Trying to Eliminate Atheist Stereotypes November 15, 2008

Trying to Eliminate Atheist Stereotypes

I spoke to members of Atheists, Agnostics and Freethinkers at Northern Illinois University earlier this week. Part of the talk was about my book and part of it was advice on how to overcome the atheist stereotypes and recast our image.

The Northern Star student newspaper wrote up a nice story about the talk.

Mehta’s main focuses during his speech were to promote “the happy Atheist” and to try to help erase stereotypes of “the angry Atheist.”

“One thing Atheists need to do more is work with charity,” Mehta said. “Doing charity work without necessarily getting credit for it; Christians do that all the time and without always pushing the Bible.”

Mehta’s visit had Kathryn Panger, president of the AAFT, hinting at bigger plans in store for the AAFT. The speech left Panger wanting to build stronger relations with other religious groups on campus.

“I’ve tried before to make relations with other religious groups on campus but, I don’t know, I don’t think I’ve tried hard enough,” Panger said. “[After hearing Mehta’s speech] I’m going to try and contact them and build better relations.”

Jonathan Guca, junior psychology major, believes Mehta’s approach will help Atheists.

“I think his approach will help us become more known and liked,” Guca said. “I was very impressed.”

Can’t wait to see what they do!

I also liked this nifty promotional poster of the group:

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  • Beijingrrl

    I LOVE that poster. How about that for a bus ad campaign?

  • Pseudonym

    Brilliant stuff! I hope they do well.

  • Atheist will always be angry because they don’t believe in Jesus, who loves everybody, even atheists.

  • Gabriel

    I love it except for one thing. Couldnt’ it just say, open to everyone? full stop.

  • Jeff Satterley

    Apparently Jason could learn a lesson from JC:

    Luke 14:11 “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

    John 8:7 “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.”

    Matthew 7:1-2 “Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.”

    Don’t be presumptuous and judgmental, it just seems un-Christian.

  • Yeah Jason, atheists only appear happy but we are not really happy.
    I think Moe on the Simpson’s said that about the rich.

  • justin jm

    Atheist will always be angry because they don’t believe in Jesus

    So you mean that the prejudice, stereotypes and discrimination many of us face isn’t a factor, but our lack of belief is? I wonder why nobody else told me this…

    Lack of belief is not a problem for me. The real problem is the mischaracterization and even the dehumanization of atheists that is so prevalent in wider culture. That’s what makes me angry.

  • Marzipan

    Hemant, I understand that this idea is the whole premise of your blog and your activism, but I actually disagree with it quite strongly (I still enjoy this blog, though, of course:)). Why should we work to eliminate the negative stereotypes of people who won’t bother to be objective instead of working to eliminate the idea that it’s okay to judge a group of individuals who share one characteristic based on just a few people? Even getting positively stereotyped makes me uncomfortable because it means I may be given privileges I don’t necessarily deserve on my own merits.

    Ignorance is a part of majority privilege, and IMO it would be more productive to just try to shift the paradigm altogether instead of trying to appease and actively educate bigots in every individual minority case. Judging from some of the ads and attitudes we’ve seen and heard in the media recently, atheists-as-wished-for would have to sit down, shut up, and pretend to believe in a god in order to be considered real Americans. That’s the type of atheists Dole might tolerate. Not much of a consolation.

    Being an atheist, small “c” communist, antinatalist vegetarian, among other things, I am well aware of how easy it is for society to discount ideology or ethics that might have a sound rationale behind them just because they are unpopular. That’s what I would like to see change.

    When I was a Mormon, I felt a sense of belonging to and being representative of a group which was quite comforting sometimes, but extremely anxiety-inducing at other times. The idea that I have to constantly try to make a positive impression to improve the church’s image and potentially convert people pushed me further towards conformity (which, as Bertrand Russell notes, is sure to interfere with happiness) until I eventually felt that I didn’t even have the illusion of having a say in my identity anymore, which led to more soul-searching and eventually atheism.

    I am not a happy atheist. I get depressed often. I have to admit that the years I spent as a sincere religious believer were the happiest years of my life because I was more optimistic about people and their potential and had faith that all the wrongs would be righted for everyone. As a trade-off, now I have a sense of intellectual honesty and consistency, and it’s extremely satisfying. On the other hand, now I don’t have an excuse to reject the existence of certain patterns of human behavior and reasoning mapped out by evolutionary psychologists because I don’t have the belief in a loving, just God to fall back on anymore. Realizing that I can’t do much to change certain attitudes because most humans are wired for them pushes me towards pessimism and doubt that I will ever see the world come close to my idea of social justice, or that it will ever happen at all. Across-the-board stereotyping may just be one of those wired things because it’s easier for us to make sense of the world utilizing rigid, if unrealistic, categories instead of imagining the world as a fluid continuum full of ambiguities. But I don’t want to feel that I can’t admit to being depressed or have to ease people into my ideological and ethical preferences (“milk before meat”, so to speak) for fear of alienating them from rational thinking. People being attracted to rational worldviews would make me very happy, but if I have to alienate a few in order to maintain my sense of self and feel more liberated, so be it. Call me selfish.

  • Vincent

    and people say there are no cute atheist girls. Proof to the contrary.

  • QrazyQat

    “One thing Atheists need to do more is work with charity,” Mehta said. “Doing charity work without necessarily getting credit for it; Christians do that all the time and without always pushing the Bible.”

    And what proof do you have that this is the case? Either part. You see I think atheists do in fact do plenty of charity work but without getting credit for it, and the result is that they don’t get credit for it. I think we see Christians doing a lot of stuff that they make darned sure they take credit for. In fact, every time you give credit to Christians for things like Habitat for Humanity, pretending that only Christians do it, that’s dishonest.

  • J. J. Ramsey

    Jeff Satterley: “Apparently Jason could learn a lesson from JC”

    Take a look at Jason’s blog. I think you’ve been Poe’d.

  • I think that anger is an appropriate response to discrimination and bigotry.

  • Jeff Satterley


    Ahh.. good call. At least I wasn’t the only one 🙂

  • Stephen

    “The speech left Panger wanting to build stronger relations with other religious groups on campus.”

    Ouch. It’s bad enough when Christians make out that atheism is just another religion. With friends like these …

    I must say this leaves me with mixed feelings. On the one hand I’m all in favour of promoting a more positive image of atheism. On the other hand, as Greta Christina has expressed so eloquently, atheists have a great deal to be angry about.

    If the AAFT wants to establish good relations with others, why not start with the political societies, sports clubs, social societies, science clubs etc? Why start with the religious groups?

  • Citizen Z

    “Doing charity work without necessarily getting credit for it; Christians do that all the time and without always pushing the Bible.”

    Augh. It should be nearly the opposite. Considering the prejudice atheists face and the negative stereotype of an uncharitable atheist, atheists should make an effort to be visible in their charitable work to counteract that.

  • I wrote about this very thing today on my site. The perception that atheists are angry isn’t an impression that’s plucked from thin air. There is a strong sense of entitlement among the community, and more importantly, a lack of humor. I think the real problem is that the ones that are most vocal are the most surly. Hey, can’t we have fun and poke at ourselves once in a while?

  • You’ve fallen into my trap, mwahahahahaha *wrings hands devilishly*. :-p

  • IMHO, it will be hard to change the stereotypes because some religious people will read and twist things however they need to in order to reinforce their beliefs about the non-religious (or even people of a different religion).

    All you can do is be yourself – be authentic. Having the courage to just be who you are no matter what, and be comfortable with yourself – warts and all – does more to impress people who are open to being impressed than anything else does.

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