Shattering Stereotypes

In a previous post, Should Atheists Evangelize?, I defended the position that nonbelievers should speak out publicly in defense of atheism. It seems obvious to me that, if we are to act in accordance with that principle, we should come to a general agreement on how to go about it and what methods are most effective. With that in mind, this post will be the first in a three-part series on evangelizing for atheism, offering suggestions on how we should present ourselves and how to deploy our arguments in a way that best achieves our goals.

The most immediate problem faced by people who would identify themselves as atheists is the negative connotations attached to that word. Due to the lack of a strong, unified atheist presence in the media, appalling stereotypes about us spread by some theists have flourished and gone unchallenged. As a result, anyone who speaks out as an atheist is almost immediately tagged with a variety of noxious caricatures – atheists are nihilists, atheists have no morals, atheists are angry, atheists are unhappy and hopeless, atheists are unpatriotic, atheists hate religious people, and so on. Usually, we have to spend considerable time and effort just clearing these out of the way in order for our message to be heard.

To reverse this deplorable situation, we must challenge these negative stereotypes strongly and often, both on an individual level and a societal level. Though it will take a strong and sustained effort, I believe it is possible to overturn these prejudices and replace them with a positive, alternative view. It is unlikely that we will be able to eliminate them completely, since there will always be hardcore religionists determined to believe the worst about us, but the majority of people are not like that, and are amenable to persuasion.

So how do we bring this about? The first thing I strongly recommend is that all atheists who have not already done so step forward and announce their nonbelief to friends, family and acquaintances, if their situation at all permits it. While I would not ask any atheist to speak out if there was good reason to believe that real harm would follow from doing so, atheists who remain in the closet about their nonbelief are indirectly harming not just themselves but all atheists. This is so because prejudice, like all human vices, flourishes in the darkness of ignorance. It is very easy to demonize a nameless, amorphous other; it is much more difficult to hold and maintain prejudice when one has a personal connection with a member of the group being scapegoated, and an opportunity to see for oneself that they are ordinary people just like everyone else.

I do not suggest that atheists shoehorn a reference to their atheism into every conversation, or that they attack the beliefs of their friends and relatives at every opportunity. Such tactics are rarely effective or appreciated. Instead, I suggest that we speak out when the circumstances are appropriate, without harping on it and without hostility. Stick to the basics: I am an atheist, I’m not interested in being saved, but I would be happy to answer any questions you might have. If people do have questions, do your best to address them fully and in a civil manner; if you don’t know the answer to something, say so, and look it up and get back to the questioner when you have time. If people become hostile or combative, tell them that you won’t deal with those who will not treat you with respect, and do not engage them any further. Otherwise, if no one pursues the matter, drop it. If at a later time someone makes a thoughtless anti-atheist remark, or an issue comes up where an atheist’s perspective offers a unique benefit, that is the time to remind those present of your nonbelief, and offer your opinion. And if a religious acquaintance asks you to read an apologetics book, do so, but only on the condition that they agree to read a book of your choosing in return. (Most religious apologists will not accept this offer, in my experience, which saves you time and effort.)

Speaking out in public, in whatever forums are available to you, follows similar principles. Identify yourself as an atheist, plainly and without apology, and define briefly what that means to you if it is needful to do so. Spend whatever effort time and space permit to refute the stereotype of the day (concise and effective delivery is a great virtue here). If possible, emphasize that atheists are ordinary people just like everyone else, who don’t want anything different than what most people want for themselves, and urge people to form their opinion of atheists by asking actual atheists what they think and believe and not by relying on religious stereotypes.

Most important of all, in both cases, is to speak without rancor or hostility. This does not exclude passion where appropriate, and indeed, expressing one’s views with passion is the best way to get others to take them seriously. Make it plain what you care about and what you stand for, and if you are criticizing a religious belief that is wrong or ethically abhorrent, by all means say so. But appearing to be motivated by hatred or bitterness, or calling people stupid or ignorant, is a sure way to reinforce those stereotypes, instead of weakening them, and will probably cause listeners to ignore the content of your message. Whether fairly or not, if you speak out as an atheist, people will tend to judge all atheists by your example, and so it is vital to set a good one.

