Do You Fit the Atheist “Stereotype”? February 26, 2009

Do You Fit the Atheist “Stereotype”?

What do you think the stereotypical atheist looks like?

If you’re not sure… well, that makes one of you. When I hear atheists, the first adjectives that come to mind aren’t pleasant ones — not because they’re accurate, but because I’m so used to hearing them.

I’m sure many of us can conjure up in our minds an image of a quintessential evangelical Christian just like many of them can come up with an atheist archetype with no problems.

Author Valerie Tarico writes on the Huffington Post about how we atheists should debunk those nasty stereotypes about us.


All you have to do to mess with people’s stereotypes is be out and be yourself.

Do you think of yourself as an atheist? Agnostic? Freethinker? Humanist? Spiritual Nontheist? Take a look at the links. If you don’t fit the stereotypes, you’re in luck. Probably all you have to do to start messing with people’s categories is:

1. Find a kind, matter-of-fact way to let people know you lack a god concept.
2. Be yourself.

If you do fit the stereotypes, please — get some help. And try to take a little break from kicking puppies between now and that first therapy appointment.

As I’ve said many times before, I don’t know very many evil, angry, militant, immoral atheists.

I know plenty of kind, friendly, happy, patriotic ones, though.

So do you.

It’s hard to change the public image, but the way to start is by acting the right way yourself and letting others get used to it.

It’ll take some time, but eventually, I’d hope the mention of an “angry atheist” or anything like it will just lead to confusion.

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  • cassiek

    I don’t make a secret of my atheism, and the most frequent reaction I get is “really?!” Because I choose to live my life in a tolerant, thoughtful manner and to follow the Golden Rule people assume that I must be religious. I just tell them no, I believe that this is the only life we get and that treating my fellow humans decently is the only moral thing to do.

  • I have a problem with labels to begin with. They tend to do less informing than permitting stereotypes.

    I like Tarico’s method. Ditch the labels.

  • AmberEyes

    But I am an angry atheist 🙁

    I’m not an evil atheist though… not even mean really… just.. a bit angry is all… (and for good reason, I assure you)


  • Gabriel

    It depends on the sterotype. IS the sterotype of an atheist a second class petty officer who is serving in Kuwait for Operation Enduring freedom? An accountant who is married with three children? A single father who has custody of his kids? Some one who does his best to be a good person? I have been or am all of these things. Is that the sterotype?

  • I told a friend at work that I was an atheist and we had a nice conversation about it. She (a Christian) was surprised that I didn’t think she was stupid! I think it was good for both of us. I was nervous to talk about it, but I’m glad I did now (after knowing her for a while first).

  • There are “angry” atheists just like there are “angry” Christians, Jews, Muslims, etc.

    And I am pretty open about my lack of belief. It came up with a gal on a second date and she was shocked. “I’ve never met an atheist before.” I didn’t know we were so rare.

  • Anonymous

    All you have to do to mess with people’s stereotypes is be out and be yourself.

    Unless, of course, you’re no saint yourself. Atheists are as flawed as any other group. Outing yourself doesn’t make a lot of sense unless you happen to approximate some ideal of perfection, but most of us don’t. Otherwise you run the risk of reinforcing rather than burying stereotypes.

    Public Christians can make mistakes and be forgiven because we all make mistakes. But when an atheist makes the same mistake, the reaction is likely to be: That figures. He’s an atheist after all.

    Declining to “out” yourself isn’t about lack of pride or embarrassment about being an atheist. It’s about avoiding harassment from the Billy Bobs of the world. Given a choice, I’d rather live to a ripe old age than, like Matthew Shepard, become a corpse whose name posthumously evolves into a symbol. Being a symbol of something does me no good if I’m dead. That’s an extreme example, but the same point applies to less extreme consequences of outing yourself.

  • Aye caramba. Before reading the link I was thinking of those nitwits who whine about those nasty gays who ruin it for us because..(insert reason here – usually has something to do with drag queens, men who aren’t macho enough, women who have short hair, etc). What am I greeted with when I click the link? Her rendition of how wonderful her gay brother is because he doesn’t “act or look gay”. Then of course we get the garbage about how we as atheists are supposed to stop being such beasts. I mean it’s OK to be an atheist, but do you have to tell people about it? Geesh!

    I detest the self-loathing types who pander to bigots with the claim that we’re the nasty ones for merely refusing to stay in the closet. Closets are for clothes, not for people of any kind.

  • We made “This is what an atheist looks like” t shirts for this very reason!

    It’s important that the world realizes how sexy we are. That’s a fact!


  • Brian C Posey

    Does anyone remember the “I am an American” commercials that popped up after September 11th? I think they were trying to fight any Arab backlash that might pop up.

