Last night, I was sitting alone in my apartment, two beers in, thinking about how differently I feel about life and about people since admitting to myself and those around me that I am an atheist. When I thought about life, I came to the conclusion that I’m much happier than I was when pretending to be part of a faith I don’t subscribe to. That point is obvious, even if only for the lowering of cognitive dissonance on my part. When I think about specific relationships in my life though, the picture gets a little more gloomy.
Every personal relationship that has been impacted by my non-belief, if it has been impacted at all, has suffered. The “if” is important in that sentence. There are plenty of peers who don’t care that I’m an atheist, and that is about the most positive reaction I’ve gotten. Either it’s neutral, or it’s negative. Frankly, it is this fact that depresses me most. I am unafraid of the hoards of anonymous internet users who disagree with my views. We can debate, argue, insult, and do whatever we want to each other and it makes little difference to my mood. What saddens me is the toll that my non-belief takes on my personal relationships, the friendships that have dissipated since. It’s symptomatic, I think, of feelings people have towards atheists in general.
Recently, Kyrsten Sinema was sworn in as the first member of Congress to self-declare as religiously unaffiliated. I say “religiously unaffiliated” because as her campaign put it she “believes the terms non-theist, atheist or non-believer are not befitting of her life’s work or personal character.” What? Examining this in a narrow sense, “atheist” (or any of these terms) is not befitting her personal character? It has no bearing on personal character! It is solely disbelief in a supernatural deity. That’s it. The working assumption seems to be either that being an atheist is equated with being a bad person, or that the perception of atheism is so bad, people have to deny the label in order to avoid social and economic repercussions (like not being re-elected for example).
There is a good deal of evidence for a general distrust and dislike of atheists. Of a set of minority groups, Gallup found that people were least likely to vote for an atheist, at a rate of 54% that would if said atheist was well-qualified. A 2006 study conducted at the University of Minnesota found that atheists are America’s most distrusted minority. Seven state constitutions ban atheists from holding public office. When Mike Huckabee recently blamed the Newtown shooting on lack of faith in God and of God in schools, people were rightly upset. They were upset because his comments were insensitive to the victims and to the circumstances of this horrific tragedy. They were not, however, upset that he implied that less God means less morals. Why not? Because they agree. It is the consensus of a large segment of the population that without some kind of God, you must be objectively immoral. This perceived immorality allows them to justify hatred of atheists.
OK, fine. People do not trust or do not like atheists. I think I have given sufficient examples of these feelings being present in American society. I have to wonder, though, why? Why do people dislike atheists? I mean aside from simply asserting that “it’s how religious people were raised/indoctrinated”. Such an assertion tells us nothing of the justification and rationalization behind it, even if it is where the need for such justification begins.
Well, let’s collect a sample of representative data that give a range of reasons. Luckily, one can always find hatred for atheism/atheists on the internet. I will simply run a keyword search (“atheist”) and embed a few tweets that I find illuminating. Obviously, this isn’t a random or representative sample of tweets about atheism, since I will be hand-selecting those that bring up attitudes that are interesting to this discussion. I will be discounting tweets from atheists about atheism and odd jokes made about atheism (e.g. “I bet there’ll be a lot more atheists now since Notre Dame lost to Alabama.”). The point is to further demonstrate that these are real-world attitudes. Also, I have no idea who these people are (Twitter is a public forum after all), but I would not go so far as to say they are bad people or deserving of scorn. I just want to examine their attitudes.
1. Atheists are preachy, apparently.
Look I understand that you are an atheist… I support you. But you shove your beliefs down my throat worse than The Westboro Baptist Church—
Anderson Duncan (@Anderson_Indigo) January 08, 2013
So this gentleman is sick of hearing about atheism. I think that’s somewhat fair. Nobody likes to be preached to, and this person even says he supports atheists in this tweet. “Worse than the Westboro Bapist Church” seems strong. I don’t recall any atheists protesting funerals recently. I guess my concern here would seem to be that shouting about atheism is somehow less valid than shouting about Jesus or Muhammad. Atheists are articulating their worldview, the same as anyone else. People tend to feel beliefs are being forced on them when they happen to disagree with those beliefs. I’d also say that not all, and in fact a minority, of atheists are preachy. I’ll say one last thing on this point. If atheists go away, theists won’t shut up about their beliefs (as a few millenniums will attest). However, if religion goes away, I don’t see any reason why atheism would go on being preachy. We have no doctrine mandating that we preach, you see.
Also, has anyone made effective use of the unfollow/block options when they complain about this on Twitter? One has to wonder.
2. Atheists question your faith if brought up.
Atheists are mostly assholes, just let me have my faith and don't question it. #✌Bwitchu—
Louis ßoccia (@LouisBoccia) January 08, 2013
In this tweet, we find another young hero gallantly telling atheists to let them have his belief. Don’t question it. Uh-uh, stop it. No questioning.
Obviously, this may tie in to the preachy topic somewhat, but let’s move on. I’m going to suggest (somewhat presumptively but go with it) that this and statements like it occur not as a result of atheist criticisms, but as a result of the doubt they can cause people. No one likes having core beliefs come in to question. However, if you aren’t willing to examine what you believe, how strong is your faith, really? The fact that you doubt your own dogmatic beliefs shouldn’t reflect poorly on atheists.
3. Atheists are… ignorant?
Why are atheists so fucking ignorant it really pisses me off…—
Chelsea Pomerantz (@chlcxo) January 08, 2013
I’m including this mostly because it came up so often. I don’t think it actually has much merit. I’ve never seen anyone give a reason why atheists are ignorant. I’m going to suggest that people making this claim are themselves ignorant or bigoted.
4. Atheists are arrogant.
The problem I had with the atheists I used to follow on here is they seemed arrogant and all knowing. And NO ONE knows ALL.—
Shawty Basquiat (@Lostnthewrld) January 07, 2013
Fair point. I know atheists that can be condescending, sure. Question: can you name a large group of people in which there are no arrogant, outspoken people? Is atheist non-belief inherently arrogant? I think many believe that (theists), but many would disagree (atheists). Atheists see the concept of the whole universe being created by a divine being who wants to listen to your prayers as rather arrogant, among many other theistic beliefs. However, the conception of atheists as arrogant know-it-alls is somewhat of a stereotype. A lot of atheists have arrived at their beliefs because they’ve looked at the evidence and decided it’s not for them. Is that arrogant?
It seems to me that people have an idea about what atheists are that doesn’t match up with what I’ve seen in the community. According to a large segment of the population, atheists are arrogant, preachy, ignorant bastards that have no morals. I challenge anyone to convincingly show any of that to me. Go ahead, let’s see what you’ve got. And because I have yet to see that any of this reflects the larger atheist community, I am labeling these misconceptions as biases against atheists. One might even call them instances of bigotry. Because people isolate themselves from opposing views, many have no other reference for atheism except for what they will seek out for themselves. It is therefore an uphill battle for atheists to show what we stand for (really, the one thing we don’t stand for) and challenge intolerance. Because who knows, maybe our kids will want to be legislators in one of those aforementioned seven states that ban atheists from holding public office. Certainly, all Americans value their freedom and the respect they get from their community (hooray Captain Generality), and I’d like my share.