What Kind of People Are Atheists?
The stereotypes, rumors, and prejudices regarding nonbelievers
A lot of people have a lot of beliefs about atheists in general. Since the ONLY thing all atheists have in common is a lack of belief in gods, those beliefs are necessarily wrong. This post is about the public perception of atheism, some common stereotypes, where they might come from, and how they’re all wrong.
As a believer in careful and accurate speech, I think it’s important to be technically correct in statements. One could say a few things about groups of people and be accurate. For example, Christians believe Jesus was the son of God, Muslims believe the Quran is divine, and people who post their fitness routine to Facebook are more likely to have psychological problems.
stereotype: something conforming to a fixed or general pattern especially : a standardized mental picture that is held in common by members of a group and that represents an oversimplified opinion, prejudiced attitude, or uncritical judgment
If you’re a male, sight unseen, an atheist is most likely to be imagined as a real life version of Jeff Albertson, the Comic Book guy from the Simpsons with a voice to match, courtesy of Hank Azaria. Your heavily receded hairline may or may not be covered with a fedora.
Despite this gem, the website this came from has changed hands and is now a vanilla lifestyle blog.
Up to no good! Since many religious folk actually believe morality comes from the [insert holy book name], they believe the absence of their faith leads to immoral behavior. I feel there’s plenty about this to justify a separate post, so I’ll keep it short for now.
Another way to frame this: If you’re religion is the only thing keeping you from raping and murdering, please don’t ever leave it! The decision to act morally does not require religion. In a hashtag, #GoodWithoutGod #AwesomeWithoutAllah
Frankly, I don’t know the exact origin of this rumor, but it’s a little bit hilarious. Atheists are believed to partake in the most tender of vittles: baby!
It’s hard to imagine that anyone actually believes this is real, but there are certainly less plausible things that have been believed in the name of religion. According to Christianity.com, early Christians were also accused of this. Their quote from Caecilius The Pagan (late 2nd century AD):
“You Christians are the worst breed ever to affect the world. You deserve every punishment you can get! Nobody likes you. It would be better if you and your Jesus had never been born. We hear that you are all cannibals–you eat the flesh of your children in your sacred meetings.”
Our Big Brains:
Not all stereotypes are negative, but they’re still stereotypes. A human doesn’t need PhDs in astrophysics, genetics, or neuroscience to dismiss the idea of a god. That said, if you have one of those, you’re significantly less likely to believe fantastic tales of a boat with 2 of every species on it or a talking snake or a winged horse. Understanding concepts that are contradictory with religious claims is just one reason a person would reject the proposed existence of a god. There are, in fact, studies suggesting a reverse correlation between religion and intelligence measured as IQ, but mentioning this would be a poor argument and bad form to say the least.
Given that we know that atheists are often among the most intelligent and scientifically literate people in any society, it seems important to deflate the myths that prevent them from playing a larger role in our national discourse.
Great point, Sam! Perhaps we should be more concerned about being marginalized than about coming off as pretentious elitists. Maybe we can balance these things a bit.
In actuality, as atheism is simply the lack of belief in gods, there is no intelligence requirement. A mushroom is atheist.
Since the lack of belief is the default position, at the very least until an idea is presented, it can be assumed we are born atheist. That said, I’d be surprised if you can locate a devoutly religious individual to concede this point. You’ll likely get some nonsense regarding a preexisting belief “in the heart” that we’re born with.
If there was, I would have tasted it by now!
Prejudice about atheists:
Right or wrong (it’s definitely wrong), people don’t trust atheists.
The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.” They are corrupt, their deeds are vile; there is no one who does good. (Psalms 14:1)
A few lines later, it starts calling us cannibals, but I don’t know if this is the origin story of our insalubrious cravings. Conversely, Christianity in the United States has done very well with their branding. People will throw out their Christianity (with or without the word “good” in front) and expect it to provide confidence in their honesty.
“I wouldn’t lie about such a thing, ma’am, I was raised Christian.” is probably as effective as an endorsement of a trusted friend.
Let’s check in with some quotes from Islam’s Quran to see if maybe they’re a bit more fair with the non-believer:
Quran (2:191-193) – “And kill them wherever you find them, and turn them out from where they have turned you out. And Al-Fitnah [disbelief or unrest] is worse than killing… but if they desist, then lo! Allah is forgiving and merciful. And fight them until there is no more Fitnah [disbelief and worshipping of others along with Allah] and worship is for Allah alone. But if they cease, let there be no transgression except against Az-Zalimun(the polytheists, and wrong-doers, etc.)”
Well that escalated quickly! Doesn’t seem like they hold a much more favorable view. In fact, it says clearly and repeatedly to kill non-believers (that won’t convert). Though numerous, if you bring them up to an Islam apologist, you will most likely hear the phrase “out of context,” though it seems hard to imagine a case in which a benevolent creator of a “Religion of Peace” would say such things. In fact, there’s an alternative explanation (excuse) for every unfriendly sounding phrase in the book. The apologists dismiss the Muslims who take these verses at face value, calling them misguided fundamentalists. Does it really matter who’s right if you’re on your knees with a sword on your neck? Islam has certainly earned its own post, which I will link to here when I get there.
So Who’s Right?
Just in case you’ve already forgotten, it’s no one. As I will continue to repeat ad nauseam, Atheism is simply the lack of belief in god(s). A lack of belief in something doesn’t go along with an appearance, an ideology, a reason for murder, or even a particular smell (unless you count absence of bullshit a smell). Atheists believe what they believe because of what they were born with combined with their life experiences, just like everyone else. Atheists have the burden and blessing of personal responsibility. They have no book or group to blame if they’re being nasty, bigoted, hypocritical, or otherwise jerk-like. They also get the credit when they’re charitable, kind, and loving. The mere fact they sometimes are is proof we can all be good without god.