Atheists Are Better than the Stereotypes Would Have You Believe May 1, 2011

Atheists Are Better than the Stereotypes Would Have You Believe

Researcher Gregory Paul and professor Phil Zuckerman state what we all know is true in the Washington Post:

… there is still a group that lots of Americans just don’t like much: atheists. Those who don’t believe in God are widely considered to be immoral, wicked and angry. They can’t join the Boy Scouts. Atheist soldiers are rated potentially deficient when they do not score as sufficiently “spiritual” in military psychological evaluations. Surveys find that most Americans refuse or are reluctant to marry or vote for nontheists; in other words, nonbelievers are one minority still commonly denied in practical terms the right to assume office despite the constitutional ban on religious tests.

They go on to say there’s *no* reason any of these stereotypes are warranted, citing study after study.

the irreligious tend to be more ethical than their religious peers, particularly compared with those who describe themselves as very religious…

murder rates are far lower in secularized nations such as Japan or Sweden than they are in the much more religious United States…

… those states with the highest levels of church attendance… have significantly higher murder rates than far less religious states…

atheists tend to score high on measures of intelligence, especially verbal ability and scientific literacy. They tend to raise their children to solve problems rationally, to make up their own minds when it comes to existential questions and to obey the golden rule. They are more likely to practice safe sex than the strongly religious are, and are less likely to be nationalistic or ethnocentric. They value freedom of thought.

You won’t hear a lot of pastors admit any of this, though. They get followers and money by demonizing non-Christians, and atheists are an easy group to target.

Paul and Zuckerman didn’t mention that we’re also people who often volunteer and give to charity in large numbers — perhaps that was omitted because studies haven’t confirmed that yet. But groups like Foundation Beyond Belief are just tapping into the generosity that’s already in our community.

So how do we get Christians (and other theists) to stop pushing these nasty stereotypes about us?

It starts by coming out of the closet as an atheist. If someone believes atheists are bad, but they happen to know you very well and they know you’re a good person, nothing will create more cognitive dissonance in their mind than finding out you don’t believe in a god. So start telling people. Tell one friend first. Tell others acquaintances later. Maybe tell your family after that. Whatever order is the most comfortable for you.

The faster we can do this, the more quickly I believe those studies will start to swing in our favor.

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  • The important part is that we’ve found a way to feel superior.

  • CanadianNihilist

    I’ve felt superior for years without any help Rob.

  • Michelle

    A select few people already know this about me, but I won’t be announcing my atheism more widely until my kids are adults. My community is too conservative and Christian, and I do not want my kids to be ostracized due to my “lack of belief.”

  • Miko

    I have a few issues with direction of causation here. Are the states with higher murder rates also having higher church attendance because churches cause murder, or because people in a failing society tend to seek out churches?

    Some of the values that this praises are not universally held to be a good thing. For instance, many people and all governments would point to the fact that atheists are less nationalistic as a character flaw in us.

    Likewise, I don’t think you’ll convince anti-birth-control theists of the ethics of atheists by pointing out that we’re “more likely to practice safe sex.”

  • Cheri

    Coming out to people I work with would significantly reduce my income as many of my clients cannot accept anything but their own christian values. My son has decided recently that he does believe in god and is currently spending extraordinary amounts of time harrassing me and insists he will change my mind. He has even said that I really do believe or I would be a bad person and that I just need to accept that I believe. It sucks.

    I look forward to a time when athiests are accepted as good people with a different point of view. Until then, I must take measures to protect myself.

  • CanadianNihilist

    ikewise, I don’t think you’ll convince anti-birth-control theists of the ethics of atheists by pointing out that we’re “more likely to practice safe sex.”

    How about pointing out that atheists are less likely to bring unwanted children into a family that can’t give them the care they deserve?

  • Michelle, I don’t see how your kids would be affected by your Atheism – would the townspeople not give them as many cookies? I see you live in a “Christian” and “conservative” community, but that means nothing. I do too – I play music for the occasional Mass every month or so.

    Your children aren’t you, they just live in the same house (presumably).

    In fact, I think your kids might feel inspired to hold their own stances if you were less timid about your beliefs.

  • Steve

    Not being funny but this kind of thing amazes me as a UK atheist, it really doesn’t matter over here, a person’s faith or lack of it has no bearing on how they do their job, I can shout it from the rooftops that I’m atheist and all I’d get is “so what?”. I realise it is harder in conservative communities and yes, it’s not just the so called Bible Belt I’m talking about. Everybody is free to be what they want to be in the UK, no proscription at all. My respects to my fellow US atheists.

