I’ve spoken many times on the prejudice against atheists, even if that might be considered too strong a word. After all, defenders of this bigotry say, no one is doing violence against atheists. I’m skeptical of that claim in the larger scale of the world instead of the U.S., which probably still wouldn’t treat violence against atheists as a hate crime if it happened. The stigma against atheists has existed for a while, though it is due in no small part to the association many people still have of atheism with Communism in Russia and other totalitarian regimes that, people claim mistakenly, had atheism as their state religion. Not only is this not true on its face, since atheism itself is no more a religion than theism, but the stance of these dictators was antitheism, active hostility against religion and belief, willing to suppress it in order to maintain their own power. I imagine that the unofficial motto of the U.S., “In God We Trust,” held sway amongst many in America since the period in the 19th century when it started to be printed on coins and then in the 50s when it was printed on paper money. This divisive credo, along with the paranoia of secret Communist agents lurking behind you and trying to turn everyone to atheism, an indirect result of McCarthyism in post WW2 America, only reinforced the idea that atheists are not to be trusted. A study from the University of British Columbia shows that this prevalent distrust of atheists in American religious thought is the primary reason for the intolerance against them that remains even today.
We should distinguish between dislike in the general sense that can manifest specifically in distrust and dislike which escalates to disgust in its extreme form. The former is what the study is referring to and the latter is what I hope is a minority position amongst modern Americans. To outright hate atheists would be missing the point of what Christianity teaches in the still somewhat trite expression to “love the sinner, hate the sin”. To hate atheism would be fine to me as long as you don’t project your hatred for that disbelief onto those that disbelieve. Distrust of atheism has been prominent at various points, even when the term didn’t strictly mean one who rejected all God claims, but specific God claims, such as pagans calling Christians “atheos” and vice versa for Christian/pagan relations in the early church. Eventually the vocabulary expanded for what to call pagans, such as polytheists and, of course, heathen. Not to mention the general ideas about atheism became more precise and sophisticated as time went on, though for many hundreds of years, no one claimed to be an atheist without putting themselves at great risk of persecution from the theist majority, uneducated as many of them were. But today, people can be out about their atheism with little threats to their lives. At the most we will get claims that we have no absolute basis for morals or other things I’ve spoken about at length in my “What Do Atheists Do?” series you can find through the tag “wdad” But in today’s mostly civil society, there can be discussion about how atheists can affirm an absolute moral basis without recourse to an inflexible and cryptic religious scripture. If we affirm something is absolutely wrong, it is not so rigid that we cannot see that there are nuances to any action and the intent behind them. The mistrust of atheists manifested a century or two ago with them not being trusted in legal cases, from what I understand. Not to mention the presence of blasphemy laws putting atheists in jail, like George Holyoake, or making them retreat into agnosticism or deism, both obvious facades that were acceptable in the days when people were more prone to ignoring basic human decency and succumbing to a basic human ill, xenophobia, fear of the stranger.
It’s not necessarily the case that people are afraid of atheists, but the term distrust could imply, even apart from its definition, a sort of anxiety or vigilance that people would have when they are aware of someone’s atheism. My own family on the whole may not be aware that I’m an atheist and chalks up my sitting in the back pews at family reunion church services to something else (mid life crisis?) But if they were, I wonder if they would still strive to be friendly and loving to someone of their own flesh and blood even if they didn’t believe in God? Or would there be a tension in the air as they reflect what I think the study concluded from the sample they took? People have a general sort of prejudice, a prior judgment, about atheists, that they are untrustworthy because they don’t believe them to be faithful in their narrow idea of what it means. It’s not so much that they don’t think atheists can be moral people, it’s that they don’t think atheists are as reliable on moral issues as religious people. The study theorized that part of this may be due to our social associations of trustworthiness with affirming a belief in a higher power, connecting back to the oft held notion people argue for today about any moral law requiring a moral law giver, e.g. God. So apparently if you don’t believe in God, you don’t think you’re accountable to people; which is patently wrong if I’m even a single example of that.
A problem with this mindset about atheists is its implication that there is some sort of organization in atheism, when this isn’t really the case except in communities of people, like American Atheists, which shares the single unifying factor of atheism, disbelief in God to one degree or another. There can be disagreements about ethics, about politics, and many other things, just as Christians in groups are prone to. As I said before, there is also the fallacious association between atheism and communism, which is a confusion of the nuance of atheism as something of an umbrella term that can apply to many different labels reflecting distinctions between one’s regard towards God. Not to mention atheism says nothing automatically about your political positions, including communism. Antitheism, for instance, is the strongest form of atheism in affirming that God belief is dangerous and should be opposed. This is what manifested in communism as it existed in Russia and China (and still does to an extent in China today, from what little I understand of the subject). This should not be confused with atheism, which doesn’t explicitly claim that religion should be opposed violently, but with words, with peaceful and civil actions.
With all these issues I bring up about distinguishing atheism, I should also say that this applies just as much to atheists in their sweeping claims about Christians. There are pro gay Christians, pro choice Christians and many other seemingly unlikely believers, such as those who think that even nonbelievers like us will be reconciled to God even in our defiant denial of Jesus’ divinity. If you don’t dialogue with believers, you can’t know about their beliefs except in the most general sense of their belief in some God without adequate evidence. The same way Christians lump all atheists into the category of raving God haters, such as their caricature of Dawkins and Hitchens, atheists can be guilty of suggesting all Christians are like Pat Robertson or Newt Gingrich. There’s diversity on both sides and when we start recognizing that, we’ll start being able to build bridges, however rickety they might be. Until next time, Namaste and aloha.