Why do Americans still dislike atheists?

A Gregory Paul/Phil Zuckerman article has been making its rounds in my Facebook news feed for the past week or so, and I’ve been mulling it over since I first saw it: Why do Americans still dislike atheists?

Long after blacks and Jews have made great strides, and even as homosexuals gain respect, acceptance and new rights, there is still a group that lots of Americans just don’t like much: atheists. Those who don’t believe in God are widely considered to be immoral, wicked and angry. They can’t join the Boy Scouts. Atheist soldiers are rated potentially deficient when they do not score as sufficiently “spiritual” in military psychological evaluations. Surveys find that most Americans refuse or are reluctant to marry or vote for nontheists; in other words, nonbelievers are one minority still commonly denied in practical terms the right to assume office despite the constitutional ban on religious tests.

Paul and Zuckerman go through a number of correlative facts about atheists that point to a number of positive traits: low rates of racism and sexism, high scientific literacy, opposition to torture, and many more. Yet despite all this, atheists are still denigrated – and they’re denigrated for supposedly being bad or not-as-good people as Christians. Since it is abundantly clear that the statistics of the matter prove the Christian accusers to be objectively wrong, there must be some other reason why atheists are so disliked.

Unfortunately, Paul and Zuckerman don’t especially answer the question. They see it as enough to point out that the given reasons for atheists being disliked are wrong. There is value in that – on honesty points they’ve won the intellectual battle – but I want to go further.

Part of the reason, I think, has to do with the cultivated stigma around the word “atheist”. Richard Dawkins mentions in one of his books a story of a person telling his/her mother about not believing in God. All that is fine, but then the word “atheist” crops up and the mother replies, “To not believe in God is one thing, but to be an atheist!” I’ve paraphrased the story, but the point is that there is a stigma that has kept millions of atheists in the closet. Friends and families of atheists have historically had no idea that they even knew an atheist. As lawmaker Harvey Milk preached about gays, if people learn that they know even one member of an ostracized minority, that minority will be slowly become more accepted – it’s usually harder to hate a person one understands. That’s why coming out campaigns for gays have led to so many civil rights strides over the past 15 years.

But dislike of atheists isn’t anything new. Atheists have been maligned for centuries, even when they represented no threat to the prevailing religious order of the day. It’s simply easy to go after a minority. It’s even easier when that minority holds only a descriptive position, giving its members little reason to unite under any cohesive banner. Indeed, the largest atheist organizations to ever exist are ones which exist today, and their membership levels are not wildly high. With little historic organization, atheists have made for relatively easy targets.

Yet even today we can be seemingly easy targets – key word “seemingly”. Take The God Delusion, for example. One of its biggest problems is how easily opponents have created strawmen around it. Even non-religious people have made notable errors concerning the book: the creators of South Park had an episode where they portrayed Dawkins as claiming that religion is the root of all wars and that there would be peace without it. He has never said any such thing. On any other topic such a glaring mistake would be highly embarrassing.

And, of course, there’s the simple (indeed, very simple) idea that God is good. This is pounded into religious minds, even the mind of the general public, over and over and over. So when something shows up that challenges that notion, it’s the notion itself which has not merely a foothold, but an iron grip on the debate. Our very existence suggests that all these deeply held beliefs of the religious are wrong, and that makes for a tough fight – and a lot of dislike. It’s an uphill battle.

I’m sure there are even more reasons for all this unwarranted hatred. It’s a complicated issue that has a multitude of factors involved; it would be naive and/or dishonest to try and whittle it all down to one issue, whether it be the organizing power of religion or the recent aggressive tone of the “new atheists”. But I do think the best strategy in fighting this negative public perception is probably the Harvey Milk angle. Be vocal and be heard, whether it be in a nice way or an aggressive way. What matters is that people know, hey, atheists exist and, hey, you actually otherwise like us.

The stubbornness of authority

A man in Georgia was denied his right to challenge a parking ticket because of the stubbornness of those in charge:

A man said he was barred from a county courtroom on Thursday because he refused to remove his Muslim head covering, nearly two years after Georgia’s judges voted to allow religious headwear in all state courtrooms.

Troy “Tariq” Montgomery said Henry County State Court Judge James Chafin blocked him from entering his courtroom three separate times to dispute a traffic ticket because he was wearing a kufi, a traditional Muslim head covering. His attorney, Mawuli Mel Davis, said he would soon file a motion challenging the decision….

Montgomery said he was first blocked by a courtroom bailiff from wearing the kufi in the courtroom on April 1, when he was initially scheduled to appear in front of Chafin for the speeding violation. He returned two weeks later with the council’s 2009 policy, but said he still rebuffed.

When he returned on Thursday — this time with his attorney at his side — he said Chafin rejected him again and told him to remain in the hallway during the proceedings. His speeding case is still pending.

This reminds me of my experience with Richard Dubois and J. Christopher Read of the local police department. Neither one is particularly good as his job – and, in fact, the former spends more time trying to have sex with girls 20 years his junior over Facebook than he does helping the city of Augusta (it’s a small town, Richard!) – but each thinks he has an idea of what the law says. That incorrect assumption on their part resulted in me receiving an apology from the chief of police. It seems so common to encounter doofuses who inexplicably are given power.

And that’s the case with Judge James Chafin and his bailiff. It’s quite obvious that these people aren’t really that concerned with getting things right – they just want to feel like they’re right. It’s pathetic and childish. I just hope that once Montgomery wins his battle – and he will win it – he also requests a new judge for his speeding case. It’s obvious Chafin has no interest in fairness and truth.

Happy Mother’s Day

First, the religious version of the day:

Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death. Because they have cursed their father or mother, their blood will be on their own head. ~Leviticus 20:9

How sweet, amirite?

Now the decent person version of the day: