In the world of Philip Pullman’s fantasy series His Dark Materials, each human being is accompanied everywhere by their daemon, an intelligent animal-shaped spirit that is the outward manifestation of their soul. When Pullman’s heroine, Lyra, meets a boy who’s been severed from his daemon by a cruel experiment, her reaction is one of disgust and horror:
Her first impulse was to turn and run, or to be sick. A human being with no daemon was like someone without a face, or with their ribs laid open and their heart torn out: something unnatural and uncanny that belonged to the world of night-ghasts, not the waking world of sense.
There are no daemons in our world, but we atheists often face a similar situation. We have the ability to arrive at a code of ethics without the dubious help of revelation, basing our moral decisions on reason and a sense of empathy for our fellow human beings. But still, far too often, we meet believers who insist that this is impossible. They’re used to following a code of rules handed down by authority – by a text, or by other religious believers – and have become so accustomed to obeying that they literally believe it’s not possible to come up with an ethical code on your own. They’ve lost the capacity even to imagine how this might be done.
One would think the existence of the vast majority of atheists who are ordinary, decent people would force these people to reconsider, but often it doesn’t. Instead, they perceive atheists the way Lyra perceives that daemonless boy: as freaks, as bizarre and unnatural aberrations – and the evidence of our manifestly moral lives does not change that.
The flip side of this coin is that people who are unquestionably evil (or ones whom the speaker merely disagrees with) are often labeled “atheist”, as though the word were just a generic synonym for “wicked”. I’ve written about this before in “The Atheist Crew“, but this example from David Hankins of the Baptist Press surpasses them all:
We do have some recent examples of societies that do not believe in God nor recognize a mandated divine value on human beings. They are associated with names like Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Mao Zedong, Idi Amin, and Saddam Hussein. Devoid of any sense of God or godliness, they created a social order of mayhem and evil that destroyed millions of lives. So much for the morality of godlessness.
As I said, as a purely factual claim, this would be insane. But I don’t think Hankins intended it as a factual claim, but as a statement of the way he divides up the world: in his eyes, there are the good Christians, whom he agrees with, and then there’s everyone else, the evil and wicked atheists. (The first Christians were accused of atheism by the Roman Empire for similar reasons. The fact that he’s using the logic of the Christians’ erstwhile persecutors is an irony he undoubtedly fails to appreciate.)
For people who think this way, there’s probably no hope. They’re clearly not concerned about what the facts say, just as racists are not concerned about the facts regarding the intellectual ability and capacity for achievement of blacks. But I think most people are not so set in their prejudices, and their minds can be changed. If they see that atheists are good people, the notion may become less unnatural to them, and in time they may come to accept it as normal and expected.
It’s important to remember, therefore, that we are ambassadors for atheism. Fairly or unfairly, atheism in general will be judged by the standards of behavior that individual atheists display. Thus it’s important that we be the best ambassadors possible – that we show ourselves to be moral people and present a good image of atheism to the world. This means of changing minds, in the long run, is more likely to help us than any number of rational arguments.