If Atheists Want to Change Perceptions, They Need to Stop Acting Like This

Today started like any other day for me.  I got up and got myself and my son ready for the day.  I took him to school and I went back home to work.  At some point in the morning, a headline caught my attention about a 22-month-old boy, Brayden King, who died by drowning in a baptismal fountain in Alabama.  I clicked on the story and read that the toddler’s mother was in church preparing for a prayer meeting and her 13-year-old daughter was put in charge of the boy.  After losing track of Brayden, she searched for him and found him unconscious in the baptismal fountain.  He drowned.

It’s a tragic story no matter how you slice it.  While religious news outlets took the prayer and faith angle, secular sites reported the story plainly with no attempt to make sense of the horrific accident.  The bottom line, though, is that a mother lost her baby, and two older sisters lost their little brother.  As a father of a 3-year-old, I was saddened as I tried to put myself in her position.  I just couldn’t imagine.

Then I read some of the comments about the story in secular Facebook groups I belong to and a mix of emotions came over me.  I was disgusted.  I was horrified.  I was angry.  Above all, I was deeply discouraged.  Here’s a sample of what I saw on Facebook:

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These examples only scratch the surface.  There are many more on Facebook, Twitter, and on the news articles themselves.  I can only imagine that some of the atheists who wrote these comments are the same who complain about how we’re treated in the media, by government, and by our neighbors, friends and families.  It’s likely that these same people feel that atheists are discriminated against, stigmatized, and unfairly prejudged.

The first step in changing perceptions is to take control of them.  If we want to be seen in a new light, then we need to walk the walk.  We need to prove that we shouldn’t be prejudged — that the word atheist should not be treated as taboo.  If we speak out in public forums as atheists, either in our communities or in cyberspace, then we are all representatives of the atheist movement, whether we like it or not.  The power to improve our image is solely ours.

This was my response to the commenters above:

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I detest atheist infighting more than most, and I avoid it as much as I can.  But things like this need to be addressed.  If we are to be successful in correcting perceptions, then we must look inward first.  If we play into the stereotype that atheists are uncaring, evil people who hate everything and everyone, then we’ll never see progress.

Stop giving the religious what they want.

About Kevin Davis

Kevin Davis is the head writer and editor for SecularVoices, and the author of Understanding an Atheist: A Practical Guide to Relating to Nonbelievers, a book aimed at improving relationships between the religious and their atheist loved ones. Kevin is also the Executive Director of Young Skeptics, an elementary-level after-school program for kids focused on critical thinking. Guest bloggers are welcome at SecularVoices. Please email submissions to contact@secularvoices.org.

  • http://aspiritkissedsoul.wordpress.com Tai East

    This post truly broke my heart! I’m from Alabama and I didn’t know anything about this. I’m praying for his family and for the people who wrote those horrible comments. Blessings to you!

  • Kevin Graham

    This post took the words out of my mouth.

  • http://www.cynics4bettertomorrow.org James K

    What happened to the child is awful, regardless of the location or the faith or lack thereof of her mother. The problem with Facebook and Twitter trolls is they need no reason to troll. In the atheist community such trolling gets outsized attention because of our minority status. It would seem to me that it is not good enough for atheists to be “as nice” as the religious: we must be significantly nicer. Hateful words will be amplified by our minority status. Thank you for speaking out against those insensitive louts: more of us need to do that.

    • http://dividedundergod.com Kevin Davis

      Thanks, James. Well said.

    • http://soundcloud.com/hunke Marcus

      Clearly there are reasons to troll. If there is no reason, why do people do it?

  • https://www.facebook.com/LexiesAlexies Jerry Mice

    sorry but as you got your good religious people you got your bad atheists, its about a individual not about weather or not they are an atheist or a theist

  • Douglas W. Kinney, D.M.D.

    You spoke well Kevin. Thank you.

