April 29, 2020

Will Atheism Always Prompt Hate and Bigotry?

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I'm write an atheist blog, and read an atheist blog. At least, you are reading one if you are reading these words. I suspect that means that both of us have at least a passing interest in atheism and related topics (e.g., the separation of church and state, criticism of religion, humanism, freethought, skepticism). If you are anything like me, you find that your interest in atheism waxes and wanes and that it is often how others respond to it that makes it relevant when it might not otherwise be.

For me, one of the most fascinating (and frustrating) things about atheism has always been the strong reactions it seems to elicit from others. I was once able to understand this in a particular context. Having grown up during the latter portion of the Cold War era when Soviet-style Communism was considered an existential and military threat, I was used to atheism being linked to Communism in people's minds. Anything associated with Communism was pure evil, and so the negative reactions to atheism were hardly surprising in that context. And yet, this doesn't begin to explain why many people, including those much too young to have the historical context I've described, still hold these attitudes.

It wasn't long ago that I heard someone much younger than me disparaging both Christian fundamentalism and atheism as examples of what he regarded as extreme points on a continuum. He was attempting to explain to someone that he found the entire religious spectrum interesting, and his way of describing it referenced what we'd call Christian extremism as one end of the continuum and atheism as the other. It caught me so off-guard that I found myself at a loss for words. How is there anything extreme about atheism? If atheism deserves to be on the opposite end from Christian extremism on a continuum, then the continuum must be reason or something similar.

Of course, that was not how he framed it. For him, moderate Christianity was the only sensible position, and the crazy was found at either pole of the continuum. On one side, you have fundamentalist Christians seeking to impose their brand of theocracy on everybody else. On the other side, you have atheists seeking to (gasp) suggest that gods might not exist. He saw these as functionally equivalent in their level of craziness.

No matter how used to this sort of thing I should be by now, I still don't seem to expect anti-atheist bigotry nearly as much as I should. I'll tell you I do. I'll tell you that I see it everywhere, and that is true. And yet, it takes me back almost every time I encounter. I know the metaphor is overused, but blatant expressions of anti-atheist bigotry often feel like a punch to the gut, something just enough to take my breath away.

I think the main reason it feels this way is that almost every other form of bigotry I encounter is subtler and met with at least some social disapproval. Even when one of the more sexist men I know makes a sexist comment in the absence of women, at least a couple of us will almost always express disapproval. And he'll back down even though he probably believes at least some of what he says. Nothing like this happens when it comes to anti-atheist bigotry. At least, I've never experienced it. On the occasions where it was too much for me and I expressed disapproval, I was ostracized quickly and in lasting ways. This has ranged from people telling me they could no longer trust me because people who don't believe in gods are not trustworthy to people simply ignoring me.

It is clear to me that atheism still carries plenty of baggage even though it is somewhat different baggage than it used to be. The associations with Communism are still there but nowhere near as compelling as they once were. On the other hand, it seems that many forms of Christianity are continuing to teach that atheists are evil, immoral, untrustworthy, and worse. I think I see more of this because the evangelical fundamentalist Christianity which surrounds me is especially committed to this sort of bigotry. It seems visceral, so much so that I have actually seen and heard people gasp upon learning that I don't believe in their preferred god. Strangely, it rarely seems to bother them that I don't believe in any of the same gods in which they don't believe!

It wouldn't surprise me that there are some positive signs somewhere that suggest that this is changing for the better. There are bound to be large-scale surveys showing that attitudes toward atheists are not quite as negative as they used to be. I try to remember that because I can't say that I've seen much evidence of that in my day-to-day life. The most positive thing I've encountered would probably be that it seems somewhat more common to hear people express disagreement with religious extremism than it used to be. That's not enough, but it is something.