Recently I was again reminded of the stigma that many atheists bear. My brother was requesting to stay at his new girlfriend’s house for thanksgiving, in lieu of coming home. Her parents checked him out on Facebook, sensible given the times, and saw that under his religious preferences that he was an atheist. Her parents promptly questioned their daughter whether or not my brother was a good guy or not, because he was listed as atheist.
A couple facts of this case: my brother is by no means radical. There seems to be a subtle understanding that atheists are militant god haters, that religion is public enemy number 1. My brother is of the casual sort, an atheist who has decided for himself what he believes. He acknowledges the belief only in passing, with the sort of calm certainty that comes with a self affirmed truth. No more radical than any catholic who goes to church, no more fanatical than a catholic on an Easter egg hunt.
Presumably the only difference between his girlfriend’s parents and himself are in their belief systems. And no one would be able to determine from conversation that the parents hold the moral high ground.
What is the stigma against atheists? It is the subjugation of a belief system by those who believe in the supernatural and the divine. Why? What is fostered in the religious to regard the un-religious as heathens and heretics?
All of us from an early age are taught to believe in something. That could be god, allah, buddah, or just the wonder of the natural world. Like any belief system, it is founded on unshakeable truths, on community, on tradition. When there is a perceived threat to this system, it reacts in a number of ways. Christian tradition has, since the time of the writing of the bible, always regarded the ungodly, the atheist, as wrong. Reaction is everything from pity to outright hatred. Why can’t these beliefs coexist peacefully? Why does religion have to comment on those who do not believe? If you are taught to try to save people from hell fire at an early age, pity is understandable. However, this want of conversion stems obviously from the church’s need for followers, power, and money. Capitalizing on fear [and the fear of not believing] is a very old tactic indeed. Not to say that the church doesn’t act morally in that sense, but is it fair to teach children that their Jewish friends are going to burn forever and there’s nothing they can do? It is no wonder a fear of not believing is still strong today.
There are, and always will be, extremists. Every moderate belief system creates them. Are those extremists who kill abortion doctors (with abortion never being explicitly stated in any holy book, only extrapolated through interpretation) any different from those who would burn down a church? Although I would be surprised to hear of anyone committing violent acts in the name of atheism itself. Take a look at the data below before I go further.
A 2001 survey directed by Dr. Ariela Keysar for the City University of New York indicated that, amongst the more than 100 categories of response, “no religious identification” had the greatest increase in population in both absolute and percentage terms. This category included atheists, agnostics, humanists, deists, and others with no theistic religious beliefs or practices. Figures are up from 14.3 million in 1990 to 34.2 million in 2008, representing a proportionate increase from 8% of the total in 1990 to 15% in 2008. Another nation-wide study puts the figure of unaffiliated persons at 16.1%.
A study at the London School of Economics and Political Science, based on a U.S. sample, showed that Americans who are atheist and liberal tend to have higher IQs by an average of 6-11 points. In addition, American men who identify as atheist and liberal are more likely to be sexually exclusive than average.
In a 2006 nationwide poll, University of Minnesota researchers found that despite an increasing acceptance of religious diversity, atheists were generally distrusted by other Americans, who rated them below Muslims, recent immigrants and other minority groups in “sharing their vision of American society“. They also associated atheists with undesirable attributes such as criminal behavior, rampant materialism, and cultural elitism. However, the same study also reported that “The researchers also found acceptance or rejection of atheists is related not only to personal religiosity, but also to one’s exposure to diversity, education and political orientation–with more educated, East and West Coast Americans more accepting of atheists than their Midwestern counterparts.
Fear of the Unknown
The evidence is rather damning for both sides. Atheism is the fastest growing belief system in the US. It is the 2nd largest belief group. Atheistic beliefs correlate with larger IQ. But to make my point, atheists are the most distrusted religious minority. The reason is right inside the definition: Religious Minority. Religion has been the most constant, most powerful belief system in the world since systems evolved (a form of natural selection in the field of memetics). Any minority with different beliefs will be and has been harassed throughout human history. From the pilgrims who sought a new world free from religious prosecution, to the crusades wiping out a rival system through religious fervor, to modern muslims who cannot escape the hatred of a country hunting for extremists, prosecution by the majority belief system seems to be a part of the human condition.
