Myth #1. Atheists are only depicted negatively on television because they focus on being controversial instead of doing good works
Some people have this image of atheists sitting around designing ugly, snarky billboards and coming up with ways to stir up trouble. While we certainly use aesthetically problematic billboards to raise awareness, the vast majority of our activities have far more to do with civil liberties than controversy. By far the biggest issue of concern is our insistence that the constitutional separation of Church and State be observed. This is not controversial and has been upheld at every level of the judicial system over the past two decades. Instead, there is a fake controversy built around this for other reasons (which I will get to later). It’s much like the alleged global climate change “controversy.” No scientific body of national or international standing maintains a dissenting opinion on manmade global warming, and 98% of climate scientists believe humans are causing global warming. It’s done – it’s decided – the jury is no longer out. Yet somehow this is still portrayed in the media as a “controversy.” Are we supposed to give up on fighting constitutional violations just because of this false controversy?
Furthermore, I would disagree completely that atheists are generally depicted negatively on television. While there was a time when this was true, the modern atheist has many positive atheist television characters:
- Temperance Brennan and Jack Hodgins from Bones
- Perry Cox from Scrubs
- Gregory House from House
- Kurt Hummel (and possibly Sue Sylvester and Finn Hudson) from Glee
- Britta Perry and Jeff Winger from Community
- Cristina Yang from Grey’s Anatomy
- …countless other nonreligious and skeptical characters, such as Lily from How I Met Your Mother
Regarding news media, it would certainly be nice to see more coverage of the good deeds and volunteer work of atheists. But the situation is much better than it once was. You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who didn’t recognize the name of the largest private charity in the world, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which operates on an endowment from two of the richest atheists in the world: Bill Gates and Warren Buffett. Stephen Colbert has featured positive coverage (in his own way) of atheists in his “Better Know a Lobby” features, allowing one representative of the Secular Coalition for America to swear herself in on a copy of “Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle.” CNN has (perhaps unintentionally) portrayed atheism in a positive light on several occasions.
In fact, while I want to make sure nobody lets up any time soon, I would go so far as to say we’ve been doing a great job building awareness through our control over the liberal media elite. High-fives for everyone at the next New World Order meeting!
Myth #2. Atheists should stop “playing the victim” when they are mostly rich white men
First off, it’s true that as income levels rise religiosity declines. It’s also true that there’s a statistically significant correlation between atheism and IQ as well as atheism and education level, even when adjusting for factors such as race and sex. As far as I know, the causal link hasn’t been found yet. It could be that becoming rich makes you less religious, or less religious people are more likely to become rich, or less religious people tend to have more education which helps them become rich, etc. Regardless of the reasons, it’s true that atheists tend to be richer – no dispute.
It’s accurate that the largest group of “out” atheists in the U.S. are Whites, followed by Asians. African Americans are currently the most religious racial group in the United States. The situation is best summed up by the Black Atheists of America is that “religion is so deeply ingrained in the black community, black atheists often find themselves as a dual minority…” That is, there is a well-documented lack of support structure for Black atheists, very similar to that faced by Black homosexuals. This sentiment is echoed by the African Americans for Humanism. The same can be said of Hispanics, the 2nd-most religious racial group. It is likely that many more would “come out” if the acceptance of their friends and families was certain. Finding and supporting minority atheists is important – no dispute.
Regarding sex, the trend is that the more atheists exist in a country the lower the sex gap. In countries like Japan, Norway, Denmark, and Sweden the male-female ratio is far closer to 1:1. In the United States, atheist men outnumber atheist women almost 2:1. A 2002 Gallup study also found that women consistently rate religion as more important than men. I won’t speculate about the reasons. Finding and supporting female atheists is important – no dispute.
Having said all that, these things have very little bearing on whether or not atheists can be victimized. If a white man is murdered, should we drop the case and say “well, he was white and male so he probably had it pretty good”? There are countless examples of atheists being kicked out of school, losing jobs, receiving death threats, being physically assaulted, and even being killed because of their non-belief. Should we just ignore this because of the inevitable victim-blaming that will follow? NO! Litigation, criminal charges, and lobbying have been cornerstone strategies of the Civil Rights, Feminist, and LGBT Rights movements. We cannot overcome the inertia of widespread discrimination by sitting back and waiting for positive press to change everyone’s minds; change will NEVER happen that way. There needs to be further efforts to codify in the law the constitutional separation of Church and State, as well as raised awareness of the punitive measures that await violators. Will it ruffle some feathers in the short-term? YEP. Will it work in the long-term? YEP.
