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We've Got Work to Do

March 23, 2006, 11:05 AM

My post yesterday, "The Quiet Revolution", discussed some of the positive ways in which atheists are organizing and making inroads into society. But as much as I hate to follow up good news with bad, I feel I would be doing my readers a disservice if I played down the magnitude of what we atheists must confront and overcome if we are ever to become a fully accepted part of society.

With that in mind, I call to your attention a recent study by the University of Minnesota, which identifies atheists as "America's most distrusted minority". Among its more discouraging findings:

From a telephone sampling of more than 2,000 households, university researchers found that Americans rate atheists below Muslims, recent immigrants, gays and lesbians and other minority groups in "sharing their vision of American society." Atheists are also the minority group most Americans are least willing to allow their children to marry.

..."Atheists, who account for about 3 percent of the U.S. population, offer a glaring exception to the rule of increasing social tolerance over the last 30 years," says Penny Edgell, associate sociology professor and the study's lead researcher.

I mention these results not to discourage, but to paint a realistic picture of what we are up against. It seems that atheists are the last societal group against whom it is considered acceptable to discriminate (although the religious right is working hard to restore gays and women to that status). Even Muslims seem to be ranked higher than us, notwithstanding the fact that atheists have never flown airplanes into buildings in suicide attacks or banned women from driving or attending school. Clearly, if we are to ever overcome this prejudice, we have a lot of work to do. This study makes it all the more important for nonbelievers to speak out on behalf of atheism, as often and as strongly as possible, in every public forum open to us. Only by providing a strong voice to counter religious stereotyping and promote a positive view of atheism in its place can we ever hope to win acceptance. (On the positive side, this study could be a useful thing to bring up the next time your born-again Christian friend or relative opines on how Christians are discriminated against or oppressed in America.)

Despite these results, I still find reason to hope. After all, the vast majority of believers know almost nothing about even their own religion. That their dislike of atheism, by contrast, is a carefully reasoned response seems unlikely in the extreme. Far more likely, I believe, is that most people don't know (or at least don't know they know) any real atheists, and are forming their opinions based on what their preachers and ministers have told them. Given that this consists almost entirely of false and insulting stereotypes - atheists have no morals, atheists are evil and depraved, atheists want to make it illegal to worship God, atheists want to send thugs in jackboots to kick down little old ladies' doors and confiscate their Bibles - and given that there is not (yet) a strong, organized atheist community to counter these claims with truth, it is no surprise that most believers have a negative view of us.

But the positive side is this - given the lack of an atheist voice, it is very possible that these prejudices exist only because they typically go unchallenged. If this is true, it will be relatively easy to change people's minds. All it will take is to introduce them to some real atheists and show them that we do not fit the religious stereotypes, that we are ordinary people just like them. Despite Dr. Edgell's quoted comments about atheists being an exception, the social movements of the past several decades have accustomed people to the idea of tolerance, and it is reasonable to hope that society will rapidly adjust and accept us if we can overcome these stereotypes.

And while mass media appearances can be effective at doing this, they should not be the only way we go about it and may not even be the best way. Equally important, in my opinion, is for all atheists to come out of the closet and announce their nonbelief to family and friends. Presenting a positive image of freethought from a trusted acquaintance can do far more to shatter religious stereotypes than any other tactic we could adopt.


We've Got Work to Do

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