A University of Minnesota study published in 2006 affirmed what over 4 decades of Gallup and similar polls have told us: that atheists are the most despised group in America. That is, when people were surveyed, the one group identified by nearly half of respondents as "not sharing my view of America" was atheists. This number far outstripped any other religious or cultural group. (A short video can be seen here.)
The American Christian media (yes, I include Fox News) takes great joy in thumping atheists. It's a safe area where Christians can all agree. And the language becomes especially vitriolic when a Constitutional question, such as prayer in public school, arises. One can hardly blame them: it's the easiest way to rally the troops.
Certainly there have been some famous and popular atheists, tho the degree to which they trumpeted their atheism varies. Katherine Hepburn, Carl Sagan, and Kurt Vonnegut, and Isaac Asimov are among the heavy-hitters in the atheist line-up. But it seems that, in large parts of America, being an open atheist is to be a scorn magnet.
Here are a few popular misconceptions that I feel fuel this anti-atheist fire:
1. Atheists don't grapple with spiritual issues.
There seems to be this idea afoot that atheists spring from the womb with no spiritual curiosity whatever, and that their first words are "there is no God." This is simply silly. The atheists (or as I prefer, "aspiritual" people) I've known (myself included) have all grappled with spiritual concepts, and have sought, or at least explored, spiritual ideas. In a nation where spiritual messages are so prevalent as to be on the very currency, it would be nearly impossible to grow up without at least being acquainted with the idea of God. Fact is, many atheists have tried, at one time or another, to believe in something. I have, and with great pressure on me to do so. When I quit drinking, I was told I "must find a spiritual solution." So I looked. I prayed. I read. I meditated. It just felt after awhile as if I were playing ping-pong against the drapes. Or worse: every time something good happened, I felt blessed, and when adversity struck, I felt cursed. I tried various ideas of a "Higher Power," including deceased friends and relatives. After several years and the loss of our twin boys at 22 weeks gestation, I just stopped. And strangely, I felt much better NOT trying each day to determine which virgin to throw into which volcano.
2. Atheists have no morals.
What silliness. Athesists have s strong a moral framework as anyone, it's just not grounded in the fear of a celestial being's wrath, or in punishment via an afterlife. Atheists' morals, I have found, tend to be quite similar to those reflected in the laws and customs of the land. While I am sure, some are moral relativists (one man's good is another's evil), I am equalluy certain that horrific and violent acts have been committed by those identifying themselves proudly as believers. Secular humanism is not amorality. In fact, the Golden Rule, is the perfect example of secular humanism in action. One should treat others with respect and compassion, not out of fear of a vengeful God, but out of a desire to be treated in kind. Sounds simple, right?
3. Atheists are getting a "free pass."
Somehow there has evolved this notion that, "If I have to go thru my day worrying about what God expects of me, so should you." But if the faithful are correct, and the atheists are wrong, that vengeful God we've heard so much about will ensure that no free passes are issued. So why all the hubbub, bub?
4. Atheists are out to destroy America.
This is less of an argument that simple fear mongering. If you want to rile up the faithful, tell them that their very way of life is under seige. Tell them there is a "War on Christmass." Tell them that if we actually do as the Founders intended and separate church and state, the earth itself will open and swallow us in a churning river of fire. Whenever it is suggested that the phrase "In God We Trust" be removed from U.S. currency, this argument resurfaces. Nevermind the fact that Americans did just fine without that phrase on our currency prior to 1957.
5. Atheists are untrustworthy.
This was the main finding of the Minnesota study: people don't trust atheists. Of course, that's only if people KNOW they're atheists. Your mechanic, your dentist, your kid's teacher might all be atheists, but if they're not wearing their Atheist Softball League shirts, you might not know it. We interact with people of different faiths, political affiliatios, and personal philosophies daily. Would you stop taking your car to an atheist mechanic? Some would. I'd prefer to take mine to a comptent mechanic who charges a fair price--Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Shintoist, atheist, or whatever.
Would be interested in hearing your ideas on the topic...