Conversely, when we do set a positive example that does not conform to religious caricatures, it catches people’s attention and encourages them to listen to us. Many theists, believing what they have been told all their lives, expect atheists to be gloomy, amoral misanthropes. When we show them that this is not true, both by argument and especially by the examples of our own lives, it shatters these stereotypes and sways people’s opinions more than any number of purely dispassionate logical arguments ever would. For that reason, I believe the most effective thing an atheist can do is to promote a robust and exuberant humanism, and make it clear that yes, we are happy to be atheists. We should always strive to show that atheism is fully compatible with morality, love, meaning, purpose and all the other intangible things that make life worthwhile. And what is more, we should point out that most atheists are like this! As soon as more people realize that, there will be a revolution in society, and it is within our power to help bring that about.

Other posts in this series:

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.

  • http://debunkingchristianity.blogspot.com/ John W. Loftus

    The first thing I strongly recommend is that all atheists who have not already done so step forward and announce their nonbelief to friends, family and acquaintances, if their situation at all permits it. While I would not ask any atheist to speak out if there was good reason to believe that real harm would follow from doing so, atheists who remain in the closet about their nonbelief are indirectly harming not just themselves but all atheists.

    I couldn’t agree more. One problem atheists might have is defending their claims, and that’s where they can refer people to sites like yours and mine and others listed in your siderbar, along with the relevant books.

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

    I couldn’t agree more. In fact, just a few days ago I received an e-mail from a young man living in the Bible Belt who was planning to announce to his religious family and friends that he was an atheist, and wanted to know how best to deal with a few theist arguments he thought he was likely to hear. I did my best to give him answers that would help, but mostly I praised him for his courage. The more atheists come out of the closet, the better off we will all be.

    Truthfully, I doubt that having convincing replies to the usual arguments will do much good to change most religious people’s minds. Their beliefs are based on faith and emotion, not on reason. However, if having those replies gives the atheist courage and encourages them to stand up and be counted, then it’s for all the good.

  • http://www.alonzofyfe.com Alonzo Fyfe

    Please consider, for example, how much sense it would make to say of blacks that they should step forward and announce their race, as if making others aware of the fact that they were black would end prejudice against them. Nor was it ever possible for women to reduce discrimination against them simply by standing up and announcing to others that they are women.

    It is, similarly, somewhat optimistic that merely asserting and letting others know that one is an atheist will have any effect on their prejudice against atheists. Prejudice simply does not behave that way.

    What it took, on the parts of women and blacks, to actually fight discrimination was an organized campaign whereby they stood together and shouted, “We’re not going to take it, anymore.” I do not mean simply taking the issues to the courts. The only effect this will have will be to help support a campaign to appoint only bigoted judges.

    The case has to be carried to the people, and it has to come with substantive demands.

  • Void

    Bring on the civil disobedience!

  • http://atheistrevolution.blogspot.com/ vjack

    Great post. Are you at all concerned that increasing our efforts to respond to negative stereotypes allows theists to define the debate? Look at the Bush/Kerry disaster. In part, I believe that Bush won because his side was able to put Kerry on the defensive so much so that Kerry had less time to attack Bush. I’d hate to see atheists become so focused on defending themselves that they lost sight of the real issue (i.e., the irrational beliefs held by theists). I guess what I am saying is that any defensive posture must be balanced by continued criticism of religion.

  • Philip Thomas

    In order for there to be a campaign for women and black equality there had to be individual blacks and women who were not ashamed of their identity. Of course, in those cases it was obvious to the prejudiced that someone was a member of the relevant group: perhaps a more relevant case here is homosexuals: does it help the homsexual cause when people come out of the closet? I think it does. Its a first step of course, and there is much more to do, but it starts with the revelation that you exist as people and not morely as theoretical constructs

  • Void

    Except we have suffrage, we also have a massive PR crisis.