    Cheri, just how old is your son? Is he is too big or too old for a smack? Then again, if he’s living at home, he should abide by your rules or try living on his own!! Tell him what you believe or don’t believe is your own business and nothing at all to do with him. Good luck!!

  • Stephen P

    @Miko: the causation is very probably bi-directional.

    On the one hand societies which have high rates of anxiety – due to high crime, poor social security and poverty – tend to result in high rates of religious belief.

    On the other hand, high rates of religious belief, particularly the more fundamentalist versions, tend to result in dysfunctional societies. Think of Catholic mental abuse (and indeed physical abuse) resulting in children with severe inferiority complexes. Think of the taboo on sex before marriage resulting in early marriages, which in turn result in high rates of divorce and low levels of education, especially among women. Think more generally of the religious emphasis on people doing what they are told rather than thinking for themselves, and the general scorn for higher education.

  • Annie

    I am a member of several on-line support groups of parents with children who have or had cancer. As you might imagine, there are many requests for prayers and lots of talk about god on such groups. Just the other day, a parent wrote how this whole experience (of having a child with cancer) has made her question her faith in god, not strengthen it as so many people claim. I actually posted this very article to the group. You’d be amazed at how many other parents chimed in saying the same thing.

    @Michelle- there may be more atheists in your community than you realize… and they all may be just like you, afraid to tell people who they really are. Sometimes opening up the dialogue can let people know they are not as alone as they thought.

    @Miko- I had the same thoughts. Prisons use organized religion as a form of moral instruction, and so I imagine more people come out as believers than went in.

  • Ronahi

    I’m really shocked, that american theist should be as intolerant as they’re described in this text. I’m from germany and here it is absolutely normal to be an atheist, agnostic or ignostic. I hope that this case will reform.

  • CthuluFhtagn

    I find the suicide statistic interesting. Not enough so to rule out the other great things about atheism, but interesting.

    It seems that a fear of hell can get people through those extreme “rough spots” in life without committing suicide… Or perhaps it has something more to do with the strong sense of community, and easy access to counseling, or at least people who will tell you “don’t do it.”

  • Ben

    Annie, its not really a surprise that it shakes people’s faith when seeing kids in pain. A woman I work with mentioned during lunch that she’s “not sure about the whole god thing” and that she was angry at the concept because a friend’s 4 year old boy is dying extremely painfully of bone cancer.

    The shame is it takes having a personal experience for people to realise the unneeded pain and death in the world points to an uncaring cosmos. The religious can justify wars and adults dying by saying we deserve it, but most can’t rationalise dying kids.

  • Erp

    Rates of religion in prison should be highly suspect for several reasons.

    1. Claiming to be religious may gain you privileges within prison. If nothing else attending a Sunday service is a distraction (setting up a Humanist book group or discussion group is a bit trickier).

    2. Claiming a religion especially a favored religion may impress a parole board into early release. Even if it doesn’t the perception that it does may increase religiosity.

    3. Belonging to a religious community after release may help counteract the stigmata of a criminal conviction in one’s history. Members of the community may help get you a job.

    BTW the UUs have a prison outreach

    I couldn’t find one for non-UU non-US humanists

  • i’m completely out. as a queer person, and as an atheist (and left leaning feminist, also). i really don’t care if someone has ‘a problem’ with that. to me, it’s like admitting my hair is brown, naturally or that i like avocados. if you think there’s something odd or wrong with the fact that i am an atheist, *you* have a problem, not me. the sun rises in the east, water is wet, and some people don’t believe in gods or religion.

    i guess i’m so normalized in my atheism i have a hard time understanding how anyone could have a problem with it. i just don’t hang out with narrow minded people, i guess. i wouldn’t expect xtians to stop saying untrue lies about us anytime soon, tho. the #1 rule for right wingnuts in this country? projection. they know they are immoral and hypocritical, despite their professed religious beliefs. so they accuse us of that.

  • Annie

    Ben- I agree. I’m not surprised by a child’s illness shaking someone’s faith, but I am surprised that until recently, there was never any open dialogue on these lists about it. It’s great that it’s happening, as one of the primary purposes of these lists is to offer emotional support. Imagine looking for support (as an theist) and being told by everyone that they’ll pray for your child? I can pick out the potential nonbelievers, as they say things like, “sending lots of love your way” or “thinking of you all so much”, and I am reading comments like these more and more. Of course this is completely anecdotal, and limited to my experiences, but I love that I have
    noticed a shift in one of the communities I am an active member in.

