Will Atheists Continue to Lag Behind When it Comes to Mainstream Acceptance?

Every now and then, the On Faith section at the Washington Post asks a question about atheism and those of us in the fold can’t help but respond to it.

Here’s the question posed to us:

Atheist actor and writer Ricky Gervais is working on a new show, Afterlife , which features “an atheist who dies and goes to heaven.” If Gervais hopes to bring cultural acceptance of non-belief to mainstream America, he faces an uphill battle. Polls show that many Americans distrust atheists and nearly half say they would not vote for one. Should it matter whether or not a politician believes in God? As mainstream acceptance of other minority groups grows, will atheists still lag behind?

And here’s a selection of responses.

Mine:

What is it about atheism that makes us so unlikeable, so untrustworthy, and so likely to lag behind all other minorities?

Two reasons.

First, there’s a constant demonization of atheists from the pulpit. Christians can find a way to work with Muslims, Hindus, Jews, and Buddhists because they believe in the supernatural. But they have a natural enemy (in their eyes) when it comes to atheists. Church members are told that you can’t be good without god, that you need god to give you strength in troubling times. Atheists are often seen as the people who want to lure you over to the “dark side.”

Second, we aren’t afraid to tell the truth, no matter how uncomfortable it makes people. We aren’t afraid to say the emperor has no clothes. We aren’t afraid to point out to people that their pastors and parents can’t back up what they preach when it comes to matters of faith. And we aren’t afraid to fight back when we see people trying to fuse church and state.

The truth hurts, you don’t hear it in churches and temples, and most people can’t deal with it.

Herb Silverman, President of the Secular Coalition for America:

I wish everyone would judge candidates on their political positions, and not on their professed religious beliefs. But that might be a dream of mine more difficult to achieve than the dreams of Martin Luther King. Those who won’t under any circumstance vote for an “immoral” atheist, or whatever pejorative adjective precedes the A-word, are letting their blind faith and stereotyping get in the way of common sense.

Tom Flynn, Executive Director of the Council for Secular Humanism:

… people who believe atheists are numerous — in simple terms, people who know they know atheists and know first-hand that many of the negative stereotypes about atheists are wrong — tend to abandon their prejudices against the nonreligious. That phenomenon worked for LGBTs and it can work for the nonreligious. I think it’s working already.

Chris Stedman, Fellow for Harvard’s Humanist Chaplaincy:

… it isn’t enough that religious people know atheists-the quality of the relationships that exist between atheists and the religious makes a significant difference in undoing anti-atheist attitudes. As Robert Wright wrote in the New York Times last year, the LGBTQ community has learned that engaged relationships change people’s hearts and minds, and this is a model that can be applied to the issue of anti-atheist bias as well.

This is one reason I, as an atheist, believe that interfaith work is imperative. Humanizing those with different religious and philosophical worldviews is essential to ensuring that pluralism is upheld for all communities. Engaged diversity breeds the idea that all people’s rights must be protected; through positive and productive relationships, we learn that another has value, worth, and the right to dignity.

Deepak Chopra… wait, what? Yes. That guy:

Polls and casual observations cannot determine whether God exists or not. The arrogant reputation of outspoken atheists may derive, at bottom, from their disdain for the world’s great sages, saints, and intelligent believers who experienced some kind of divine presence. The fact that this is a lively question is the most encouraging sign. Better to live in a society with a healthy mix of belief, skepticism, curiosity, argument, and confusion than one where God, or godlessness, is officially sanctioned and woe to anyone who doesn’t toe the line.


About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • Zensless

    Everyone elses answers were to the point, but what question was Deepak answering?

    • Rich Wilson

      That’s why any of us agreed with any of it.  Deepak is the master of vacuous ramblings that sort of almost sound wise and insightful.  But when you peel back the layers, you just have an onion.  And you’re crying.

      • http://yetanotheratheist.com/ TerranRich

        And it smells.

