Speaking Out Against Stereotypes

Do we need to change the public’s perception of atheists?

I really don’t fit the stereotype of atheists. I’m sensitive, and creative, and I’m actually not that great at science. I’m not highly educated – I didn’t even finish my bachelor’s degree. I’m a Midwest mom who mostly stays at home. My friends and family would probably describe me as sweet and quiet. I’m hardly what you would call “militant” – I’m always trying to avoid conflict. 

Have people ever assumed that you must be a Christian because you’re nice? Where I live being a Christian seems to automatically make you a good person. 

I’m not going to lie, when people assume I’m a Christian, sometimes I just go with it out of safety concerns. Sometimes I just don’t want things to be awkward (even though they already are for me). 

But other times, I feel like I need to speak out – especially since I don’t fit the stereotype. Sometimes I really surprise people and it can be a good thing. 

Obviously, anyone can be an atheist.

Do you fit the stereotypes put on atheists? Do you feel a need to speak out against them?


  1. Katydid says

    I’ve been thinking about this all morning. I think location and timeframe affect view of atheists. The midwest seems to be about 20 – 50 years behind the coasts in social attitudes.

    Funny story: there’s a tiny little non-fundy, middle-of-the-road denomenation church about a mile from my house. At one point there was an older, husband-wife team pastoring, and they always had a lot of events open to the community like a fall festival with apples and pumpkins and a bounce house. They also had take-out dinners cooked by the older church women. We used to go and leave a donation because they weren’t pushy and obnoxious like the mega-churches sprouting up all around. About 20 years ago, a really elderly church member told me I was such a great Christian to support their church. I laughed and said thanks, but I wasn’t Christian. She smiled and said, “You must be, in your heart.” Obviously “good = Christian” to this elderly woman.

    The woman pastor overheard all of this and we locked eyes and smiled. I mean, I wasn’t going to fight an elderly woman in the basement of the tiny church. The pastor decided that if I wasn’t Christian, I must obviously be Jewish because those are the only two options, right? So she used to greet me on Jewish holidays. LOL

    But in the couple of decades since, people younger than 80 don’t assume good = Christian.

  2. sonofrojblake says

    As ever with these sorts of posts of yours, the fact I’m posting from nominally-Christian-but-functionally-atheist England makes my perspective different. Here, I wouldn’t say there is a stereotype of an atheist. I mean – people used to know who Dawkins was, for a bit. But other than that, whether or not you have an imaginary friend simply isn’t something that comes up in conversation. If you’re brown you’ll be assumed to be Muslim, probably (even if you’re wearing a turban and a kirpan, sorry Sikhs). But if you’re white, or even Black, there’s no assumptions. Religion simply isn’t something that comes up.

    One thing you wrote here fair leapt out at me though:

    Have people ever assumed that you must be a Christian because you’re nice?

    Followed by…

    when people assume I’m a Christian, sometimes I just go with it out of safety concerns

    I feel like I could go on about that juxtaposition for a long, long time. I think a recent relevant post here is Marcus Ranum’s, wondering when people will wake up and realise they’re the Nazis : https://freethoughtblogs.com/stderr/2022/05/30/we-are-in-wtf-world/

    What you’ve written there reinforces my impression of the USA and the people in it as fundamentally different, culturally, from almost anywhere else I can think of. There’s a constant, universal, and crucially accepted undercurrent of violence to everything. Christianity is only a part of it, capitalism and conservatism being others, and I’m sure there are some that don’t begin with c too. But the idea you’d keep quiet about your atheism because you fear for your safety is, in a US context, entirely believable, and from the point of view of someone who doesn’t have to live there, entirely terrifying. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – I honestly do not understand why anyone who has a choice even visits there, much less chooses to continue living in the place. It sounds horrible.

  3. Katydid says

    @rojblake: if one is not in the Midwest or the south of the USA, religion isn’t quite the huge freakin’ deal it is in those places. In the northeast (New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Maine, Vermont, and possibly New Hampshire), people don’t concern themselves so much with another person’s religion. In the lower part of California (Sacramento on down) along the coasts, it’s not a big deal.

    To be clear; the only time it was assumed I was a Christian was because I was standing in a church at the time with 4 take-home chicken dinners sold as a fundraiser in my hand.

    HOWEVER, in the early 2000s there was a huge cultural push in the USA where teenagers were pressured to engage in a mock-wedding with their own father and in return get a silver ring that promised their father would control their sexuality. That was a super-creepy time. Pop stars like Britney Spears were flaunting their silver rings with the expectations their fans would make the same choice.

    That’s around the same time my workplace began having problems with fundagelicals openly proseltyzing in the office.

    And that’s about the time the Air Force Academy in Colorado (part of the fundagelical hellhole) started harassing the students to commit to the fundagelical lifestyle. According to FFRF and other groups, that’s still continuing. You don’t see that kind of religious bigotry at the US Naval Academy (East Coast) and West Point (New York state).

  4. StonedRanger says

    I get hit with so many stereotypes about me it makes me wonder sometimes. If someone confuses me for a christian because I am a nice person, I will tell them I am an atheist, but I will thank them for considering me a nice person. Atheism is just one teensy tiny little aspect of my life, so I dont go around espousing my atheism at anyone who will listen. I guess I am fortunate that my atheism doesnt create any safety concerns for me and even though Ive lived in the deep south, it was never an issue simply because it never came up.

    • ashes says

      That is horrifying but doesn’t surprise me at all…especially being from Ohio. I feel really bad for that graduating class.

  5. John Morales says

    I waited, so as not to derail the comments, but for mine:

    Do we need to change the public’s perception of atheists?

    In my estimation, that was done in the early days of the internet.
    Specifically, 1990-2010.
    I think it made a fundamental change in societal perception.

    Now, atheism basically in the public consciousness, and though the atheist movement itself is now compromised (cf. other bloggers, PZ in particular), and pretty much every reasonable person thinks it’s fair enough.

    Of course, one is best served in this realisation by being old enough to have seen the ‘before’ and the ‘after’.

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