charitable organizations. After all, the religious right is already working as hard as they can to demonize every liberal group as a pack of atheists (with the consent, through silence, of the progressive religious left). However, I sincerely doubt that people would, say, stop donating to the Red Cross or Habitat for Humanity just because they knew atheists were working there. Call me a foolish optimist, but I’m confident that human nature is better than that.

  • BlackWizardMagus

    I think human nature is better than that…isn’t that the general idea behind secular humanism? Either way, it’s probably a risk worth taking.

    Alright, so there IS between 2 and 30 million, I just shot a little high. But you are probably right; I view most deist and other such religions as basically people who are atheists in every way but just can’t quite make that step. I have one brother, and he’s just like that; no church, no ceremony, no praying, no giving thinks or confession or limits on what he eats, drinks, says, etc (well, MORAL limits, yes, just not arbitrary ones), but he just doesn’t call himself atheist, because he feels a deep-down “wrong” feeling when he thinks about the idea. I guess that is built in with that deep-down “rosy all over” feeling indoctrinated theists get when they pray. Yeah, if we scholarly defined all the various religions and atheism, then asked questions of americans, we’d probably find, I dunno, at least a good 10 million that were clearly and solidly atheist.

    Ah, anyway, thanks for the info.

  • Azkyroth

    I agree that human nature is better than that, but the meme viruses have me worried. One example is the “Protestant soup” thing during the Irish potato famine in the…30s(?), where (according to Frank McCourt, according to my wife; salt to taste) the Catholic church was doing virtually nothing to relieve the famine, some Protestant churches set up a soup kitchen-type arrangement, and both the local Catholic clergy and most “good” Catholics condemned and ostracized any Catholics who accepted their food. I should research that, but I think you get the point…

  • BlackWizardMagus

    Yes, but that sounds like it would be more equivalent to an atheist-only charity. If some protestant merely slipped into some catholic soup kitchens, I doubt that the starving Irish would have turned them down (outside of the residual hate that was always there).

  • Montu

    Kind of a side note, but thought some people might want to know about this. Is anyone here besides myself from San Francisco or the Bay Area? I ask because the Christains are having two rallies over the next two days, one at the Civic Center today, probably around 12 or 1 (radio station didn’t specify time, just said “afternoon”). There will also be a recruting rally tomorrow at SBC Park, were they’ll be trying to get youth to join the ministry. This second one I think would be really good to go to, in an attempt to counter the Christian’s attempts. Again, I don’t know exactly what time, but I’m sure it can be found in The Chronical.

  • Quath

    I am kind of in the Bay Area. I work in Livermore, but live in Patterson (wrong direction from the Bay).

    If atheists try to discourage religious conversion, would we ben even more demonized?

  • BlackWizardMagus

    I think so. We don’t want to come off looking like a cult or scientologists or something, trying to actively disturb other groups just for our benefit. It’s best if we, as wierd as this will sound, collectively do our best with out individual efforts. If we try to really organize into a specific group, we will end up sacrificing some ideals. It’s best if we communicate, but in general, work to merely be good people and only argue or challenge the religious when the fight comes to us. To me, anyway, if we do this, atheists will slowly grow in number and the religious lock on many things will, mostly, just erode away from lack of support, instead of intense lobbying or fighting from organized atheists.

  • Philip Thomas

    I have read of the “protestant soup”. The soup wasn’t just offerred by Protestants, you needed to become a Protestant in order to eat it. Of course given the starvation conditions one might think it was no time to be picky…


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