According to a Gallup Poll, 49% of Americans would not vote for a president who was an atheist. Apparently, atheists are so often thought of as arrogant, cold and immoral. What can atheists do to improve their image?
How Do We Look?
Good question. That's a big problem with atheism in the public eye. Well, let me backtrack for a minute, and then I'll get to what I think are some good steps to take.
Let's not kid ourselves, folks. Some atheists really are arrogant and/or cold and/or immoral. Just like some Christians, or some of any other group. It's important for us to always remember this, else we may fall prey to speaking in defense of any given atheist only because he/she is an atheist, and not because they're right. Madalyn Murray O'Hair was a wonderful woman with admirable goals and the courage and stamina to go out and fight for them. But in a lot of ways she was lousy public relations.
That's what we're really talking about here. Public relations. Atheists need it, they need it done well and they need it done all over the place. This site was actually my response to that realization. Atheism is oftentimes a negative thing. But that doesn't mean that atheists have to be, and it's important to remind everyone (theist and non) of that fact.
I carry a briefcase that reads "Friendly Atheist" (sadly no longer available through my CafePress store because they quit carrying briefcases). I get looks, sometimes. I get compliments from people who surprise me. And sometimes I get questions. I use my briefcase the way I use my site: as an opportunity to show people a positive and smiling face to atheism. An atheist who is not cold or arrogant, but instead friendly and willing to let everyone go their own way, so long as people are willing to allow me that.
Now, the nation's atheists could pool all their money and launch a coast-to-coast barrage of publicity showing happy, friendly, family and USA-loving atheists. Well, in a dream world we could. But even if it were possible, it probably wouldn't do much good. Do believe the church is there to help you because of their advertising? No. If you believe anything good about churchgoers it's because of the good ones you've met personally. (And if you believe nothing good, the cause is likely similar.)
So it is my belief that it is every atheist's responsibility to set a good example. This doesn't mean that we are to lose our spines and play "good little houseboys/girls." It means that we shouldn't attack people for having different beliefs. Try to hold the sign with the slogan that advances your ideas without slamming everyone who disagrees with you. Show that you have the tolerance to allow viewpoints that are different from your own, so long as those that hold it aren't trying to remove your right to believe differently.
If someone's up in your face and making life difficult, by all means respond. But it's never bad to look like the bigger person. If they're cussing you out, try to respond using only calm and rational language. It may end up looking like the other guy's a raving lunatic, while you're a reasonable human being just trying to hold a rational dialogue. You know you won't win an argument with a theist that irrational, but you may win the good opinions of the people watching.
Each and every one of us is doing PR for atheism in front of every person who knows our beliefs. We may not want to, maybe we shouldn't have to, but we are. It's up to us whether it's good or bad PR. It's just something to think about next time you're deciding whether to hold the "Keep Your Idiot Religion Out of My Life" sign or the "Keep America Free For Everyone" sign.
I have just chosen to be an athiest becuase there is no way that god exists, I think that science is the key to creation! Can you tell me what the rules and guidelines for athiestism? And give me some pointers? Thank you.
First, it's called atheism. And it's spelled a-t-h-e-i-s-m. If you're going to call yourself something, the first rule is to spell it correctly. *grin* I'm mostly just joking with you, but you do want to watch that one.
There are no rules and guidelines to atheism. That's one of the biggest misconceptions that people have. Atheism is not a religion, with its dogmas and commandments. Atheism is, purely and simply, the lack of belief in god(s). In most cases this is accompanied by a belief in naturalism (that all things which occur happen because of natural processes, and not because of supernatural influences). This is not a requirement, though, merely the average.
If you do not believe in god, you are an atheist. Congratulations, you've passed our rigorous screening process. *grin* You now have no further obligations, other than (in my opinion) to be a decent human being. If you decide that the moral systems handed down by religions are insufficient, you will need to develop your own. I suggest doing a lot of reading on ethics, morals and societal functioning.
