Does It Really Matter if the Public Doesn’t Like Atheists?

This was the panel discussion question posed at the American Atheists convention.

I was on the panel, and my answer was a resounding “Yes.”

Of course it matters. If reason and logic were enough to convince people that atheism makes sense, most of the country would have lost their faith by now. Clearly, that’s not the case. There’s much more to the equation, and I believe the rest of it– the bulk of it– falls in the realm of good public relations. We need people who can communicate the message of atheism in a non-threatening, non-condescending way.

There were some questions raised about whether we should be focusing on feel-good activities like doing more volunteer work and good deeds (and if that will change anyone’s mind about atheism at all), or whether we should be even more forceful in our rhetoric.

I agreed with Blair Scott, the Alabama state director of American Atheists, who argued that this is not an either/or question. We must do both.

However, I think there are plenty of rational, reasonable arguments for not believing in the supernatural already out there. Is one more book really going to have a tremendous impact on people? I’m not saying it’s going to hurt, either, but we need to be focusing more on the communications aspect at this point.

What do you think?


[tags]atheist, atheism, American Atheists, Blair Scott, Alabama[/tags]

  • Logos

    I don’t think it matters

  • Darryl

    I agree with you Hemant. A little honey, a little vinegar, and we’re bound to appeal to somebody. I think that Blogs like yours are doing more for atheism than probably just about anything else. People can discuss, or vent, and feel free to be honest and not intimidated. The more that regular folk talk openly about their atheism the more comfortable the majority of people will begin to become with atheism (I hope). It’s funny, telling your family that you’re an atheist can be a little like a gay person coming out to their family–it can be a tough thing to do, and sometimes families can’t handle it too well.

  • Aaron

    I feel like it comes back to the recent buzz over the role of “framing” in science communication. Should we pander to the anti-intellectual communication landscape already in place, or bust the mold and communicate the way we want to? As it is here, the answer is both. Sound byte charisma might not grant many “eureka” moments of rational thinking, but it can lead people to the kind of sources that can.
    Two of our goals are to (1) improve our public image and (2) promote and instruct rational inquiry. Public service helps the former. Increased publication serves the latter. Charismatic representatives reaching out to the people through the channel they’re already tapped into serve both. The framework is in place, we need to show people that it’s there to stand on.

  • Siamang

    Worst Christian mom EVAR!!!

    http://onegoodmove.org/1gm/1gmarchive/2007/04/hey_mom_im_an_a.html#comments

    Strong language warning: Christian mommy’s a potty-mouth.

    I feel like we may be seeing a parallel to black kids bussed into previously white schools. Always needing to be on their best behavior… never being able to slide, or get by like the other kids.

    Other than the guy scooping up dog poop with the bible, we’re ANGELS next to this woman.

    We need to point out, and sometimes emphatically, that some people will dislike us or hate us because of what we ARE, not what we do. We can’t let them off the hook for that.

  • http://uncrediblehallq.blogspot.com Chris Hallquist

    Your missing the issue of reaching people, and especially reaching people with the idea that it’s okay to discuss religion rationally. That’s more important than improving our personal image.

    Think about it: Many conservatives in the political arena despise liberals and vice versa. However, these people rarely come out with the position “How dare you dispute our positions with arguments!” They may think that the opposing arguments are poor, or that the opposing position vile, or even that the people on the other side must be pathogically dishonest or pathologically stupid to say the things they do. But they never, ever show the conscious aversion to rational discourse we see in religion (de facto aversion aside).

  • http://www.templewhore.blogspot.com Slut

    Does it matter whether people like atheists? Yes, it matters because when you’re considering whether to reject theism, part of your decision is an emotional one. It’s important at that point to find another worldview and philosophy that are positive and fulfilling to replace the one you are rejecting. If the atheist is seen merely negatively, as a basher of religion and denier of spirituality, then what has he got to offer the theist?

    Should we do more good deeds? Yes, but not as a PR move. We should do them because we feel they are right. You can’t fake that, and the burnout rate on helping people is very high. So if you want to start soup kitchens that give people a positive worldview instead of religious tract (or whatever your personal mission is), you better believe in what you are doing.

    Should we keep the “harsh” rhetoric? Yes, because it’s important to keep chipping away at the falsehoods and delusions that are promulgated everywhere and contradicted rarely. The reason many of us took so long to become atheists is because lies are everywhere in the media and they’re so much more entertaining. Atheists, scientists, and skeptics must be outspoken to be heard over the noise of the circus. Of course when the truth is spoken it will be criticized as being harsh. I don’t think that necessarily means their criticism is valid, just that they don’t like what they are hearing. Does anyone like having their beliefs challenged?

