Atheist — does the word give you pause? Make your eyes narrow a bit? Conjure up images of immorality and pugnacious heathens? For a surprising number of Americans, the answer is still, well, yes.
According to data from a recent Pew study, while political polariziation is at its highest intensity in 20 years, the person Americans really don't want their family members bringing home for dinner is neither a Republican nor Democrat. It's someone who doesn't believe in God.
Yes, according to Pew, while less than 10% of Americans said they would be displeased if a family member married someone from an opposing political party, nearly half said they would be unhappy if a non-believer joined the family. Atheists are in a fairly exclusive club. They draw more negative attention than approval ratings for gun owners (19%), people without a college education (14%), those of a different race (11%) and born-again Christians (9%).
Atheism acrimony is not a new thing, but it's becoming more and more visible due to the rapidly rising number of atheists. Between 2007 and 2012, the number of respondents Pew classified as "religiously unaffiliated" increased from just over 15% of the American population to close to 20% of all U.S. adults (13 million of whom are self-described atheists and agnostics, and nearly 33 million people say they have no particular religious affiliation).
The conservative media is a cheerleader of the "aggressive atheist" archetype, especially around Christmas, when the airwaves are inevitably filled with stories warning that these millions of Americans are part of an army waging war on Christian holidays.
But while the myth that atheists are heartless Grinches who want to destroy Christmas is popular, it is only one of many stereotypes that give atheists a bad rap. Loosely defined as all those who do not believe in the presence of God or similar spiritual beings, atheists are, in fact, a diverse group motivated by variety of personal reasons and belief systems.
Here are seven of the more prominent, problematic stereotypes about atheists:
This myth has remained popular, and is often repackaged as the phrase, "There are no atheists in foxholes." That quote, popularized after World War II, is often attributed to President Dwight D. Eisenhower and has been used to imply that atheists are cowardly, inclined to pacifism or, in some cases, find God while serving in war zones.
However, atheists have long objected to the sentiment.he Military Religious Freedom Foundation has gone so far as to request the Air Force remove an article from an Air Force-affiliated website for "publicly denigrat[ing] those without religion."
Meanwhile, it's a fallacy to suggest that the nonreligious don't serve in the armed forces, just as it is incorrect to equate atheism with pacifism. American hero Arizona Cardinals safety Pat Tillman was not known to be religious, a fact that Tillman family members later said was used against them as they sought answers regarding his death by friendly fire.
For those wishing to minimize the movement, the narrative of atheists being a small fringe group of white, privileged, Ivory tower academics would be popular. But while it's true that some of the most prominent — and controversial — atheists are white men, Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins and are not emblematic of the entire group.
Studies show that men are more likely than women to call themselves religiously unaffiliated. But that's not the whole story. As this New York Times story states, respected atheists include both minorities and women. Just look at Jamila Bey, an African-American woman and journalist who speaks often on the topic.
"African-Americans have allowed the story to be told that we are a God-fearing people. Our culture dictates — mandates, even — that we be spiritual," Bey told the Root in 2011. "Accepting that definition of who we are forces us to defend our blackness should we have doubts about spirituality. [Accepting that definition means accepting that to be] authentically black is to be religious — wrongly — and that to doubt God is a white thing — wrongly. We let others define us, and we dare not buck that expectation."
Ah, the immorality stereotype. This is perhaps the laziest of the myths surrounding atheism. It stems from the wrong-headed notion that only a belief in God can ensure one's moral compass stays intact. But while the Bible, Torah, Quran and other holy books often include spiritually based directions for ways adherents can live moral lives, they are also full of outdated, or, especially in the case of the Old Testament, brutal guidelines that advocate for things like sexual slavery and stoning as a punishments for adultery.
Furthermore, as Amanda Marcotte points out, the argument that atheists must be morally untethered has a rather unsettling side effect:
"Believers, listen to me carefully when I say this: When you use this argument, you terrify atheists. We hear you saying that the only thing standing between you and Ted Bundy is a flimsy belief in a supernatural being made up by pre-literate people trying to figure out where the rain came from. This is not very reassuring if you're trying to argue from a position of moral superiority."