  • http://twitter.com/TPRyan007 tpr007

    It surprised me to learn that Atheism was so heavily hated in the US when I first read about it, but reading and watching more on the subject (American religiosity) has shown that I really shouldn’t have been surprised.

    I’m glad I live in the UK where very few people I know genuinely believe in what the bible says. In fact, although I know of a few people who say they believe in ‘some sort of god/higher power’ no-one I know believes in Adam & Eve etc…

    Nevertheless, the US is so large, powerful and influential that even though I don’t live there I’m a very ardent atheist who hopes that the current state of things will change for the better there, as in turn, it affects many other countries including my own.

    Why I’m an atheist: http://tonyryan.org.uk/?p=520

  • Anonymous

    “the LGBTQ community has learned that engaged relationships change
    people’s hearts and minds, and this is a model that can be applied to
    the issue of anti-atheist bias as well.”

    that model can be applied to anti-pedophilia bias as well. It can be applied to anti-anything bias. When you get to know someone and like the kind of person they are, it conflicts with any negative connotations you may have for people like them. If you get to know someone who is nice and loving and compassionate and fun and then find out that person is a pedophile, you’re likely to have less of a stigma towards pedophiles.

    • Josh

      I have to disagree. Being nice and fun doesn’t mean their a good person. If anything, I’d start rethinking whatever criteria I used to judge this person as worth being around.
      I am assuming you’re refering to an adult who is attracted to kids, not some guy who accidently picked up a 17 year old prostitute. The first type ruin lives, the second are victims of an overzealous, biased system.
      That’s my opinion, anyway.

      • Anonymous

        I am indeed referring to adults who are attracted to children. But if you got to know a pedophile who wasn’t aggressive or abusive and had no desire to rape or hurt children, you would probably question your negative connotation of what pedophiles are like. It would conflict with your understanding that pedophiles ruin lives.

        • Josh

          Dude I know first hand that peodophiles ruin lives. A sexual relationship hurts a child. Period.

          • Josh

            I just had a thought. It is perhaps unfair of me to judge someone for something that may be beyond their control. I understand many of these people feel that they can’t help themselves and if they are trying to understand their condition and keep themselves from hurting anyone, I can’t think poorly of them.
            But anybody who engages in the act of sex with a child should be removed from our society.

            • Anonymous

              Josh: Anon is specifically referring to non-active pedophiles.  A pedophile, in the strictest sense, is a person who has a biological quirk that causes them (usually exclusively) to be attracted to pre-pubescent children.

              Some pedophiles do, in fact, recognize that this attraction would be harmful to the child if expressed, let alone acted upon, and so make every effort to refrain.  However, because of the stigma associated with the condition, it can be difficult for them to actually seek help (say, from competent mental health professionals) who might be able to assist them in making certain their damaged sexuality doesn’t cause anyone else harm.  Ironically, this isolation can make it more likely that they actually WILL offend at some point, simply because they cannot develop an effective coping strategy on their own.

          • Anonymous

            Maybe if you knew a pedophile that wasn’t out to hurt anyone and didn’t want to engage in a sexual relationship with a child, it would change your perception.

            Maybe it wouldn’t. Some people just won’t change their mind no matter what There are gay people who lose friends and family when they come out of the closet, even if they did nothing wrong. Some people are just stuck on their perception and it won’t change for anything.

            • Josh

              No, you are right. I stand by what I said in reference to “active” pedophiles though and in that defenition, I include anyone who has sex with kids, even if there is no violence involved, but I only beleive in punishing people for actions, not for thoughts.

              A guy like Freemage described should be praised and encouraged, not made to feel like a criminal.

        • http://nathandst.blogspot.com NathanDST

          If you are referring to to someone who has the desire but does not in any way act on it, then I guess such a person could be considered good.

          But if they act on it, they just harmed a child. And that is not good.

          • Anonymous

            You might be surprised how many pedophiles actually don’t  (nor want to) act on their desires. Many of them recognize it as a fantasy and can separate it from reality. The majority of pedos I’ve spoken to are politically liberal and atheists too.

