November 21, 2011

Community Service is Not the Answer in Combating Prejudice Against Atheists

In recent post summarizing some of the findings from an article about anti-atheist prejudice published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Hemant Mehta (Friendly Atheist) wrote that there are two ways atheists should work to counter our negative image:
First, we have to continue doing community service — serving at food banks, donating to charity, giving blood, etc. Show people that we can be good without god.

Second, we have to let people we trust know that we’re atheists. People think poorly of atheists because they don’t think they know any. It’s a shock to their system when they find out someone close to them doesn’t believe in a god… so shock them! Let them know that someone they already trust is an atheist.
The scientist in me wants to point out that this is an empirical question. That is, either or both of these two strategies might work and should be framed as hypotheses until they can be adequately tested. Setting that aside, I'd like to explain why I think Hemant may be right about his second recommendation and wrong about the first.

Come Out If You Can

Come out come out atheistsHemant's second suggestion rings true for those of us living in regions dominated by religious extremism. I have encountered enough religious believers, especially here in Mississippi, who have claimed they have never met an atheist that I suspect Hemant is on to something here. Psychological research suggests that it is easier for people to demonize those with whom they have had little direct contact. Because of the massive stigma around atheism in some areas, atheists remain closeted. In some ways, this serves to maintain the bigotry directed at atheists. I think Hemant is right to suggest that those of us who can "come out" should do so and that this is likely to help reduce prejudice over time.

"Coming out" atheist is not going to be safe for everyone. The point is that those of us for whom it is relatively safe - or who are so fed up with hiding that we're willing to take the risk - can help our fellow atheists by doing so.

Find Other Reasons to do Community Service

Community ServiceOn the other hand, I am quite skeptical about the efficacy of Hemant's first suggestion in reducing prejudice. I seen no evidence that Southern Baptist prejudice against Catholics is reduced by the latter's involvement in charitable activities or community service. On the contrary, I have heard many Southern Baptists suggest that the Catholics must be "up to something." It seems to me that once prejudice of this nature takes hold, information contrary to the prejudiced view ends up being filtered through the prejudice, undermining whatever effect it might have.

When I think about how the LGBT community has worked to combat prejudice and bigotry, I cannot think of examples where increased involvement in community service was a core part of the strategy. In fact, I have a difficult imagining telling members of that community that they should increase their charitable involvement in order to reduce prejudice.

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."

Do community service if you want to. Do it because it is consistent with your values or because you are committed to helping others. There are plenty of excellent reasons to get involved in your community, but I do not expect community service to accomplish what Hemant suggests it will accomplish.

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