he struggle for social inclusion is being fought on many fronts at the moment, and one group that tends to take a backseat is atheists. Of course, the other groups seeking inclusion deserve all the attention they get, especially because the direction is not always toward progress. Washington state is about to legalize gay marriage, but Minnesota is seeking a constitutional ban; we have a biracial President, but one of his potential opponents frequently uses racially coded language, and bigoted laws targeting Hispanics have recently been passed in states like Arizona and Alabama.
Atheists don’t face the same discrimination as these groups — they aren’t violently bullied, and they don’t live in segregated neighborhoods or go to segregated schools — but they still do deal with a significant social stigma. A college campus in a big city is a relatively more nonbeliever-friendly place, but that isn’t true everywhere. Most atheists know that the best they can usually hope for if they mention their atheism in public, especially to older people, is a polite, “Oh,” followed by a slow nod and a quick, awkward end to the conversation. Atheists are often pressured into self-censorship; besides potentially making social situations awkward, they don’t want to have to defend or explain themselves every time it comes up.
But there are worse consequences as well. A 2006 University of Minnesota study found that atheists were the most distrusted minority group in America. The study’s 2,000 participants rated atheists less likely than Muslims, recent immigrants and gays and lesbians to share their vision for American society. Out of 535 members of Congress, only one has publicly said he does not believe in a god and didn’t say so until 2007. Being “openly atheist” still has significant negative consequences in America, and it shouldn’t.
I’m convinced that most of the public disdain for atheism is due to misconceptions and bad examples. One misconception based on poor reasoning is the idea that because atheists don’t believe in a god, they have no system of morals or are moral relativists. On the contrary: most atheists apply some form of humanist philosophy, formally or informally, meaning they focus on human concerns using human values while rejecting supernatural concerns and religious dogma.
As the International Humanist and Ethical Union says, “Humanism is a democratic and ethical life stance, which affirms that human beings have the right and responsibility to give meaning and shape to their own lives. It stands for the building of a more humane society through an ethic based on human and other natural values in the spirit of reason and free inquiry through human capabilities.” This should not be interpreted to mean that the humanist can do whatever he or she wants. Humanism is not hedonism, and religion does not have a monopoly on compassion and empathy.
In fact, a report called “World Public Opinion and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights” showed in 2008 that those with no religious preference were more likely to support an “unequivocal prohibition on torture” than members of major religions (torture is a violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights).
The assumption that atheists have no values or are amoral can also prevent those who have serious doubts about the existence of a god from calling themselves atheists. Mistakenly thinking that rejecting one’s ethics and conscience is necessary for atheism can be scary and daunting, so people hedge their bets, call themselves agnostics and become firmly noncommittal about the existence of a god.
In addition to seeing atheists as immoral, religions as institutions might interpret atheism as a competitive threat — something that threatens their “market share,” so to speak. Older generations may also associate atheism with the old Soviet Union, which actively oppressed religious expression. The above factors help explain in part the dirty looks society still gives atheism.
But some of the problem comes from atheists themselves. Often, atheists feel a missionary zeal to convince others that there is no god, and this is especially true in the media and popular culture. The general public’s experience of atheism is frequently contentious arguments featuring Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens or Bill Maher, all of whom are capable of coming off as smug and harassing. Atheists seeking converts will bring up brutal wars waged in the name of religion and mock the idea of a “bearded man in the sky,” which I highly doubt is anyone’s true conception of God. The word “atheist” becomes a synonym for “annoying contrarian” in the minds of many people as a result.
Arguments about the existence of a god have their place, but they are separate from arguments for the wider acceptance and tolerance of atheists and atheism in society. Despite the contentious public perception of atheists, I suspect most are perfectly willing to live and let live. Atheists may privately think religions are wrong-headed (and vice versa), but there can be space for both.
We live in a cultural moment where social inclusion is expanding. People are realizing the intense emotional and sometimes physical pain that the harassment and exclusion of gay people causes. Cultural diversity in cities and universities has meant that social discrimination against minorities has been slowly decreasing, especially among younger people, even if progress lags woefully behind in areas like housing and employment.
Atheism should be a part of these movements, too. No one should be afraid to identify themselves as an atheist, and no one should face dirty looks or other social consequences as a result.