Help #NormalizeAtheism

Help #NormalizeAtheism July 6, 2017

Human minds are quirky things. No matter how logical and clear-cut we are going to try and make our thinking, we are never going to be perfect. When it comes down to it, we aren’t very good at thinking intuitively or in a purely statistical manner. We are always going to have cognitive biases, and try as we might, we will likely never escape those entirely. While atheists regularly face cultural opposition and oftentimes persecution, it’s a good thing to attempt to push back using cold rational arguments and reason against religion. These are good tools, but in order to get an effective message across, we should be adding more of a human element to the discussion. This is why the #NormalizeAtheism campaign has started up.

#NormalizeAtheisms exists as a campaign to spread general public awareness about what atheism really is. Of course, we know that atheism isn’t more than a simple nonbelief in gods, but the general public usually doesn’t understand that who you are as a person exists outside of this simple nonbelief. You can be an altruistic and caring person or you can be an asshole, and these are both independent of your belief in a deity or not. There is an unfortunate negative stereotype against atheists that exists, and it would be beneficial to get the world to recognize that atheists are normal people just like anyone else. We can be happy, we can be sad, we can get angry, and the only significant difference between us and most people is that we believe in one less god than they do.

The author in a black #NormalizeAtheism tank top with mountains in the background
Yours truly in my #NormalizeAtheism tank top, bro-ing it up

Regarding the negative perceptions of atheists, NormalizeAtheism’s website has this to say.

This isn’t an easy problem to solve – as the story of Diagoras shows us, it’s a very old problem. Solving it will require changing the way atheists are perceived by the societies in which we live. And the first step toward realizing that change is reminding everyone else that we’re here. It doesn’t demand any particular political affiliation, it doesn’t necessitate the acceptance of a specific ideology. All it requires is for all of us who are able to speak up and say, “I’m an atheist. And I think it’s time for us to #NormalizeAtheism.”

The point of Normalize Atheism is to be visible with your atheism. We can wear atheist apparel. We can join local advocacy groups like Atheists Helping the Homeless. We can talk casually about going to a local atheist meetup this weekend (which we should be able to bring up just as casually as religious folks will casually bring up attending church). These behaviors serve to correct ignorance, and to show we can live normal, if not fulfilling lives, as nonbelievers.

I happen to think that the findings of science, through psychology and sociology, emphasize the importance of visibility in everyday culture. When it comes to marginalized groups, I used to think representation in media and everyday life was mere lip service to show inclusion for identities that weren’t really represented. However, there’s more purpose than that to representation. Students learn more from teachers who look like them. When we don’t have diverse actors or personalities on television, we may be reducing self-esteem of those who aren’t represented. It also plays into cognitive biases like the availability heuristic or the representativeness heuristic, which will inevitably affect our everyday decision-making.

I’ve already written about how visibility is one of the best ways to change people’s minds. A 2016 study published in Science indicated that those biased against gender and sexual minorities can have their minds significantly changed by one-on-one interactions.

“Existing research depicts intergroup prejudices as deeply ingrained, requiring intense intervention to lastingly reduce. Here, we show that a single approximately 10-minute conversation encouraging actively taking the perspective of others can markedly reduce prejudice for at least 3 months. We illustrate this potential with a door-to-door canvassing intervention in South Florida targeting antitransgender prejudice. Despite declines in homophobia, transphobia remains pervasive. For the intervention, 56 canvassers went door to door encouraging active perspective-taking with 501 voters at voters’ doorsteps. A randomized trial found that these conversations substantially reduced transphobia, with decreases greater than Americans’ average decrease in homophobia from 1998 to 2012. These effects persisted for 3 months, and both transgender and nontransgender canvassers were effective. The intervention also increased support for a nondiscrimination law, even after exposing voters to counterarguments.”

Social movements like the LGBTQ movement have spent a lot of effort in making queer and trans people visible, largely to normalize their identities and show they are everyday people. We as atheists should take a cue from their efforts and use some of these strategies in our own endeavors.

I’ve had some very positive interactions when trying to Normalize Atheism since the campaign has started. Whenever I go grocery shopping, I make sure that I am wearing something that specifically says atheist on it (including one shirt I got from the Normalize Atheism store). Ever since I’ve started doing this, I’ve gotten positive comments from people in the store about my apparel. While I’m normally an introvert who doesn’t like talking to strangers, I’m pretty happy to create positive interactions for a cause I believe in.

One time I was wearing my shirt that has the hastag #NormalizeAtheism on it and I was checking out of my local grocery store. The cashier asked me what Normalizing Atheism meant to me. I explained to her mostly existing in spaces with non-atheists, to show that we are regular people. She thought it was a nice idea, and while she herself was not an atheist, she had atheist friends and was supportive of our rights. I was happy to meet and talk with her, and based on our interactions I think she felt the same.

Hopefully this cashier had a positive interaction with an out atheist, and that perception carries over into her future interactions. This is what visibility should do, ideally. As more and more people build positive perceptions of atheists in their everyday life, this will cause culture as a whole to be more accepting of atheists. Perhaps it will even cause more people to question their own beliefs.

It should go without saying that not everyone may be able to do this. I happen to be in a very progressive college town, so I am not in danger of violence or ostracism by being an out atheist. Someone who lives in the American South may not have that type of luxury, and that is okay. If you cannot be out and proud for personal safety or privacy, there is nothing to be ashamed of. This should, however, motivate those of us who can afford to be visible to actually be visible.

I encourage readers here to think of ways they can be visible and do their part to Normalize Atheism. When on social media, they should use the hashtag #NormalizeAtheism and be open about their nonbelief. If the question of religion should come up, we should be open about our positions on religion and gods. When acting as productive members of society, we should make our atheist identities open and visible. While it may not seem like much, a lot of people joining in will help build a positive culture, and help push back against a culture of dogma.

Check out the site and use the hashtag #NormalizeAtheism if you can!

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