            • http://yetanotheratheist.com/ TerranRich

              However unpopular it is to say what you just said Anonymous, you are absolutely right. It’s easy to demonize a group of people if you’ve never met anybody who represents a positive example of such a group.

        • Atoswald

          Actually, this very situation happened to me. I did NOT question my negative connotations of what pedophiles are like, rather I questioned my own ability to judge an individual’s character. My negative impressions of pedophiles remain to this day completely intact.

          This is the very thing that concerns me as an atheist. I am very careful in my personal life to whom I reveal my atheism. I think it very likely that an evangelical would be more likely to question his own judgment than to change his opinion on the character of an atheist. 

    • JoeBuddha

      Not Bloody Likely.

    • Anonymous

      I reluctantly agree.  Paedophilia and child molestation are different things.  One can easily view paedophiles as suffering from a mental illness and child molesters as dangerous criminals that society needs protecting from.  It is unfortunate that the (perfectly natural) emotional response to the very idea of paedophilia pretty much prevents any kind of rational discussion about it.  Perhaps atheism evokes a similar emotional response from some people who simply find the idea of living without gods to be horrible. 

      I can’t believe I’ve just made a comparison between paedophiles and atheists.  Still, it should get a reaction. ;)

      • Josh

        The thing is I thought the distinction he was making at first was between child-rapists and a person who has “consensual” sex with a minor. (Which is more or less the same thing.) I suppose that sort of makes the point about people jumping to conclusions.

    • MTran

      “If you get to know someone who is nice and loving and compassionate and fun and then find out that person is a pedophile, you’re likely to have less of a stigma towards pedophiles.”

      Uh, no.  “You” get to realize that your judgment was faulty or that you have been actively deceived.

      I guess Anonymous hasn’t noticed the disgust and revulsion that people around the world have for all those *compassionate* *fun* *loving* pedo-priests who continue to make headlines.

    • MTran

      “If you get to know someone who is nice and loving and compassionate and fun and then find out that person is a pedophile, you’re likely to have less of a stigma towards pedophiles.”

      Uh, no.  “You” get to realize that your judgment was faulty or that you have been actively deceived.

      I guess Anonymous hasn’t noticed the disgust and revulsion that people around the world have for all those *compassionate* *fun* *loving* pedo-priests who continue to make headlines.

  • http://religiouscomics.net/ Jeff P

    My statement:

    Negative visceral feelings towards atheists (or atheism) is one way for believers to relieve tension caused by cognitive dissonance due to the conflict between hearing the reasonable stance of atheism and the idea of a benevolent God sending atheists to hell for everlasting torture.   For these people, the God meme can better be maintained if the idea of morally upstanding and kind atheists can be expunged from their consciousness.  It becomes convenient, even necessary, to consider all atheists as evil, depraved, self-centered, animal-like creatures deserving of whatever sentence God passes down.  This cognitive dissonance, though, can also be decreased with the relaxation of the fundamental Christian doctrine of only one path to heaven.  Many Christians have (and can) decrease this cognitive dissonance by adopting a “multiple path” or universalist belief.  

    The optimistic prognosis for atheism is that enough Christians will opt to relax the fundamental Christian doctrine that in effect creates a positive feedback system that works to drive more and more Christians way from the fundamental Christian doctrine.  This will have two effects.  1.  Atheists becoming more accepted in society.  2.  Fundamentalists becoming more radicalized.

  • http://profiles.google.com/willywag Will Wagner

     Wow. I…almost agree with Deepak Chopra. That’s never happened to me before.

    I wonder if I’d agree with his answer to the actual question, if he has one.

    • Surgoshan

      Thing is, he’s not talking about atheists.  He’s talking about how the mean scientists keep telling him he’s wrong about the facts.  He’s talking about how “polls” (ie. the massive gathering and sharing of information that is science) can’t tell you whether “god exists” (ie. alternative medicine is right).  When he’s talking about getting shunned for not toeing the line, he’s talking about himself.

