June 12, 2008

Help! There's an Atheist in My Garden!

Some call it "new atheism." Others, and I count myself among them, prefer to talk about an atheist movement, atheist revival, or even atheist pride. But no matter what we call it, I think we can agree increased visibility is likely to improve attitudes toward atheists. Just think of how many times you have heard a Christian say that he or she has never met an atheist. Could this be a factor in maintaining ignorance and even bigotry?

When confronted with the common claim from Christians that they have never met an atheist, nearly all of us respond the same way: "Of course you have! You just didn't realize it because they kept it to themselves." We all know the reasons why. They serve to remind us that we have not yet achieved atheist equality and that many atheists fear repercussions.

If you buy the idea that lack of familiarity is at least one factor contributing to intolerance and bigotry, it makes sense that exposing more Christians to atheists might help. This part of the rationale behind the Out Campaign. By concealing our thoughts about religion, we remain safe. But this comes at a high price, for it helps to maintain the reasons we have to worry about our safety in the first place.

Helping Christians overcome their fear and hatred of us begins by providing them more experience with atheists. We know it is more difficult to maintain bigotry when one has to contend with multiple exceptions. Imagine the difference between "Atheists are evil, but fortunately I've never met one" and "Atheists are evil, although I know a couple that actually seem nice." I'm not suggesting the second statement isn't still problematic, but I do think it is a step in the right direction and would expect it to produce greater cognitive dissonance.

As atheists become increasingly visible to Christians, it will become progressively easier for other atheists to reveal themselves. Instead of recoiling in horror when faced with an atheist, Christians who have interacted with us before may react quite differently. Perhaps the most effective way to promote atheism is simply to be oneself. Imagine that!

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