September 17, 2018

Educating the Public About Atheism

education letters
Atheists in the United States who are tired of being viewed as second-class citizens (or worse) can learn a great deal from other social movements that have helped to reduce bigotry and encourage equitable treatment. Civil rights, women's suffrage, and gay rights all have valuable lessons to offer, but it often seems to me that the LGBT community may have the most to teach us.

It seems fairly obvious that most of the worst bigotry faced by LGBT persons comes about thanks in large part to fundamentalist Christianity. The same can be said for anti-atheist bigotry. There's also the issue of visibility. Just as many Americans used to claim to have never known a homosexual person, many still claim to have never encountered an atheist. They may acknowledge the existence of atheists in some distant "blue state" but not in the part of "real America" they inhabit. And yet, we are there. Like many in the LGBT community, many of us try to conceal this part of our identity because we fear the consequences of revealing it.

One lesson would seem to be that increasing our visibility is likely to be helpful. Increasing numbers of atheists are "coming out," and this will almost certainly lead to less bigotry. Compared with the LGBT community, we have made little progress in media coverage. I remember a time when one rarely heard anything about the LGBT community in the media and how the little coverage there was seemed to always be negative. This seems to be where atheists are currently. How many stories on "the new atheism" have you encountered that don't go out of their way to criticize us as overly aggressive or insufficiently respectful to faith?

In a post from 2007 that is no longer available, Austin Cline wrote about how Christian extremists' worst nightmare is that atheists start to be "perceived as normal, acceptable, unobjectionable, or even positive." He was right then, and he is still right now.
As was the case with gays, consistently negative media messages are necessary for them to maintain the illusion that religion is necessary for morality, order, and democracy. If atheists come to be perceived as normal, then atheism itself will be difficult to paint as immoral.
When stories about atheists appear in the news media, I imagine Christian extremists cringing if we are not depicted in negative ways. There still aren't nearly enough of these stories, but those that are out there help to normalize us in the eyes of the average American and put us in a position of being able to interact with others non-defensively, challenging the stereotype of the angry atheist. Educating the public about atheism is likely to be an effective approach for reducing anti-atheist bigotry.

An early version of this post appeared on Atheist Revolution in 2007. It was re-written and expanded for this post.