You may wish to become active politically. The favorite cause for politically active atheists is separation of church and state. This can take forms as diverse as the wording of the pledge and the fight for gay marriage rights. Again, you are not obligated to support these things, or even to believe that they are right. I merely mention them as popular causes (and ones that I, personally, support).
Christians (and other believers) sometimes say that the atheist's life is empty, and that an atheist has no purpose. So my last bit of advice is, if you begin to feel that way, find a purpose and embrace it. Your purpose can be pretty much anything that drives you. I suggest things that leave the world a better place than you found it, if only because it promotes the warm fuzzies.
I hope you enjoy your newfound atheism. If you want to get to know a few more atheists on a personal level, you might try Meetup. They're sure to have atheist (or other non-theistic) meetings in your area. Otherwise my sole advice is to read, learn and grow in any way you can. It can only make you a better person.
I have spent this entire morning at your wonderful web-site. You are as refreshing as you are erudite. I scanned through your shopping page hoping to see something that said "MORAL ATHEIST" - anything. If you make - I buy. I have you bookmarked. This particular email address I'm using today will be gone Thursday - I'm retiring. I will contact you again when established at my final home - In lovely Oregon.
I can't believe I am in so much agreement with you and your feelings. I have known and communicated with Scott Blair for this past two years - He is my idol; but you bring a more positive, loving side to Atheism.
Thank you for all the kind words. It's always refreshing to find people who feel the same way we do, as much for me as for you. It keeps me from wondering if I'm doing all of this just to kill time, or if there are actually people out there who care. So thank you.
In a more practical way to show my thanks, I've met your request. A new section has been added to my Shopping section: Moral Atheist gear. There are shirts, sweatshirts, mugs, clocks, stuffed animals, household goods, stickers, bags and more. Hopefully you'll find something there that you like. If not, feel free to drop me another line and I'll get to work on something new.
Again, thanks, and please enjoy. Oh, and congratulations on retiring! I hope that Oregan is everything you've hoped for.
I love your site and I have enjoyed reading your essays immensely. I am starting as a graduate student at Stanford, and one of the reasons I really enjoy being in an academic setting is that the vast majority of people seem to rather fervently share my political and (lack of) religious beliefs. The concentration of liberally-minded and agnostic/atheist individuals seems disproportionately high in academia. Have you noticed this? Why do you think that it is? Do academic settings foster freethinking, and are freethinkers more likely to come to atheistic conclusions? Do you know of any correlation between intelligence and atheism? (This is not to suggest that people in academia are universally smarter than the rest of the world! Academic settings tend to attract people of higher intelligence, but there are plenty of brilliant people outside of academia.)
I would be curious to know your thoughts on this. Thanks so much! Keep up the wonderful work!
First of all, thanks. I appreciate the kind words.
Secondly, you may or may not know that I actually work at a university here in Oklahoma. And even here in the Bible Belt I've noticed a lot of very relaxed attitudes towards religion, agnostics, and even some strongly atheist professors. I would say (without having actually taken a poll or anything) that, at least in my part of the university, the nonbelievers or apatheists outnumber the theists.
Why is that? Well, there are a lot of possible reasons. One is that, as a friend of mine (not an atheist) pointed out, it takes a certain amount of intelligence to push beyond the boundaries of religion and see what else is there. That questioning attitude is very welcome at most universities. Also, the job of a scholar (which professors are, at least theortically) is to question and to discover. Those attitudes go very well with nontheism.
But you don't have to take my word on it. I've dug up some links that will probably be of interest to you. There's a Newhouse News Service article about atheism in college, as well as a link to the Center for Inquiry on Campus, formerly known as the Campus Freethought Alliance. More specifically, there is an American Atheists article about a survey on American religious identification.
I've also found a few other articles on the subject of atheism and intelligence. Remember, I don't necessarily vouch for all the authors, but they seemed worth a look. We have Intelligence and Religious Beliefs – Statistics, an article on atheism that discusses intelligence, and a page that lists various excerpts from articles on the subject. Just for fun, check out the Characteristics of a Chess Genius, which mentions that most strong chess players are atheists.