  • https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=697740524 Alex White

    I don’t see how facebook trolls can have anything to do with perceptions of atheists in America, demonising atheists has nothing to do with some terrible jokes/sarcasm on the Internet. You only have to look at the first response with someone praying yet again for atheists, yeah thanks Tai. Also, you don’t have to be an atheist to say any of the things above.
    I don’t think this article makes a very good argument at all, every time atheists take a stand against religious privilege you can hear the collective groan from the religious who want to keep control. The perception of atheists has not changed in hundreds of years, I have no idea why you think the introduction of the internet trolls who plague every single demographic including Christianity (Josh Fernstein) has anything to do with the overall perception of atheists.

    • http://zeteticdouglas.wordpress.com dwkinney

      Alex, I think you have a very good point too. Some if not the majority of comments may be from trolls. But, sadly I have met a very very small number of Atheists that do make insensitive unthinking knee-jerk comments and I know Christians that latch onto them.

    • http://aspiritkissedsoul.wordpress.com Tai East

      I wasn’t saying that I was praying for those people solely because they were atheist. I simply meant that I was praying for their hearts in general for making comments like that about the death of a child. I believe that people have the right to live their lives however they see fit, whether it be atheist or theist. My assessment of a person is not based on their religious belief or any other belief. The character and the heart of a person is what matters. I’ve met atheists who had hearts of gold and who we’re extremely kind and I’ve met Christians who I thought were as mean as rattle snakes and vice versa, so it’s really about the individual. Though this post was probably geared more towards the differences/controversy that can happen when religion is discussed, that wasn’t my focus at all. My focus was on the fact that a baby lost his life and that’s what broke my heart. Yes, I am Christian and I hope that I represent that title well, but I pride myself in treating all people the very best that I can. I have friends and family from all walks of life, so I understand the differences in people on every level. I don’t force my beliefs on anyone. If a person allows me to share my faith with them then I’m always more than happy to do so, but if not that doesn’t mean that I look at them any differently or that I love or care about them any less.

      • http://dividedundergod.com Kevin Davis

        Well said, Tai. I always appreciate the input of theists who aren’t aiming to push their religions on others. I think it’s in humanity’s best interest to set aside our religious differences to work together toward common goals. The first step in that is rational, nonthreatening discourse.

        • http://aspiritkissedsoul.wordpress.com Tai East

          Thank you, Kevin! I never meant to offend anyone or to stir up conflict by my first response. I just have a heart for people, especially children, so my initial reaction to any tragedy is prayer. I think Alex may have misunderstood where my heart was and I just wanted to clear things up. … Best wishes to you, my friend! :-)

  • Bob Eldridge

    Some people are so consumed with their own political or religious positions that they can’t see beyond their hatred. As a humanist who is also an atheist, I felt sad and angry seeing those comments.

  • AtariBaby

    As if the behavior of some obnoxious webpage comments has anything to do with anything. Being an ass is a multi-demoninational affair. The worst of Christians do the same thing in the comments of articles relating to the gays, abortions, etc.

  • http://www.chighland.com Chris Highland

    Faith or no faith, there’s no excuse for disrespect. Personally, I ignore most of what’s on facebooky things.

  • http://soundcloud.com/hunke Marcus

    Life is too f**ked up to not laugh at anything and everything. And this could have happened anywhere, but it did not. It happened in a house of organized psychosis.

  • Scott

    Kevin, you are spot on. Well said.

  • http://gravatar.com/peltonrandy Randy

    Well said Kevin. Sadly, being an atheist does not mean a person subscribes to a set of values and ethics that would lead them to not make such heartless comments. I was shocked and angered by the comments you used as examples, but not because I am an atheist. Because I am a secular humanist. Atheism in-of-itself is not a worldview that contains an ethical and/or moral value system.

  • http://gravatar.com/harikiran1 harikiran1ran

    Really well said kevin davis! I strongly support your views.. The perceptions must be changed for a better cause. I am an athiest but what one needs to be aware of is even though he or she is an athiest, after all they are humans like everyone else around us and needs to care about our fellow humans just like you did.
    Hats off to you