Combating Religious Prejudice

Imagine for a moment you lived in a place where, because of who you are, 70 percent of the people around you did not trust you.

It does not matter what you do, or for that matter that you’d never done anything in your life to warrant distrust, people had a visceral trust issue with you.

Could be that you have red hair, maybe an unattractive mole, but there is something about you that people just find untrustworthy.  Of course, you could dye your hair to blend in with more traditional hair colors, or see a dermatologist about that unsightly mole – but would these superficial, cosmetic changes will not alter people’s opinions of you.

How long do you think you would last knowing that the majority of your coworkers think you’re the one stealing their lunch from the fridge every day, or when the slush fund is a few bucks short, everyone assumes it was you because, at the end of the day, you just aren’t deemed honest.  Your friends treat you cordially, and may even socialize with you, but few would ever ask you to do something requiring their confidence.

Would it drive you in to a depression? Would you react angrily?  Would you snap if confronted for doing something you didn’t do just because you were pegged as a usual suspect?

Such is the daily life of atheists in America and other countries where the majority of the people are staunch religious adherents.

A study released this month by Will Gervais, a Psychology professor at the University of British Columbia published by the American Psychological Association entitled:  Do You Believe in Atheists? Distrust Is Central to Anti-Atheist Prejudice, found that a prejudicial lack of trust defines how believers view atheists.  Link

Most of us are aware, when people are in a group setting, they generally “behave” in a way conducive to positive behavior.  People tend not to take things from others if they know they are being watched.  Religious people, generally speaking, believe that their actions are under constant scrutiny even in the absence of other people. (Excepting the fact that the vast majority of prison inmates commit their crimes despite the eye in the sky watching over them).[i] One of the drivers for this inherent religious prejudice is the inability to understand how an atheist, not being bound by the belief in a supernatural overseer, could behave according to religious norms – i.e., live their life as though they too were subject to supernatural supervision.

It is this “sense” that gives rise to absurd sayings such as “there are no atheists in foxholes” when we know for a fact that over 25% of those serving our country in uniform today have no religious preference at all

Prejudices often take generations to change.  This anti-atheist prejudice will be no different, but the subject should then turn to, after identification of the root issue, how to change it?

Within the atheist community – if such a “community” exists – there is a variety of thought devoted to this very subject.  We’ve long known the majority holds atheists in low regard – viewed as outliers among the homogenous masses.  Polling research conducted since people became willing to identify their religious affiliation as “none” has steadily increased.  There is also no reason to believe that these numbers will not continue to rise as millennials are the largest group of irreligious in America.

What is interesting is that while these numbers grow larger, dislike for atheists continues at a near constant rate.  The Gervais report found that “belief in God predicted the likelihood of conjunction errors in the Distrust Atheist condition.”

Anti-atheist prejudice is based on a conjunction fallacy as the chart on the left illustrates that specific conditions are more probable than a single general one.

There are few identifiable characteristics of atheists – just as to say “all Protestants” behave a certain way or hold similar political views, etc.  Possibly the only single characteristic atheists have in common is they tend to be non-conformists, holding to their convictions at the expense of being labeled an outlier.

Some people feel just talking about atheism amounts to evangelizing and nothing could be further from the truth.  There are millions of people in this country that do not believe in a god and live in fear of sharing their lack of faith with friends, family, or co-workers for fear of being ostracized – especially in Southern states where god remains big!  There are many atheist forums on the internet where people anonymously share their lack of faith relating stories how they cannot let those around them know out of fear of being ostracized by family and friends or losing their employment!

These prejudices are further fanned when political candidates for president make claims that if a person lacks faith, he or she isn’t qualified to hold the presidency to the hoots, hollers, and cheers of the crowd.

Newt is not alone in his pandering of atheist intolerance – there is BIG money involved!  Religious advocacy has become a full fledged lobby as the Pew Research Center notes “Efforts by religious groups to influence U.S. public policy are a multimillion-dollar endeavor, with combined annual expenditures conservatively estimated at more than $390 million.” Link

This is why atheists spend time and effort to let people know there is strength in numbers.  Non-believers should not be cowed into silence by a theist majority.  Evangelism would imply the attempt to convert someone of faith into not believing – the only way that is possible is for individual to go through a search for truth and make the individual decision that religion is a false answer to the reality around them.  Look what it takes professional counselors to deprogram cult members, I don’t have that kind of time, or desire for that matter.  

I think every Christian should take the time to understand their faith and how it came to be; but the sad truth is the vast majority of Christians blindly accept faith as it is spoon fed to them on Sundays. For those that take the journey of discovery and find their faith strengthened – those are the ones I applaud, not the sheep that perpetuate bigotry and prejudice as though their faith is some sort of justification for terrible behavior as our friend Newt likes to spew.

This is why organizations such as Freedom From Religion Foundation, the We Are Atheism campaign, and the Out Campaign are so critical in combating this prejudice.  The goals are two-pronged.  First to show non-believers they are not alone and support is available.  They can hear the stories of others and know that coming out of the proverbial closet is possible.  Secondly, the more people that “come out” provides believers a face to counter their preconceived notions.  Yes, friends may choose not to associate with you as they once had family members will tell you that you’re bound for hell because you don’t believe in a god – at least their god… But you will no longer live a lie – the liberation alone is worth the acknowledgment!

As noted earlier in this article, atheists are not a homogenous group; and there is a wide variety of thought as to how to proceed in combating the prejudicial intolerance of the religious.  Hemant Mehta, owner of the Friendly Atheist blog attempts to accentuate the positives and good deeds of atheists while occasionally gently poking at religious fallacies and hypocrisies.  On the other hand, the Atheist Revolution blog feels that doing good deeds, such as community service, is not the answer to combating religious prejudice.  As the blogger points out: “Atheists have been doing community service for quite some time, and I have seen little evidence that it impacts prejudice. Instead, I hear Christians say things like, “That’s nice of them to help, but I still don’t trust them” or even, “What a waste of time! You’re going to hell anyway.”
Stay tuned – this is an evolutionary process!

[i] A 2007 study of the California penal system indicated that 75% of inmates identified as Catholic or Protestant at the time of incarceration.  While many studies of the religious preferences of prisoners have been conducted, the general findings are that 85% of inmates adhere to a monotheistic faith. Link

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One Response to Combating Religious Prejudice

  1. vjack says:

    Very thorough account of the issues involved in prejudice and bigotry against atheists. We have an uphill battle, but it is great to see the progress we've made so far. Thanks for the link!

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