    I wrote a short post on my blog on the question of whether books do any good. My point there was that so few people read that atheists really have to take a more populist approach to get the message out to the masses.

  • http://lfab-uvm.blogspot.com/ C. L. Hanson

    Speaking of “one more book” changing the perception of atheists, I’m planning to talk about using your book in bridge-building with Christians (to increase friendship and understanding). I meant to post my review on Monday, but I got side-tracked by some science-and-dinosaur projects with my kids. I’ll put up my review of I Sold My Soul on eBay on Wednesday or Thursday.

  • anti-nonsense

    I agree with both Blair and Hemant. We must improve our public image, at the same time, we cannot afford to try too hard to not offend people, if we try not to offend people we will not get our message across. Society has been pussyfooting around religion for far too long, it’s time it was held up to reasonable rational scrutinies. The only way we will get people to question their beliefs is by clearly and explicitly exposing the nonsense for what it is. This is going to offend people, because people don’t like having their most dear beliefs revealed to be empty nonsense and wishful thinking, and we should certainly not insult PEOPLE. We should always make it clear that we are criticizing the beliefs and not the people, but we shouldn’t refrain from pointing out “Hey! That belief system doesn’t have any evidence!”

  • http://emergingpensees.blogspot.com/ Mike C

    There were some questions raised about whether we should be focusing on feel-good activities like doing more volunteer work and good deeds (and if that will change anyone’s mind about atheism at all), or whether we should be even more forceful in our rhetoric.

    Doing good deeds is a great start… but, like Slut said, because they’re the right thing to do, not just for PR.

    Forceful rhetoric I suppose could work if your only goal is to be heard (not necessarily liked or agreed with). Dawkins and Harris are certainly getting plenty of attention with that approach.

    However, if your goal is to change minds I might suggest that asking good questions is a more effective approach. Sharing your own questions which have led you away (or kept you away) from faith will invite others to dialogue and explore their own questions. It doesn’t put them on the defensive but instead opens them up to re-exploring their own beliefs. Rhetoric on the other hand (that is, telling people what they ought to believe without inviting dialogue), tends to just put people on the defensive and rarely changes any minds.

  • Darryl

    As we know, the world is a curious mix of every kind of person with every kind of reason to believe or not believe. Dawkins and Harris provide perspective for certain kinds of people that require it, and their work provides a backdrop for the many others that don’t but still like the feeling of knowing there’s something solid back there. Others are appealed to by sharing experiences without confrontation, others by atheists that simply are good people and seem to be having a good time with their lives. Who knows all the reasons people are attracted to atheism? Some, I imagine, are in rebellion–they’ve had fundamentalism crammed down their throats by their parents and just want to rub their faces in it. That’s not the best reason to jettison your religion, but there it is. Since the bias in many parts of our culture is toward faith, someone usually has to have already been prepared to some degree to receive the ‘good news’ about atheism. It’s psychologically safer to stay put in your faith, no matter how insipid your experience may have become, than to take the big step. Above all, we should be sensitive to how difficult and scary this step can be.

  • stogoe

    Dawkins and Harris and their ilk are the only reason you’re allowed to be a nice happy face for atheism. They’ve smashed the frame of appropriate discourse WRT religion.

    Without us uppity atheists stretching the public consciousness, you’d be deliberately shut out of the discussion as a filthy satanist baby-eater, just like us.

    You’re welcome.

  • http://emergingpensees.blogspot.com/ Mike C

    Dawkins and Harris and their ilk are the only reason you’re allowed to be a nice happy face for atheism. They’ve smashed the frame of appropriate discourse WRT religion.

    Without us uppity atheists stretching the public consciousness, you’d be deliberately shut out of the discussion as a filthy satanist baby-eater, just like us.

    Yes, because if I were to compare Hemant and Dawkins side-by-side, I’m far more likely to accuse someone like Hemant of being a “filthy satanist baby-eater”…

    what?

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

    I think it matters. I suppose the real questions are how much it matters and whether it matters enough that we should incorporate it into our tactics. Personally, I welcome diversity within the atheist community and recognize that there will be a wide range of feelings, beliefs, and actions taken in response to religion and to believers. Some will favor a confrontational approach, and I believe that such an approach has merit. Others will favor a kinder, gentler approach, and I also think that this has merit. We can do both and probably need to do both. I would like to see us come together to oppose religion, however, this does not mean that we need to promote uniformity at the expense of diversity.

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  • Name?

    Why should it matter? What are we trying to do? Convert people?

    Please don’t say yes.