“You Worship the Devil!” “You’re Homophobic!” … Um, Guys?

A Tempe family appeared on a billboard this month promoting the Freedom From Religion Foundation in the hope of dispelling some of the myths about nonreligious free-thinkers.

The Schinellers — Freddie and Holly and their four children — are pictured alongside the slogan: “Love + critical thinking = open minds.”

Sometimes I realize what a bubble I live in. I’m lucky enough to have a supportive family and to live in an area of the country where people don’t talk much about religion, much less judge each other for it. But in a place like Tempe, coming out as a nonreligious family is a brave thing.

A quick scan of the Internet reveals some of the more common assumptions about nonbelievers. They include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • We hate religion and religious people.
  • We raise our kids without a moral code.
  • We want to wipe out Christmas.
  • We’re liberal, Fox News-bashing, tax-loving socialists.
  • We’re arrogant, angry, militant, selfish and generally unpleasant to be around.
  • We secretly believe in God.
  • We turned away from religion because of a bad experience or trauma.
  • We don’t believe in charity.
  • We can’t be trusted.
  • We enjoy trampling on people’s rights to express their religious beliefs in public.
  • And, my personal favorite, we worship the devil.

Now, I’m not particularly fond of any of these stereotypes. I’m even less fond knowing that children might, at any point, suffer as a result of them.  And, like the Schinellers, I lament the fact that my daughter might be judged by the faith of her family and not by the content of her character. (Something tells me that Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. — a man of deep and abiding faith himself — would understand that lament.)

But let’s be honest: Stereotyping is a two-way street. Another quick scan of the Internet reveals some of the more common stereotypes about believers:

  • They want to convert everyone else to their point of view.
  • They think everyone outside their faith will go to hell.
  • They’re uneducated, conservative and close-minded.
  • They reject evolution and distrust science.
  • They think everything in the Bible is factual and/or the word of God.
  • They support school prayer.
  • They would never elect an atheist president.
  • They’re homophobic and sexist.
  • They love Fox News.
  • They use religion as a “Get out of Jail Free Card.”
  • They stereotype nonbelievers.

 

Stereotypes may be built on shaky ground, but they still manage to stay standing year after year. I don’t know if it’s realistic to hope that our generation can shift the tide of public opinion on either side of the religion debate. Or that we can — in small, everyday ways — make the world a kinder, gentler place for our kids. But I think it’s possible. And don’t we owe it to the Schinellers to try?

In closing, I’ll mangle another brilliant line from a 60s icon: Ask not what others can do to break stereotypes about you. Ask what you can do to break stereotypes about them.

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About Wendy Thomas Russell

Wendy Thomas Russell is a journalist, author and blogger. Her book, Relax, It's Just God: How and Why to Talk to Your Kids About Religion When You're Not Religious is due out in January 2015.

  • http://www.phatjmo.com Justin Zimmer

    Tempe isn’t really that bad. I lived there for most of my Childhood and now live in Gilbert, which is arguably worse due to the large Mormon community. I’ve never really felt insecure about not being religious in this state. Then again the subject doesn’t really come up other than the occasional missionary, and the blood just usually drains from their face and they retreat without further questioning.

    I love seeing the billboards as I drive by now, it does definitely bring some pride to see others coming out so publicly. There are even billboards in Northeast Mesa, an area full of trailer parks and snowbird getaways. Tempe is also a college town with ASU, whereas Mesa is mostly for retirement and low income housing (with islands of prosperity). Still, you see the occasional Darwin and FSM ickthys driving about that brings feelings of kinsmanship. Though Jesus still owns far more automotive real-estate. There used to be a creationist billboard on the I-17 North, but that was recently replaced by a Chinese buffet advertisement, apparently not a lot of people were calling the number.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/naturalwonderers Wendy Thomas Russell

      Thanks for writing, Justin. And you’re so right; if the subject doesn’t come up — everyone gets along great! (There’s a great lesson there.) :-)

  • Michael McQueen

    Amen Wendy:)

  • Rich Wilson

    As I read your lists, a different sort came to mind.

    If you are X then you hate religion and religious people.

    If you are X then you think everyone outside your faith will go to hell.

    If you are X then you reject evolution (*).

    If you are X then you distrust science (*).

    If you are X then you think everything in the Bible is factual and/or the word of God.

    If you are X then you would never elect an atheist president.

    If you are X then you support school prayer.

    If you are X then you use religion as a ‘Get out of Jail Free Card.’

    If you are X then you secretly believe in God.

    If you are X then you want to wipe out Christmas.

    If you are X then you enjoy trampling on people’s rights to express their religious beliefs in public.

    If you are X then you want to convert everyone else to their point of view.

    If you are X then you raise our kids without a moral code.

    If you are X then you don’t believe in charity.

    If you are X then you are homophobic and sexist.

    If you are X then you can’t be trusted.

    If you are X then you worship the devil.

    If you are X then you Y are uneducated, conservative and close-minded.

    If you are X then you are liberal, Fox News-bashing, tax-loving socialists.

    If you are X then you are arrogant, angry, militant, selfish and generally unpleasant to be around.

    If you are X then you love Fox News.

    If you are X then you turned away from religion because of a bad experience or trauma.

    If you are X then you stereotype Y.

    (I sure hope the formatting works)

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/naturalwonderers Wendy Thomas Russell

      Thanks, Rich!


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