    We need a commercial like that.

    Hi, my names Bill.
    I’m the father of two daughters.
    I’m a welder during the week
    and a soccer coach on Saturdays.
    And I am an atheist!

    Just a thought.

  • Hey, Buffy. I didn’t say David is great because he doesn’t look or act gay. He’s great because he is a genuinely decent human being. The thing about him not “looking or acting gay” as you put it, is that he’s not out unless he chooses to be out. Just like freethinkers. That was the point.

  • Love the T-shirt idea, Amanda — and your idea, too, Brian. The idea is for people to see the basic humanity that we share. There are lots of ways to do that.

  • Epistaxis

    …but I am a stereotype!

  • “My brother, David, is gay. You can’t tell by how he walks or talks or dresses. You wouldn’t know who he loves and why unless you know him. The only clue, maybe, is that he happens to be nicer than the rest of my mother’s offspring, including me.”

    ~Valerie Tarico

    Am I reading this correct?
    ALL gays are nice?

    As for messing with people’s stereotypes,seems to be a waste of time spent on focusing on what other people think of you, and not just living your life.

  • Anonymous

    I detest the self-loathing types who pander to bigots with the claim that we’re the nasty ones for merely refusing to stay in the closet.

    Buffy, are you dense or something?

    I just got through explaining that the reason for staying closeted is to avoid harassment from others, not to “self-loathe” (“I refuse to beat myself up“) And I never said that open atheists were nasty, just that they were foolish, at least when they are open about their atheism to devout people.

    I would no more walk around with ATHEIST on the front of my T-shirt than I would walk around with a T-shirt that says KEEP ABORTION LEGAL. Not because I’m suppressing my free expression, but because most of the time I judge that it’s better to avoid stirring up shit with people who disagree with you than it is to go around smacking hornet’s nests until one of them stings you.

  • I see the atheist stereotype as being one of arrogance and condescension. Over-educated types who have lost touch with the common folk through years of liberal education.

  • Anonymous,

    I wasn’t speaking to you or about you. I was referring to the linked piece by Valerie Tarico. I hadn’t even read your comment previously and don’t care to address it now given your nasty attitude to me. Now would you mind backing off with your unwarranted assessments of my mental acuity?

  • Steven

    Tao Jones wrote:
    “I see the atheist stereotype as being one of arrogance and condescension. Over-educated types who have lost touch with the common folk through years of liberal education.”

    That may be a reasonable description of the stereotype – and clearly light-years away from most atheists. I am puzzled by the phrase “over-educated” since that sounds like a good thing.
    “I’d like the over-educated surgeon, please. The under-educated one took off the wrong leg last time I was in.”
    I also wouldn’t mind knowing the difference between liberal and conservative education.
    Have atheists lost touch with “the common folk”? I doubt it, since most of us probably are “common folk” (and what does that really mean, anyway?).
    I don’t fit any particular stereotype and I’ve never met anyone who does.

  • I don’t think I’m a very good advert for Christianity most of the time.

    But like the commenter above, I see everyone as fallible and able to make mistakes.

    I tend to like to make a distinction between atheist and anti-theist. This upsets some people for some reason but it’s the most logical way of looking at it.

    I observe that most commenters on this blog are atheist, but not anti-theist which why I continue to read and comment since discovering it.

  • Vincent

    Are there really stereotypes?
    I have never heard any. But then when there are so few out atheists in a community it’s hard to even think about them.

    The first atheist I was aware of in Oklahoma was the physics professor at the benedictine monastery where I went to Jr. college. He was a nice, smart, funny guy, and the fact that he was an atheist was just a quirk about him no more remarkable than that he was fat, short, and had coke-bottle glasses.

    What was really remarkable was that he totally kicked my ass at racquetball and was married to the hottest woman I’d ever seen – always gave folks a double take “SHE’s married to HIM??”

  • I’ve always been very open about my atheism. I usually come across as an open, cheerful, friendly person and I have had shocked reactions from people who assumed that because I am nice, I must be religious. So I do my best to be nice and openly atheist. The more we establish ourselves as normal human beings, to sooner we will be accepted.

    I help run a “Coping without Religion” support group and it often ends up being composed of people who are questioning their religion and just want to talk to a few atheists, to see how they live their lives. It’s led to some great discussions and has made us all think about who we are and review our own stereotypes.

  • We all know the external stereotypes – smug, angry, vengeful against religion for some perceived wrong – but I’m more interested in the stereotypes with a little more demographic truth to them. Even here in CA I noticed a tendency for atheists (at least in organized groups) to be middle-aged or older straight white males. A woman once told me her jesting theory that some of us straight white males want to make ourselves into a minority somehow.