    @Erp- Yes. At Angola State Penitentiary, they have a program called Malachi Dads. Prisoners can participate in an education program that, once completed, they get to spend an entire day with their kids. They meet at the fairgrounds at Angola, and can have hot dogs and snow cones with their kids, and have time to play, talk, and hug. As the name suggests, this program is incredibly religious based (Christian, as are most of the programs at Angola). Give yourself over to god, and we’ll let you see your kids for a day. Heck, if it were me, I’d at least fake it.

  • Steve

    I’d say praying for your sick child is more of a comfort for the one doing the praying. And that’s fine. They need support too. They should just understand that they are praying for themselves and that it doesn’t have any effect whatsoever on their child.

  • Trace

    Nah, atheists aren’t more intelligent (tests and all). Perhaps more educated, but not more intelligent.

  • OP Atheist

    Recently I was at my girlfriend’s house and her mother said something to the effect that I couldn’t be an atheist because I was too nice and compassionate. She said that I seemed like a spiritual person and that I surely believed in “something”(the theist’s last refuge. The belief in “something”). After trying to convince her I finally just levelled and said that by saying I couldn’t be an atheist because I was too nice she was being condescending, and quite frankly offending me. That shut her up. I’m “out of the closet” as it were, everyone knows I’m an atheist and I don’t shy away from telling people if it comes up. One thing that gets on my nerves is backhanded tolerance “That’s ok, we all have our little flaws”. “Flaws”!!! Wow, what would they say if it was like this

    “I’m a christian”
    “That’s ok, we’re all a little irrational sometimes. I don’t hate you for it.”

  • we’re not allowed to feel superior about being superior? ah, gotta love white guilt and being overly modest

  • That’s a causation minefield you’re walking through there.

    While I’m confident that the point about murder rates is true, the United States is a real outlier when it comes to religion.

  • Valhar2000

    I’ve felt superior for years without any help Rob.

    Given what’s out there, this is not much of an achievement.

  • mariposa

    The statement that Atheist are more intelligent (by tests and all), is western and biased. In most parts of the world, the word atheist don’t even mean anything.

    One thing that I really don’t get is why atheists love to say that Japan is a secular country. I guess the government is pretty secular. But in terms of society (hello have you seen all the temples in Japan?) they still worship deities, even if its just to wish for good luck (in exams or in love or buying a new house). Japanese people believe in spirits. It is just as legit as a Judeo-Christian religion in a sense that they have doctrines, taboos, rituals, mythology, demons, possessions and such.

    Its not what you see on TV about Japanese people and Japanese culture because its really embedded, deeply rooted in society and its completely natural to them. Since there is no competing (contrasting) religion or non religion and that Japan is predominantly homogenous, there is little conflict that would bring the subject of Japanese religion into the light of media or entertainment. (because we’re most entertained by contrast). Possibly the biggest contrast in Japanese society is the generation gap, and even though Japanese youth seem to move to modern views of fashion, music, art, technology, their still hold to their age old philosophies. Which doesn’t seem like a bad thing at all for them because it works for them.

    I’m asian, but my family consists of catholics, muslims, buddhists, agnostics and atheists. We all get along well. And I’ve never met an angry east asian atheists, seems like only the western ones act like jerks and feel superior than other people. I don’t attribute this unsavory characteristic to atheists but largely to the individualistic culture.

  • Mariposa

    Let me explain my statement
    “In most parts of the world, the word atheist don’t even mean anything. “
    These are people who don’t believe in a specific god or deity but also don’t feel the need to coalesce and find other people who are against theism. Mostly because they don’t have it shoved down their throats the way it is in the US. So I empathize the situation.

    Same thing, there are people who don’t eat meat or fish, but they don’t necessarily call themselves vegetarian. Where I am from, vegan activists and vegans are unheard of. Mostly because we don’t have a problem with the way WE treat our animals in our farms. Vegans and animal rights activists in the US/west stem from the practices they see in their country.

  • Moa

    As a Swede, I’ve never heard of these stereotypes before. Atheists are commonly referred to as wicked and immoral? I find that seriously disturbing.

    In highly secular Sweden, pretty much everyone is an atheist or agnostic, with only a small part of society attending church. So coming out as an atheist would be strange here, the christians are those who are regarded as old-fashioned and strange.

  • Tom

    Japan isn’t Atheist why do people believe that? Japan is one of the most spiritual counties in the world they have two major religions Shinto and Buddhism. 
    Atheists stop using Japan as an example just because you don’t have any other facts to show why you are right and why religious people are wrong; even though we all know the truth. I hope your ready for your judgment. 

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