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.