    The irony is not lost that I’m making this comment on Hemant’s blog, but that highlights that my impression of this has changed much for the better in the last 18 months. I see a lot more black atheists, woman atheists, gay atheists, and I don’t think it’s a result of any real demographic shift, but rather that atheists have become more vocal and organized.

  • Brenton Steinhilber

    Why is it so hard for religious people to understand that a belief in god or Science has nothing to do with social morals.

    The morals which good people in America follow have been implemented by society, not necessarily the church. The church may have adopted said morals and implemented them into the church, but the church did not implement morals into society. How can they be so ignorant as to take credit for being friendly? People are friendly because we want to live in a world of friendly people, so we take initiative by being friendly ourselves. This is different from the churches view of “friendly”, which is to convert non-believers. Sure, they may be genuinely “friendly” to people within the faith, but as soon as they are confronted with a non-believer their sole objective is to convert, to inform of their beliefs and not simply to be kind. Wouldn’t life be better if we all just wanted to be kind without any sort of ulterior motive?

  • Steven,

    I didn’t say it was true.. I said that was a stereotype.

    Wouldn’t you rather a surgeon who had experience successfully performing the surgery before? Thirty years of medical school without any practical experience? No thanks.

    There are plenty of over-educated people in the world. People who think their education makes them right whether they are right or not. People who have the knowledge but not the understanding. People who use polysyllabic big words when small ones will do.

  • Anonymous

    Buffy, I apologize. I know nothing about you personally so can’t reasonably judge anything about you. I thought being confrontational like that would get more response. I was the one being dense for assuming that your final comment was responding to mine right above yours. The rest of your message was about that other comment, so it makes sense that the last part of it would be too. Guess I don’t qualify as a Bright 🙂

  • Anonymous,


    BTW, all of my message was about the linked article, not any of the comments. I was reacting to Tarico’s insinuation that gay people and atheists are “good” when they’re closeted – IOW you can’t tell they’re gay/atheist in any overt way. So of course those of us who happen to be open about who we are by default bad.

    If you keep your status as an atheist, gay person, etc. quiet out of necessity that’s fine. I’m the first one to understand that. But Tarico’s insinuation that one should because being open makes you somehow bad is offensive and wrong.

  • I would write a bit about myself here, but there’s something that crosses me as just a teensy bit pompous about describing myself as “thoughtful” and “kind” and “caring” to prove a point.

    Not dissing on anyone, just holding back myself.

  • I guess I’m not sure what the stereotype is that you are referring to here so I’m not sure how to know if I fit it or not. If you just mean “evil, angry, militant, immoral,” then I probably only fit the angry one.

  • I bought a t-shirt that just says ATHEIST in great big letters. It doesn’t say “You suck!” or “You’re stupid!” or “I’m right and you’re wrong!”
    I wear it about and buy my groceries, pump my gas, etc., just like everybody else.

  • Awesomesauce

    Buffy said

    …Tarico’s insinuation that one should because being open makes you somehow bad is offensive and wrong.

    Valerie said:

    1. Find a kind, matter-of-fact way to let people know you lack a god concept.
    2. Be yourself.

    I’m struggling to see how being open about my atheism and being myself are ways of remaining closeted.

    Buffy, could you clarify what part of Valerie’s writing insinuated that secrecy was necessary?

  • Kristine

    Well, what is the atheist stereotype? I really don’t know, it’s not that big a deal in Australia. I can only form a stereotype off the other atheists I know… that would be educated (formal or self), inquisitive, politically left, free thinking, happy and generally nicer than the rest of the people I deal with. I fit that sterotype pretty well.

    Of course, if you’re talking about the mean, puppy-kicking, mass murdering type that seem to get presented in US based websites, I don’t know any of them…

  • Awesomesauce,

    Tarico says:

    My brother, David, is gay. You can’t tell by how he walks or talks or dresses.You wouldn’t know who he loves and why unless you know him.

    There’s the set up. David is a Good Gay because he doesn’t give any overt indicators that he’s gay. Only when you really get to know him do you find out that David is gay. And likewise to be a Good Atheist you have to get back in the closet. Don’t scare the horses by wearing your Proud Atheist t-shirt. Don’t be a jerk by protesting blatant violations of Separation of Church and State. Don’t ruffle any feathers so when people get to know you and find out you are an atheist they can be amazed at how really nice you are.

    It simply feeds into the notion that we should hide and pretend to please others.

  • Awesomesauce

    Thanks Buffy. I can see where you’re coming from. That part does seem to demean the rest of the article now.

    At least her intentions were in the right place 😉

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