Atheists are not popular. This comes as no surprise to us or anyone, really. As far as I can tell we are dead last in every poll in which we are included and explicit terrorists, Nazis, and the Westboro Baptist Church are not.
I suppose the cultural assumption that ‘you need God to be good’ should be explanation enough for our banishment from the realm of the acceptable (Would you want your sister to marry one? Would you want to be one? Nuh uh.) But I keep running into a common plea that no, the problem is not really atheism. Atheism isn’t necessarily okay, of course … but after all it’s a free country and people have the right to believe what they want to believe. It takes all kinds. Just be nice and you’re okay.
No, the problem isn’t atheism itself – it’s atheists. But not all atheists. The tolerant believers discern critical distinctions in the group. There are Good Atheists who don’t manage to believe in God themselves but who still manage to show the courtesy to respect those who do. And then there are the ones like Richard Dawkins . The outspoken ones, the militant ones, the shrill ones who won’t shut up and try to blend in and instead write books and articles and letters meant for the general public. The stigma is focused like a laser on the atheists who act ‘just like fundamentalists’ by trying to convert people and thereby change their minds. The arrogant. The not-nice.
It’s an insidious trope which appeals to values like respect, acceptance, and inclusion: why would anyone be so rude as to try to get other people to not believe in God? What about diversity? Diversity is good. We ought to let people be who they are.
Outspoken atheists then are disparaged even by those who claim to be “fine” with atheism because we are seen as breaking the social contract which values diversity and individuality. Atheists attack people’s deepest identity the way racists attack race or bullies attack those who are different than them. When you get right down to it — they’re bigots. Telling people their religion is wrong is being judgmental.
This is apparently a major charge made against us. I feel as if I see and read and encounter variations of it all around. I suspect most of us do. It’s a theme which seems to run more often through liberal communities than the conservative ones (which are usually just fine with the assumption that you can’t be good without God) but many of us live in such communities and engage regularly with those who seem so frustratingly on the edge of rationality.
So I’ve been attempting to figure out exactly what is happening and why, working it out mostly here and there in parts and pieces. Since PZ gave me the keys while he’s away, though, I’ll take advantage and will to try to expand a bit, to see whether people in this forum think it makes sense. Because I think that, once again, theists are making a category error when it comes to religion. And they’re getting a lot of non-theists to go along with them because they are appealing to values which are essentially not religious, but humanist.
Bottom line, there is a sort of equivocation going on with the concept of “diversity” – and it’s helping to fuel the general antipathy towards atheists.
Consider it this way: it might be said that there are two basic frameworks in which we value ‘diversity’ as a modern virtue. One of them is what I call the Diversity Smorgasbord. The other is what we can call the Diverse Problem-Solving Group.