  • cipher

    Deepak has enough money. He can STFU now.

    Atheist actor and writer Ricky Gervais is working on a new show,
    Afterlife , which features “an atheist who dies and goes to heaven.”

    Well, right there he’s alienating at least 30% of the populace.

    • Anonymous

      I’d be more interested if it were a sitcom type thing called “All Atheists Go To Heaven” with a cast of fun friends who have intellectual arguments about stupid things (Elevatorgate)

      • Anonymous

        The title wouldn’t be literal but rather be an underlying point that atheists like those in the cast are good and if Heaven existed these are the kind of people who would go there.

    • http://nathandst.blogspot.com NathanDST

      If you’re referring to atheists, I’m curious. Gervais isn’t exactly a Christian, so I’m wondering what he’s doing with this. I think it could be a lot of fun.

      • cipher

        I meant the 30% who identify as evangelical. They’ll be offended by the idea of an atheist in heaven from the get-go.

  • Erik

    Well I agree with the last half of Chopra’s sentence…

    • Anonymous

      “Polls and casual observations cannot determine whether God exists or not.”

      So that part is untrue?

      • doug

        True, but irrelevant.

  • Some Lady

    Anonymous, did you really just compare atheists to child molesters?

    • Anonymous

      1. Pedophile is not synonymous with child molester. That’s a non-sequitur logical fallacy.

      2. I was not comparing atheists and pedophiles or atheists and child molesters. I was comparing the method in which you can challenge perceptions by being in engaging relationships.

      • Renshia

        Anonymous,I understand what you mean. It’s the same as when the neighbours say, He was such a nice guy who would have thought he was hiding bodies in the basement. Sometimes unexpected things come from unexpected places.

  • http://twitter.com/TominousTone Tom Lawson

    I think it would be wise for atheists/atheism to start turning toward the emotional route. Play the victim. I know we don’t have anything as powerful as “It gets better…” but something along those lines would definitely change hardened hearts.

    • http://nathandst.blogspot.com NathanDST

      No. Don’t play the victim. If there’s a genuine situation where an atheist is harassed or discriminated against because of their atheism, then fight it. But let’s not play the victim en masse. We have plenty of reasons to be angry, but we can channel and use that anger without acting like victims. 

      Still, there are other emotional routes we can use that wouldn’t paint us in such a light.

      • http://twitter.com/TominousTone Tom Lawson

        What we really need is a movie about the Catholic Inquisitions, Crusades, witch trials, etc. Nothing funny like Monty Python.

        Our “Passion of the Infidel,” if you will. Show what used to happen to non-Christians. Show everyone what real Christian piety looks like. Show them atheists being burned slowly so they could shriek in terror until their eyes melted and their brains still processed the pain. Show them Muslims, Jews, and Hindus getting their joints dislocated or having thumbscrews turned until they converted. Make people barf up popcorn for what they see and what their faith has done in the past. What their church could start up again if it was only give the chance.

        Most people know too little about this period in our history. Most people know too little history, period, which is why it’s always repeating itself.

    • Anonymous

      I’m not a victim.  I’m not going to pretend to be.  It isn’t me who has a problem, it’s the bigots who refuse to accept me because I lack belief in gods.  They need educating.

      I don’t think “playing the victim” garners any sympathy for racial groups, feminists, LGBTQ groups or any other group.  I might work once for shock value but unfortunatley after you’ve fired that salvo the next time you use it you’ll just gain the label of a complainer.

      • http://twitter.com/TominousTone Tom Lawson

        It’s not a blatant card that we pull. No discriminated group could have gotten as far as they have without public martyrdom, beatings, imprisonments, trials, etc. This is what I’m speaking of. It’s not something we have to make up out of nothing, it’s just something that we have to keep reminding the moderates about. We’re hardly going to convince the desperate saps that fill the megachurches. They’re in a bubble. Although, they can’t avoid the evening news, the newspaper, etc.