This myth has picked up steam due to the growing popularity of an offshoot of atheism, commonly known as "New Atheism." As Dr. James Bradford, general secretary for Assemblies of God, accused recently, "New atheism is making science the enemy of religion." Richard Dawkins is perhaps one of the most infamous of these New Atheists, eager to debate all comers. "I'm quite keen on the politics of persuading people of the virtues of atheism," Dawkins said in 2006.
But while Dawkins employs a particularly brash style of discourse, the desire to educate and engage those with differing belief systems is not inherently a sign of arrogance. Indeed, evangelizing has been a hallmark of the Christian faith as it draws inspiration from the Bible itself and is reiterated in the words of venerable leaders as Pope John Paul II. "The mission of Christ the Redeemer, which is entrusted to the Church, is still very far from completion," John Paul II wrote. "As the second millennium after Christ's coming draws to an end, an overall view of the human race shows that this mission is still only beginning and that we must commit ourselves wholeheartedly to its service." Despite the strong wording, the beloved former pontiff (now saint) is not generally characterized as either arrogant or aggressive. Seems like a bit of a double standard.
The "angry atheist" trope is one that has persisted despite very little evidence — anecdotal or otherwise — to back it up. The myth has been extended to suggest that atheists are not just angry people, but people who are angry with God. This anger, the theory holds, motivates atheists to want to destroy religion.
But just as Christians do not universally hate Allah and Jews do not universally hate Jesus, many atheists are perfectly happy to differ from organized religion without demonizing its top representatives. This isn't to say that some atheists haven't had bad experiences with religion in the past — and yes, some of those experiences may even have motivated their atheism. But that's not the same as harboring a lingering hatred of God, nor does it mean they want to destroy religion for everyone else.
Noting that he hates God about as much as he "hates unicorns," blogger Lee Myers clarifies, that "Not believing in a particular religion is not dependent on a negative opinion of that religion's deity or messiah figure. It's simply the result of not being convinced because the burden of proof has not been met."
Look at how jovial these two men — one an atheist and the other a Christian — appear while debating each other in 2013. Clearly, the issue does not need to be mired in anger or unpleasantness.
Nobody — not religious scholars, atheists nor scientists — knows with certainty how the universe was created. But while some religious adherents choose to believe in their respective creation stories, most atheists err on the side of evolutionary theory, not random coincidence.
Indeed, atheism and science are closely linked. Although popular science luminary and Cosmos host Carl Sagan never explicitly called himself an atheist or a humanist, the movement wholeheartedly embraced him, and he them.
"His idea of the immensity of the universe and how small we are just impressed me so much as a teenager," Amanda Knief, managing director for American Atheists, told the St. Louis Tribune. "It really led me to look beyond the religion I was raised in and shaped my Humanism."
Sagan also rather enthusiastically accepted the American Humanist Association's Humanist of the Year Award in 1981.
Although we've already touched a bit on this myth, it's worth revisiting if only because it's so emblematic of the current American atheist stereotype. In 2013, Bill O'Reilly bemoaned the fact that while Christians were seemingly under attack from all sides, "[atheists] are free to celebrate whatever they want to celebrate. They are free not to believe and they are free to snicker at anybody who does believe. That's not good enough for these people. They want to banish any mention of Jesus in the public square. They are the oppressors."
Indeed. The controversy has yet to fade in part because of organizations like the American Atheists, which has stirred up their fair share of headlines with billboards letting citizens know "they don't need religion to have a great Christmas," according to American Atheists President David Silverman. Of course, the takeaway here should be that Silverman and his organization are neither trying to ban Christmas nor declare war on it. They are simply choosing to celebrate it in a secular fashion. That means the tree, the ornaments and Santa, but maybe not Sunday Mass. While O'Reilly may not like it, Pew research shows that millennials are already attending church less than their elders, so this type of Christmas tradition is fading regardless of a few billboards.
Meanwhile, the increasing politicizing of religion, coupled with growing conflict between anti-gay religious conservatives and their more liberal children, is leading to lower religious engagement across the board. Perhaps O'Reilly should focus on these fundamental dichotomies before pointing the finger at atheists.