Myth #3. Atheists are too arrogant and Richard Dawkins is a pompous asshole
There is a persistent myth that the general unpleasantness and arrogance of atheists keeps us from finding new members and garnering public support. This is also tied into the “angry atheist” stereotype. We are sometimes characterized as arrogant people who “just want to be their own God.” The latter part of this sentiment is correct – we DO want to live our lives without the prejudice and dogma associated with world religions. We want to decide morality for ourselves instead of listening to a pastor or pope. In that sense, we do want to “be our own god.” But that doesn’t mean we worship ourselves.
There are literally hundreds of prominent atheists who are very low-key, non-confrontational, and generally humble. Here’s a quick list of some of the most well-known of these charming, witty, fun, vibrant, life-loving, ATHEIST people:
- Lance Armstrong
- Noam Chomsky
- Jodie Foster
- Kathy Griffin
- Steven Pinker
- Brad Pitt
- Terry Pratchett
- Daniel Radcliffe
- Sarah Silverman
- Neil deGrasse Tyson
There is even the well-known “Friendly Atheist,” Hemant Mehta, who has appeared on many major television and newspaper outlets being soft-spoken and kindly compelling.
A related very common criticism of the public image of atheists is that our apparent leader is a pompous asshole. I would estimate 90% of this perception is the simple fact that he’s an atheist and he exists and that is offensive to many religious people (more on that later). Some of the remainder is due to conspiracy theories, misquotes, and disinformation. For instance, some right-wing nuts have popularized the theory that Dr. Dawkins wants to take children from religious people and raise them in government atheist camps (where The Magic of Reality is required reading). To support this, they point to the following quote from the Times of India:
“We need to protect children from being indoctrinated. It goes on to the next generation and then they see that their children get indoctrinated. Children are getting educated into the religion of their parents… If children are taught, however moderately, that faith is a virtue, they are taught that they don’t need evidence to believe something; that they can believe something just because it’s their faith, then that paves the way for the minority to become extremists. If children are taught that they don’t need to defend their beliefs with evidence, then that does pave the way for extremism.”
Of course, everyone omits the remainder of the quote, which reads:
“There seems to be a correlation with education. It’s certainly true within the US – the more educated people are more likely to give up religion. I’m sure that’s true in India as well.”
In fact, the entire discussion at this point centered around the inarguably valid assertions that the education infrastructure should be improved in India and throughout the world and that a natural byproduct of improved education is skepticism. Dr. Dawkins has never EVER said we should take children from their parents to avoid indoctrination – only that better education will prepare children to eventually reject arguments from ignorance. This is just one of many misquotes (probably most of which are deliberate) that is used by detractors to attack Dr. Dawkins and atheism as a whole.
Has Dr. Dawkins made some mistakes? Absolutely. But I think it’s important to keep perspective. Is he really worthy of our hatred? Bear in mind, this is a man who is vocally fighting for women’s rights, marriage equality, better education, decreased military budget, and many other causes with which most liberal Americans (atheist or not) agree. If you want to see what a REAL pompous asshole looks like, I suggest you look at some of the well-recognized faces of Christianity. Jerry Falwell thought he could predict the future. Pat Robertson one-ups him with thinking he can literally heal people with his hands as well as another long list of future predictions. Fred Phelps takes the asshole cake with his interpretation of every death and disaster as evidence of God’s wrath. These are not just cherry-picked examples, there are loads more. Billy Graham. Leroy Jenkins. Tammy Faye Messner. Pope Benedict XVI. When someone represents Christianity it’s almost guaranteed that he is a self-entitled asshole who thinks God is working through him.
In short, although you may find Dr. Dawkins abrasive, he is a much better spokesperson than those of other ideologies (which apparently don’t have a publicity problem). That is if you ignore his British accent.
The Real Problem
So if these three problems are mythical, why do atheists get so much negative press? What can we do to stop this? The answer is: nothing. There is absolutely nothing we can to do convince conservative media to portray us in a positive light. The very idea that we exist is too dangerous to them. A recent study found that 2,200 evangelical leaders rated “Influence of secularism” the biggest threat to Evangelical Christianity. We are hitting religious conservatives where it hurts and they cannot afford to ever give us any positive press.
In summary, we need to keep doing what we’re doing. Constant pressure through litigation is making it too expensive to discriminate. Our numbers are increasing. Atheist awareness is increasing. Public attitudes towards atheists are improving. Basically, guys, keep fighting the good fight.