In the Spring of 2012, I took a writing class entitled “Writing: Uses of Literacy.” Our final project for this class was to utilize public literacy to write on a public debate. It was a two-part project: the first was to introduce readers to the debate, and the second was to do something to actually take part in the debate. I chose to write on whether or not atheists are qualified to hold public office. For my second part, I figured that since I have a blog I’d write a blog post in the form of an open letter to atheists. Below is the post, which is based on interviews I did while researching the project. Here is the full project: Edwardson_WP3_draft2.
Given that 50% of Americans say they would not vote for a well-qualified political candidate if he or she was an atheist, it seems likely that atheists are the most discriminated against group in the American political arena, perhaps second to transgender folks. Many Americans views us as unpatriotic, and the popular view is that we are either amoral or immoral—some folks even seem to think that we are a bunch of criminals or terrorists. Because of this, I have spoken to atheists and theists alike and come up with some measures we could take to improve our public image.
The first thing we need to do is come out of the closet. Many of the atheists I have spoken to admit that they are somewhat afraid to let many people know that they are atheists. When people meet someone new, one of the tacit assumptions they make is that that person is religious in some way. Unless we make it known, our coworkers and acquaintances may not realize that we do not subscribe to any sort of superstitious worldviews. With the number of atheists and agnostics in this country, there’s a good chance that a lot of people in this country know at least one atheist. We run the risk of rejection or harassment, but these are risks that we need to take. Anyone who doesn’t accept us because of our inability to believe in the supernatural is closed-minded and we need to help them overcome their narrowness by showing them that we are not so different from them. More than 50% of Americans have an unfavorable view of atheists. We will not start changing these views until we come out.
Another thing we can do to improve our image is to be engaged in more philanthropic work. People who regularly attend church frequently give to their churches every Sunday. We should be doing something similar. Pick a worthy charity and give to it regularly. If you have a number of atheist friends in your area, form a philanthropic group and start doing community service or raising money for a local charity. We need to show the religious majority that we are pillars of the community. True, some organizations are reluctant to accept from atheist organizations, but in these rare instances we can easily turn this into good press for atheists.
A final thing to keep in mind is that believers wear what Robert Todd Carroll calls “belief armor”: very rarely will you be able to convince them that you are right. For this reason, it is best to avoid loud shouting fights with them. Always be civil. You can explain your position, but don’t try to force it on them. As a non-believer, nothing gets me more annoyed than when people try to convert me. Think of how it feels for them. Keep in mind that atheists and agnostics are the most knowledgeable people in America when it comes to religion; the atheists I have known (myself included) actually like to hear about people’s religious beliefs. Look at interactions with theists as a way to learn about a different culture. This does not mean that we need to agree with them or tolerate and religious-based bigotry. In fact, I think we should challenge people when they use their religion to justify hate. However, if they are simply telling you about their beliefs, listen, and hopefully they will repay the favor by letting you explain your beliefs.
As long as the anti-theists or “New Atheists” dominate the media, we’ll be stuck with the image of Christ-haters, which is never good for our chances of getting into public office. If we want a rational empiricist in the White House any time in the next few decades, we need to get working now. Secular Humanism has a lot to offer the world, and it is time that we show them that we are a force for unity and good, not conflict.
(I had fancy charts and such to sway you, but WordPress doesn’t like them…)