Look, I understand why the religious are scared of atheists. I was brought up in 8 years of catholic school and church. When a system is taught to you for that long, a system that explains the world for you, a system that offers personal comfort, it is easy to see why an opposing theory would shake your foundation. The key is not to let your bias dehumanize and vilify a belief system that you probably know very little about.
The researchers also found acceptance [or rejection] of atheists is related not only to personal religiosity, but also to one’s exposure to diversity, education and political orientation
There seems to be a palpable correlation to being ignorant or misunderstanding a belief system, and considering that system inferior or evil. Of course there are those among us who will, no matter what, consider their belief the truth regardless of anything, and will therefore consider everything else evil. It’s understandable that when a child is taught for 12 years that “believe or go to a fiery torture for all of time” is literal truth, there would be a certain aversion and distrust of any other system that could possibly lead them to their hell. But the moral zeitgeist of our times obviously encourages tolerance and understanding, even for things you don’t quite understand. Fear of the unknown is a universal human constant. It is only through using the light of understanding can we see that everything can shine.
Why be afraid of Atheism?
Atheism, I believe, naturally follows from the independent evaluation of the world around us, seeing the evidence that science has provided us, and understanding that the old belief systems (christianity, islam, etc) were founded at a time when little understanding of the universe was to be had. If tomorrow you eliminated the old systems, with only science and evidence remaining, and then tried to create a new religion that was based on tradition and faith and the supernatural, what do you think the reception would be? The old systems stand their ground in the face of science and reason because enlightenment is a hard sell. Imagine this pitch:
There is no afterlife, this is all you get. There is no all powerful father figure that loves you and everyone. You and every other living thing on this planet are equally special. The universe does not care what your whole life amounts to.
I can see where that would belittle people. But they would only feel belittled because the majority of the species has been taught about the speculated afterlife, about the uniqueness of humans, about the ego-centric view of life. There is a psychological disposition to believe in supernatural phenomena. Our brains naturally see patterns and will try to organize even random phenomena . Our brains naturally attribute agency (a will) to inanimate objects and nature, and the brain is usually satisfied with a conclusion that something runs the universe. These tendencies eventually manifest themselves [memetics] into our belief systems, and for all those reasons it comforts us. Atheism doesn’t pull the warm blanket out from under you, it opens up the curtains in a dark room. Old religion has tried to put a stop to many scientific discoveries , Galileo for example, because those discoveries contradict the old systems. Isn’t it more refreshing to learn about the world? Why cover it up with the religious desire not to be wrong?
“I would love to believe that when I die I will live again, that some thinking, feeling, remembering part of me will continue. But much as I want to believe that, and despite the ancient and worldwide cultural traditions that assert an afterlife, I know of nothing to suggest that it is more than wishful thinking. The world is so exquisite with so much love and moral depth, that there is no reason to deceive ourselves with pretty stories for which there’s little good evidence. Far better it seems to me, in our vulnerability, is to look death in the eye and to be grateful every day for the brief but magnificent opportunity that life provides”. [Carl Sagan, 1996 in his article In the Valley of the Shadow Parade Magazine Also, Billions and Billions p. 215]
“There is Grandeur in This View of Life”
To accept that we are cosmically minuscule, to accept the nature of the universe (without the constraints of short-sighted religion), should empower us to live, should empower us to seek understanding. The reality that we occupy is incomprehensibly vast and wonderful; we can move on from the opinions of 6,000 year old story tellers. Atheism is a personal choice, just like any belief system, but unlike other belief systems, there are no boundaries. No rules [not meaning moral and ethical of course, all humans have knowledge of these regardless of belief], no thousand year old opinions, no sacred text, and no limits to understanding. Atheists have made up their mind, just like everyone else, but are not satisfied with the arcane explanations. Isn’t it most noble to venture forth into the unknown, where no one is claiming absolute authority, and to expand the knowledge and truth for the species while they live?
In a scientific point of view, you owe it to everyone of the zillions of possible DNA combinations that will never become humans to enjoy your time in the sun. Go forth and explore and understand the world. The infinite complexity of the universe, that we are lucky enough to occur in, deserves to be discovered through the lens of reason and critical thinking. An atheistic view brings us firmly down to Earth [that doesn't mean you can't have your head in the clouds], so that you should never be bored, depressed, or tired with your life. You owe it to your species, and to those who will never have their time in the sun. With one life to live time is all the more precious, life is all the more spectacular, and existence all the more worth being.