Tuesday, April 04, 2006

How About "Falsehead"?
I opened my e-mail today and found this link from a friend, with the message: "Wow, Americans hate you worse than queers and ragheads." (Nice way to start the morning, yes?) The link goes to a post at The Volokh Conspiracy about a University of Minnesota study suggesting that public hostility toward atheists is higher than hostility directed toward any other religious group.

Yawn. I've seen studies like these before. I've read similar statistics about the number of Americans who wouldn't want their children to marry an atheist. (More than those who wouldn't want their children to marry a Muslim, for example.) Yawn. This study says more about the people who responded to it than it does about the atheists who are singled out by it--but more about that anon.

The Volokh Conspiracy tends right, so I couldn't read too far into the comments before my brain started to hurt from pseudo-intellectual winger moralizing. Many of the commenters view the study as vindication of their prejudice, and they play Coltrane-like changes on the theme that atheists are bad because they don't believe in a higher law. Example:
The athiest is fundamentally unpredictable, he might be a reasonable decent young man one moment, but then the bases by which he calculates may change, an opportunity worth taking may arise and he would do it. If, for example, adultery is not objectively wrong by some higher standard than how can we ever be sure that the athiest would follow a convention as such if he knew he could never be caught. We can't.
(For all this guy's supposed expertise, he can't seem to spell "atheist" correctly, but I digress.) Yup, we're all driven solely by our own needs and desires, and we live solely to maximize our personal advantage, like animals in the jungle, and we'll stomp our mothers (or step out on our spouses) if we need to, in order to accomplish our goals. Which should make us easy to spot, right? We'd be the ones stealing Hershey bars at the convenience store, pushing old ladies out of our way at bus stops, and laundering money through our Congressional offices.

And how much of that have you seen lately?

The study I'd like to see is one that asks the following: "Do you know an atheist personally?" I am convinced that many Americans--if not most Americans--believe that no one they know is an atheist. But that's almost certainly not true. As I have contended here before, the number of self-identified atheists in the United States is about 10 percent of the population. But the number of functional atheists--those Americans who don't believe in God but won't admit it publicly, and those completely secularized who do not attend a church, but who retain some fuzzy belief in a higher power or in spirituality sufficient to allow them to answer "yes" to the question "do you believe in God?"--must raise the actual number of atheists to around one-fifth of the population.

So yeah, even if you think you don't know any atheists, you probably do--although surveys like this one aren't going to help bring them out of the closet. Because, as another of the Volokh commenters observed, what this survey shows, unintentionally to be sure, is the amount of intolerance religious believers have for those who don't share their beliefs. He wonders how much intolerance for believers a survey of atheists would show.

Some, certainly. I've been accused of being intolerant of the religious. I'll cop to it up to a point, although what I'm most intolerant of is people who are made stupid by their religion. And I strongly believe that what the world, and especially the United States, needs is less religion, not more--especially less of the toxic, demonizing, categorizing variety ascendant today. Yet I also believe that we need less of the broader kind, religious belief that takes away from people their responsibility to better the lives of themselves and others here and now in favor of "saving" other people from a hell that doesn't exist.

The choice some religious believers force on us, that we must either be a religious country or an amoral one, is a false one. People who believe in a hazy god, in a fuzzy god, in a god who's a lot like Santa Claus, or in no god at all, are clearly capable of living peaceably with their neighbors--because they are your neighbors, and there's more of them than you realize.

And besides, how badly can people hate atheists if they don't have a derisive nickname for us, like "queer" or "raghead"?

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