September 22, 2015

Reducing Anti-Atheist Bigotry: Coming Out is Only the Beginning

handshakeBigotry directed at atheists remains a significant problem. How do we reduce it? There are many ideas out there, but one of the simplest and most appealing involves providing religious believers with more opportunities to interact with people who identify themselves as atheists.

Drawing on decades of social science research supportive of the contact hypothesis, it is tempting to suggest that the most important thing we can do to bring about a meaningful reduction in bigotry directed at atheists is to encourage more atheists to be more open in disclosing their atheism. This provides those who hold bigoted attitudes with an opportunity to gain more experience interacting with atheists. We have seen campaigns such as Openly Secular aiming to do just that. While I believe that encouraging atheists to "come out" without giving serious consideration to their safety and the adverse consequences they might face is unwise, I acknowledge the appeal of encouraging those for whom it is safe to do so. At the same time, it is important to realize that the contact hypothesis is a bit more complicated than this strategy might lead us to believe.

To understand the contact hypothesis, we need to consider the conditions required for it to be maximally effective. Contact alone is often not enough, and certain kinds of contact can even increase bigotry.

The contact hypothesis never claimed that contact alone would be effective. Rather, it referred to contact as a mechanism for bringing people together in the pursuit of common goals. If we apply what we have learned from the research to the subject of anti-atheist bigotry, we'd likely predict that contact is going to be most effective when the atheists who disclose their atheism are perceived by the bigoted religious believers as working toward mutually desirable goals.

It is not going to do much good for the religious believer to encounter an atheist working to abolish the believer's religion. This will likely be perceived as an attack and fuel the us vs. them dynamic that already exists. On the other hand, it might do some good for the religious believer to encounter an atheist working on something they have in common (e.g., improving education, electing a political candidate they both like). There is some reason to believe that encounters with atheists who are perceived as working against a religious believer's goals may increase bigotry rather than reduce it. This should not be surprising.

Another factor contributing we must understand is that of negative stereotypes. Many religious believers hold negative stereotypes of atheists. If a religious believer encounters an atheist who behaves in a manner that is inconsistent with these negative stereotypes, there is a good chance that bigotry will be reduced. On the other hand, bigotry may be increased when a religious believer encounters an atheist who confirms his or her negative stereotypes. Again, I do not imagine this will surprise anyone, but it is something we ought to remember.

To accomplish a meaningful reduction in anti-atheist bigotry through increased contact, then, we need to do more than indiscriminately encourage atheists to be more open in disclosing their atheism. In fact, we might need to emphasize that disclosing one's atheism is only the beginning. To maximize the positive impact of contact and avoid the potential negative impact, it will be important to engage with religious believers around common goals and be careful not to confirm the negative stereotypes many religious believers have of atheists.

To be clear, I am not telling you that you must do any of this. I would never blindly encourage an atheist to come out without knowing anything about that person's circumstances. What I am saying is that if you hope to reduce anti-atheist bigotry, it is important to recognize that disclosing your atheism is unlikely to be sufficient. You'll also want to pay more attention to how you are interacting with the people whose minds you are trying to change.
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