In the wake of Oprah’s ignorant comments about atheists not having awe and wonder about the world, Chris Stedman appeared on CNN to answer some equally ignorant questions from the talking heads. One of the things he mentions, which I don’t think I’d seen before, are surveys that show that the shift in public opinion on same-sex marriage has been driven by personal relationships.
As of a few months ago, about 28% of those who supported marriage equality had changed their minds. Where once they opposed it, now they support it. A Pew poll asked them why they changed their minds and the results were very interesting. The largest group by far, 37%, said they changed their minds because they have friends, family members or acquaintances who are gay or lesbian. And that is true of other gay rights issues as well. Knowing a gay person or, more importantly, knowing that they know gay people, changes minds and changes beliefs.
This is exactly why it’s equally important for atheists to come out of the closet too, if it’s safe for them to do so (and sometimes it just isn’t). It’s one reason why the current billboard campaign is so important. It’s easy for people to maintain their negative stereotypes of atheists as mean, immoral or hateful as long as they don’t know any (or don’t know that they know any). Once they actually meet some of us, or find out that they already knew some of us, it becomes more difficult to maintain those prejudices.
I had a funny experience along those lines a couple years ago when I hosted a holiday party that brought together two groups of people in my life whose paths had never crossed before, my poker buddies and my friends from CFI Michigan. So after dinner, the poker players slowly filtered downstairs to my poker room and started playing cards and the CFI folks stayed upstairs and talked. After a couple hours, they all started for home and I went downstairs and joined the game.
I sat next to Liz, with whom I’d played poker for a couple years, and at one point she said, “Did I hear you say you met all those other people at church?” A couple of the people at the table that I know much better kind of chuckled because they know me well enough to know that I’m an atheist. And I said, “No. In fact, they’re all atheists.” And she got very wide-eyed in amazement and said, “Really?” And then her voice went up about an octave. “REALLY?” The unspoken part was: “But they seemed so nice!” She was just flabbergasted at the idea that there were people in the world who don’t believe in God. I’m sure she’d never met anyone who was openly an atheist and it just did not compute for her at all.
But I was happy for the opportunity. It’s a chance for her to have her stereotypes erased, now that she knows that she knows an atheist, and it’s someone she already knew and liked. And over the next couple hours she asked me a lot of questions about what I believe about various things, questions asked out of genuine and unintentional ignorance. And I patiently explained humanism and atheism, how I determine right from wrong, etc. But those opportunities can only happen if you’re open about being an atheist.
Update: I should have included this in the post originally, since this post was prompted by an email exchange with Chris Stedman, who was kind enough to send along the references linked above. He was on CNN recently discussing Oprah’s ill-conceived and ignorant comments about atheists and he did a great job. I can’t seem to get the clip to embed, but you can watch it here.