        But that’s what I meant. We don’t need to whimper like dogs. We just need to be more vocal when that discrimination happens. It’s good to see things like bus ads being vandalized and/or stolen, or not being allowed at all, so it’s good to have that to refer to when talking to moderates.

        Millions are still living in the closet. This is important.

    • Anonymous

      I refuse to be a victim.

  • Steve

    The day Ricky Gervais has anything useful to say will be a cold day in hell!! Which, of course, does not exist. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, here in the UK, a candidate’s religion or non religion, is a complete non issue,  it is their policies that matter. Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg is a declared atheist but no doubt goes to church when it’s expedient. For a so called progressive society, the USA is religiously backward, sorry to say. Kudos to those who are openly atheist or at least non theistic.

    • MariaO

      But Hel (the Norse version of the bad place that gave its name to the Xian version) IS cold. Very cold. And dark. Believe me, when you live in Scandinavia its cold you fear, not heat! A hot hell is a Southern desert concept.

  • Anonymous

    In the UK you have to really look to find out what the religious beliefs of politicians are.  It isn’t that those with faith hide it, rather that it just isn’t an important question to ask.  Tony Blair is deeply religious but he kept it pretty quiet till he’d left Downing Street because he didn’t want people to think that he was a “nutter”.  PM David “call me Dave” Cameron claims that his faith “comes and goes”.  I think he’s a Christian of some sort but I’ve no idea what denomination.  Prince Charles claims that he wants to be the Defender of Faiths rather than Faith because the UK is not a nation where the people follow God but a nation where people follow whichever gods they like or don’t follow gods at all.

    If you want mainstream acceptance then it might be worth pointing out that extreme religious belief is more than a bit strange.  Would you rather have a politician represent you or his priest?  Would you rather have a trade union leader negotiate for you or her pastor?  Do you want a judge to use the law or the Bible to try your case?  Do you want to go to work to earn a living or to pray?  The US has a guaranteed freedom of religious expression but that doesn’t mean that it is appropriate to express a faith all the time, in all situations. 

  • Anonymous

    How is it that, on the rare occasions I find myself agreeing with Deepak Chopra, the way he says things sets every single one of my bullshit-o-meter bells ringing like crazy?

    • Fester60613

      Because he disagrees with no one. He’s the ultimate accommodationist.

  • http://twitter.com/TPRyan007 tpr007

    I don’t see how Paedophilia (I’m British, not misspelling) can in any way be compared to homosexuality. Why are you somehow insisting that the former is actually ok?

    • Anonymous

      The commenter is differentiating between those individuals who have attraction to children and those who abuse children. It’s a valid differentiation, but a very unfortunate comparison since homosexuals are so often portrayed as child abusers.

      There are many people with pedophilic tendencies who have absolutely no desire to harm a child.  Theirs is a very difficult life, since the moral panic around child molestation makes it so they may not even be able to trust mental health professionals with their secret, which keeps them away from the mental treatments they so desperately need. In fact, most perpetrators of child sexual abuse are not pedophiles in the strict sense of the term, which is to say they are not people primarily attracted to preadolescent children. Rape is about causing pain and feeling powerful, not really about sex, most of the time. Of course some pedophiles are also rapists and a rapist pedophile will obviously target children, but the differentiation is valid.

      Still, I think the comparison should be subject to a form of Godwin’s law. You do not use pedophilia in a conversation about homosexuality, no matter what your intentions. All you’ll achieve, in the rare case you do not actually have ill intentions, is derrailing the conversation.

  • Dan W

    Chopra certainly is the master of using a lot of words to say absolutely nothing.

  • frizzlefrazzle

    Did anyone else read the rest of the article/blog entry?  I didn’t realize we were so selfish and didn’t value other “human-animals.”  We are such dicks. /sarcasm

    Seriously, this guy does a fantastic job of making us look like a bunch of dbags.


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