Friday, May 16, 2014

Atheist not anathema

This piece was written by Notre Dame freshman Dan DeToro and originally published as an article in Common Sense on April 23, 2014.

Before you lock your doors, know that atheists come in peace.

People assume that because atheists do not follow ancient holy texts, they must have no moral compass and therefore will perform evil and heinous actions, seeing as they have no eternal reward to look forward to or conversely, no eternal damnation to fear.

This misunderstanding is showcased in a joint University of British Columbia and University of Oregon study that illustrated the incredible prejudice and distrust towards atheists. In the study a man hits a parked van, doesn’t leave insurance information, and then proceeds to take all the money out of a wallet he finds on the sidewalk. Subjects estimated the likelihood that this man was an atheist significantly higher than the likelihood that he was a Christian or a Muslim. Even more disturbingly, subjects considered the likelihood the man was an atheist quite close to the likelihood the man was a rapist.

People’s levels of prejudice towards atheists are about as high as towards rapists, unquestionably the scum of society. Why?

The answer is essentially that Americans distrust atheists because Americans don’t know many atheists. Atheists remain a relatively small portion of the population, around 12 percent, and how many of them are open about their disbelief? When people equate a disbelief in God with sexual assault, there is little incentive to be open about this fundamental part of who you are.

America remains a highly religious country, in contrast to other industrial nations which have seen religious affiliation and beliefs decline at much sharper rates. This could be due to the absence of atheist, or even non-affiliated, politicians; the 113th Congress is the first to include a Representative who does not affiliate with any religion. This is not surprising considering that a 2012 Gallup poll found Americans object to voting for an atheist more than a member of any other religious group.

The statistician Nate Silver noted in a TED Talk that the people who objected to Barack Obama mainly because of his race were the more likely than the average voter to lack any black neighbors. If people insulate themselves from ideas and experiences that confront their worldview, the result is misunderstanding and distrust that in turn breeds prejudice and hate.

It does not help that atheists are overwhelmingly Democrats, while Republicans tend to be more religious than the average American. The result is that the current political climate of extreme polarization extends into the religious sphere and vice versa. There is, however, a solution to these problems: open dialogue. Theists and atheists, Democrats and Republicans, should stop antagonizing each other with ad hominem attacks and irrational accusations.

Atheists are not bad people. Some are, but so are some Christians, some Muslims, some Jews, some Buddhists, etc. Every group has bad apples. Membership is not an end-all, be-all definition. Labels do not capture the whole of the human self. Having faith does not make you a good person, and not having faith does not make you a bad person.

It is what we do that defines us. Our actions and their consequences provide the narrative against which we can judge ourselves and which others can judge us. It matters not how many times a year we attend church, if we fail to help the members of our community.

Being good is about furthering the wellbeing of the people you love and the people you don’t. Being good is about not engaging in prejudice and stereotyping, but fostering understanding and promoting harmony. People will always disagree about ideas. Faith, or lack thereof, is no reason to hate or insult someone.

Do not judge atheists because they don’t believe in God. Instead, see them for who they are. Investigate their characters, and you will probably find thoughtful, intelligent, compassionate people who have a deep respect for life and nature.

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