October 16, 2018

Changing Public Attitudes Toward Atheists

reading the newspaper
Conservative Skeptic recently noted that atheists in the U.S. "are still not large enough to be of any real consequence within society." I think he's right, especially if we focus on atheists' political influence. Not only are there not enough of us to be terribly relevant in elections, but voter turnout among atheists is far lower than it is among evangelical fundamentalist Christians. We could organize like they do, but we refuse to do so. And so, I think it is fair to say that among the many challenges facing atheists in the U.S. who think we should have greater political influence, how best to encourage other atheists to vote is an important one.

As important a goal as increasing turnout among secular voters may be, we also need to acknowledge that public attitudes toward atheists are still extremely negative in the U.S. One implication of this is that even appearing to be tolerant or accepting of atheists can be a liability for politicians in some regions of the country. Someone running for office in Mississippi, for example, probably cannot afford to look as though he or she is even willing to be civil to atheists. Perhaps improving public attitudes toward atheists is as important a goal as increasing voter turnout.

Conservative Skeptic highlights the role of the news media. This makes sense because what we encounter from our news media both reflects and shapes public attitudes toward atheists. It is true that most of the press atheists receive is negative, although I believe we have made some progress here. I have seen stories that reported on positive things atheists were doing without demonizing them. Unfortunately, this sort of fact-based reporting does seem to be less common than the anti-atheist hit pieces we have all seen. This is an area where it is difficult to think that an individual atheist can make much difference, but it may be one where local, regional, or national secular groups could play a role.

Besides the news media, another point Conservative Skeptic makes has to do with increasing the exposure of individual Christians to atheists. How many Christians know atheists? How many realize that some of their friends, family members, co-workers, or other acquaintances are atheists? Maybe it would be helpful if more of us who could afford to "come out" would do so. I'm not suggesting we need to go around broadcasting our atheism. If we don't like it when Christians do this, it makes sense that we would be reluctant to do the same. But I suspect we have all been in situations where we could have easily disclosed it and did not do so. Perhaps October 19, which happens to be Openly Secular Day, will provide some with an excuse to give this some thought.

Changing public attitudes toward atheists will not happen overnight. It is going to be slow-going, require effort, and may even require some risk-taking. But it can be done. We have already made some progress toward normalizing atheism, and we can make more.