June 3, 2014

Why People Hate Atheists

reflection (Photo credit: greg westfall.)
Should we respect racist beliefs? How about sexist or misogynist beliefs? Homophobic beliefs which justify the hatred of LGBT persons? How about Holocaust denial? Suppose we decided that we should respect all of these beliefs. What would that say about us?

If we decide that we are not interested in respecting such beliefs, does that make us any less "nice" or any less tolerant of others? Of course not! These beliefs are harmful, and suggesting that they warrant respect is ludicrous. This is evident to most of us right up until religion enters the picture, and then some people find things far less clear.

While perusing Tumblr recently, I saw a post titled "This is why a lot of people hate atheists." It seems that an atheist parent was unhappy to receive a permission slip from his child's school to attend a Christian presentation on the origins of Easter. He responded to the school chaplain by expressing how little he thought of the Christian faith in a very funny way. You can see the permission slip and the subsequent email exchange here (update: it appears that this content was deleted for some reason).

The author of the Tumblr post agreed that the parent was funny but had this to say:
Please don’t do that. You’re being a dick for no reason.
He goes on to say that he would probably let his child attend such a trip, and he has some advice for the rest of us:
Whatever you decide, please don’t handle it like that guy up there...that kind of person is the reason why a lot of religious people hate atheists.
It is certainly possible that some people hate atheists because some atheists behave in this manner. It is also possible that many people hate atheists because some of us oppose church-state violations and work to promote secularism. And as we have seen time and time again, some people hate atheists merely because we are atheists.

No discussion of why many religious people hate atheists should overlook the fact that ignorance and bigotry drive much of the hate that comes our way. Sure, we could accept all the blame for why we are hated. If only we would shut up, nobody would know we were atheists. We could pass as religious, and they wouldn't have to hate us. If only we'd stop pushing our government to follow the law, we wouldn't be viewed as troublemakers. And if only we'd feign respect for a belief system that many of us consider to be detrimental to human welfare, our presence might be better tolerated.

This all sounds so familiar, doesn't it? If same-sex individuals would just stop whining about marriage and refrain from all public displays of affection, maybe they could pass as straight. Then conservative Christians wouldn't have to hate them. If women would give up their reproductive rights without a fight, nobody would have to bomb medical clinics. And if members of all the various groups which have historically been oppressed would quit complaining, embrace mainstream American culture, and learn English, maybe they wouldn't have to face so much racism, sexism, xenophobia, and the like.

When one talks about hatred for an entire group of people, one is generally talking about bigotry. To suggest that how some atheists behave is responsible for why so many religious people hate atheists strikes me as irresponsible.

The author of the Tumblr post acknowledges that he is "still on my journey to being a nicer atheist and trying to show more respect to what people believe..." I know what he means. I suspect that many of us have taken similar journeys, and there is certainly nothing wrong with striving to be nicer. But the thing is, the dichotomy between "being a dick" and respecting others is a false one.

There is no reason for any of us to respect beliefs which are irrational and harmful to humanity. On the other hand, we can and should seek to respect the people who hold such beliefs. Many of us once held such beliefs. We changed, and so there is hope for others.
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