COLUMN: Anti-atheist prejudice widespread in America
Americans find atheists a particularly repugnant minority. According to Gallup, they are more disliked than any other major religious group, with the exception of Scientologists.
Research by Gallup also indicates the majority of Americans would not vote for a well-qualified atheistic presidential candidate. Even a gay candidate, the data suggest, would face less formidable discrimination.
But what is it about atheists that makes the American public revile them so intensely?
To illustrate anecdotally, in 2007, a Sunday-school teacher asked a class of fifth and sixth graders to draw a Christian and a non-Christian. One student drew his Christian as a cheerful-looking man holding a cross and declaring, “I LOVE GOD!!”
His non-Christian was unkempt, tattooed, covered in piercings, holding a bottle of “drugs” in one hand and displaying angry eyebrows. His speech balloon read, “Cussing! God isn’t real!”
This is, to my observation, actually a pretty accurate depiction of the popularly perceived dichotomy between theistic and atheistic character. The atheist is beheld as a hopeless individual roaming a world which, devoid of gods, is without purpose or potential for the morality that would ward him away from swilling down bottles of “drugs.”
The prevalence of this sort of stereotyping, particularly in highly conservative areas like Oklahoma, is unfortunate.
The reality is that an atheist is not someone who is morally rudderless, who wants to eradicate all religion, who is “angry at God,” who worships Richard Dawkins or who is even certain of the nonexistence of a god.
Significant statistical data on atheists is actually fairly scant. According to a 2004 study by the American Psychiatric Association, depressed theists are less likely to attempt suicide than depressed atheists. A study released in 2008 by scientists working at the Universities of Ulster and Aarhus implies a correlation between atheism and elevated intelligence.
Studies like the former are frequently cited by people wishing to demonstrate the bitter nihilism of atheists. But would it be sane to make strong, sweeping judgments on the basis of either of these studies or others like them? Would we consider it acceptable to use statistics like this to justify stereotyping racial minorities? In fact, is there any evidence at all that justifies making strong generalizations about the character of atheists?
Not that I’m aware.
The only characteristic we can attribute to atheists with justified certainty is definitional: They do not believe in a god or gods.
To my experience, atheists generally do not hate religion or wish to see it forcibly extinguished. I would characterize my own feelings toward religion as a mixture of disgust and irritation, though God knows I’m not above enjoying the apocalyptic artwork of William Blake, Martin Scorsese’s film “The Last Temptation of Christ” or the Catholicism-centric britcom “Father Ted.”
Nor am I incontrovertibly certain of the nonexistence of a god or gods. If evidence emerged suggesting the existence of a god, I would readily adjust the certainty of my atheism.
However, anecdotes about people inexplicably being cured of cancer don’t count as evidence.
The Bible doesn’t count as evidence until independent confirmation is unearthed of its supernatural claims. These sorts of things aren’t discounted because of a commitment to disbelief in gods, but because they’re legitimately worthless as evidence.
From Darwin to Dawkins
Another semi-popular misconception is that atheists hold science as a kind of surrogate religion and worship scientific figures, particularly Charles Darwin or Richard Dawkins.
Funnily, I’ve found that Richard Dawkins is associated much more closely with atheism by those outside the atheist community than by those within it. While I’d say the majority of atheists I know like Dawkins, a significant minority find him pompous and overrated.
The only atheists I’ve ever known to actually worship Dawkins are girls who find his sophistication and general Britishness sexy.
So far as Darwin goes, while most of the atheists I know appreciate his contributions to science and are aware of him as a likeable sort of guy, I doubt most of them could provide more than a very loose description of his life or of his personality, things one would expect a person’s worshippers to know intimately.
Despite my intense aggravation with the way religion facilitates human rights abuses, particularly in contemporary Muslim nations like Saudi Arabia, I would never support a law banning religiosity. Every atheist I’ve ever spoken with on the topic concurs.
Theism, delusional though it may be by our estimation, should not be restricted except in those instances in which it leads to rights infringements.
I never attempt to sugar my dislike of religion, and I hope the thinking theists in my readership will see that although I differ with them on important points, I have no desire to do them harm and am more than a dead-eyed atheist stereotype.
Similarly, it doesn’t bother me that the Bible says Christians should shun me (2 Corinthians 6:14) and appreciate the many Christians who have chosen to ignore this command.
However, it does bother me when unwarranted stereotyping is used as a justification for intolerance toward atheists.
It bothers me that coming out as an atheist would be suicide for politicians in most parts of the country.
It bothers me that my sister was mocked and harassed in high school for her own lack of belief.
It bothers me that, throughout America, people are being intimidated into silence about the very simple and unthreatening fact that they don’t believe in a god.
-Zac Smith is an English junior.