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

    Please consider, for example, how much sense it would make to say of blacks that they should step forward and announce their race, as if making others aware of the fact that they were black would end prejudice against them. Nor was it ever possible for women to reduce discrimination against them simply by standing up and announcing to others that they are women.

    However, unlike blacks and women, atheists are an invisible group. That is to say, you cannot in general tell whether someone is an atheist just by looking at them, and this undeniably allows prejudice to persist, since the group being demonized offers no visible counterexamples to bigoted views. When a group is more obviously visible, prejudice must take root on a different basis and can be more difficult to overcome, but I firmly maintain that anti-atheist prejudice is more shallow and can be defeated by a sustained campaign of visibility – not least because the success of past social justice movements has encouraged people to be ashamed of holding bigoted views.

    It is, similarly, somewhat optimistic that merely asserting and letting others know that one is an atheist will have any effect on their prejudice against atheists. Prejudice simply does not behave that way.

    I strongly disagree. What would happen if a person who had previously entertained bigoted anti-atheist views suddenly learned that a friend or a loved one or a personal idol, someone whom they cared about and whose opinions they respected, was an atheist? That could only have a positive effect, weakening or destroying prejudiced views. In addition, you’ll notice that I outlined a specific plan by which atheists could fight prejudice, as opposed to simply announcing one’s atheism and hoping that this alone will dispel stereotypes.

    What it took, on the parts of women and blacks, to actually fight discrimination was an organized campaign whereby they stood together and shouted, “We’re not going to take it, anymore.”

    I agree, we do have to do this. Atheists will never get any societal traction until they organize politically, which is why I have called for them to do just that on many different occasions. But stepping forward to combat religious stereotypes will necessarily be the first step of any such endeavor.

    Are you at all concerned that increasing our efforts to respond to negative stereotypes allows theists to define the debate?

    Only if we spend all our time refuting those stereotypes and no time putting forth a positive alternative of our own. Granted, doing both is more difficult in an age of 30-second media appearances, rather than past eras where a multi-hour public debate was considered good entertainment. But I do not think it is impossible. We just have to adapt to the current media climate, especially by learning to state our views concisely and effectively, and by always giving the audience a way to find more information. The Internet is a wonderful invention in that respect.

  • http://bibicambridge.pointlessbanter.net BiBi Cambridge

    I think this is fascinating, I only came across this site because I wrote a jokey blog about Scientology that was included in Frankey’s carnival. I grew up in London, and to be honest, I have never experienced negativity about athiesm here… In fact, I would go as far as saying that those who espouse about their religious beliefs are far more likely to be ousted from the conversation than those who calim not to believe; at least that’s how it seems in the circles I frequent. If I shut my eyes to the outside world I would surmise that we live in a fairly godless society. Anyway, interesting read, thanks.

    BiBi x

  • Deb Clarke

    I enjoyed reading this article as much of the site. I have announced myatheist status to my husband and always answer ‘atheist’ if anyone asks me about my religion. However, my other close family memebers never ask about me about religion. It was me who wanted to go to church in the first place, so perhaps they are atheists too – they just never told me. I don’t want to just announce it at dinner one day so should I just leave it at that and let them find out when an opportunity arises? e.g. if I make plans for a secular funeral.

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

    Hello Deb,

    Only you know what would be best for your situation, of course. But in general, I find that it pays to tell your family things like this in a way that’s under your control, in a time and place and manner of your choosing. Otherwise, it may come out accidentally some day, in a way that wouldn’t be nearly as favorable for you. Have you considered writing your family members a letter to explain your change of viewpoint? (And besides, like you said, maybe they’re atheists too! Finding that out by disclosing your own non-believer status might give all of you something new in common and draw you closer together.)