Ask An Atheist: Why am I judged for being an atheist?

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Why to people misjudge me for being an atheist? Why do people look at me like nothing but sin? I don’t believe in either God nor satan! So, why are people telling me to choose a side or be punish for lust of sins! I’m lost in this world. 

SPO_House-ad_Ask-an-atheist_0425133Although this is the first time such a question has been submitted here, it is not an uncommon perspective to be heard for atheists and agnostics, which is the reason why local secular organizations have been formed over the years, as a support group and place of refuge as well as lighter socializing and connection to a broader world of thought.

I have been atypical in that I was raised in a secular household, where religion simply wasn’t a factor in living our lives. But most atheists come from religious families, and in the United States all of us still have to get along in a country knee deep in faith.  I wish it were the case that all the interactions were as congenial as those at SpokaneFAVS, but the questioner reflects a less friendly side of things that atheists and freethinkers have to contend with on a daily basis.  Many members of our community have experiences all too similar to those of the questioner, which is why one of the purposes we serve is to be a safe place where things can be said that have been kept bottled up for fear of reprisal from families or employers.

My historical and philosophical side understands all too readily how such things can happen.  Any belief system, especially if it is the dominant one, can have followers who react as though poked with a stick when confronted by the very existence of someone who thinks “different” — how can that be, you must be wicked or crazy? Richard Dawkin’s often quoted (or misquoted) comment on antievolutionists came to mind as I wrote that, just as quickly as the late Rev. Fred Phelps. The social and psychological dynamics can be just as strong and corrosive in officially atheist societies, which can run off the rails just as easily as their religiously inspired counterparts whenever they fail to respect individual conscience or dignity.

Tradition also serves to reinforce any belief aiming at universality, as religions so often do, fueling an interventionist umbrage when reacting to the nonbeliever, where everything down to the rituals of food or event attendance are publicly visible and can be scrutinized with an eye to detecting apostasy. But religious beliefs with an eye on the eternal carry further potential downsides, even when impelled by the most heartfelt and lofty of motives. The saving of the eternal soul of a loved one can all too easily take on a “tough love” nastiness because the stakes are perceived to be so high. This is only heightened if framed in an apocalyptic context, where Christianity has the tradition of an End Time contest playing out in daily life to see the latest signs of 666. In that sense the atheist’s non-belief in Satan can be seen as merely more clever fulfillment of the Evil One’s success at keeping that person away from God. Heads you win, tails I lose.

My dream is of a world in which on one ever feels lost in the way the questioner does, however different their beliefs may be, because all cherish the sanctity of the individual, and seek to hear all voices so that no truth, great or small, will ever be held in fear, drowned out in the public chorus.

About Jim Downard

Jim Downard is a Spokane native (with a sojourn in Southern California back in the early 1960s) who was raised in a secular family, so says had no personal faith to lose.

He's always been a history and science buff (getting a bachelor's in the former area at what was then Eastern Washington University in the early 1970s).

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  1. I think the answer to this question is complex, and both deeply psychological and social. Here are a couple of phenomenon that may underlie this bias against atheists:

    1) One of the ways that belief in God helps people is that it helps them to have a positive relationship with divine authority. As children we view ourselves as “good” when we obey or conform with authority, and so God who is viewed by many as an idealized moral authority and also a SOURCE of moral authority is a necessary component in the psychology of morality that a lot of theists identify with. Also, God acts as a sort of parental supervisor for many of us, who would act badly except for their belief that God is watching them.
    2) There is something very tribal in all human cultures. This is true of religious groups as much as other groups. We have an innate distrust of the “other,” and if we identify ourselves as belonging to a group on the basis of our belief system, then non-believers are outsiders and are scary, bad an untrustworthy. This is actually fairly adaptive. Game theory shows that people are less likely to screw-over their friends and neighbors than they will a stranger, and are less likely to screw-over a stranger who they have repeated contact with than one they are only likely to see once.

    Atheists get a kind of double-whammy on this one. Given that most people believe in God, even people of different faiths have belief in God in common, so there is some sense of commonality for say Muslims and Christians that Atheists don’t share. On the other hand, because so MANY people use God as a sort of moral parental supervisor, we atheists LACK this moral supervision.
    In the minds of a believer, this means that we are not only OTHER, but we are lacking in any incentive to behave ourselves.

    Anyways that’s what I think. I don’t have strong data to back it up, but it’s consistent with my observations.

    The irony of all of this is that what most people of faith DON’T UNDERSTAND about atheists is that it is MORALITY that lead us to atheism in the first place.
    I did not choose to become an atheist. Instead I chose to be rigorously honest with myself about the limits of my knowledge. This ethic of intellectual honesty RESULTED in my conclusion that I don’t have enough evidence to conclude that God is real. In effect it was my ethical practice of honesty that resulted in my (agnostic) atheism.

    Perhaps it is this ethic of honest self-assessment that leads to the fact that atheist are in under-represented in prisons, and why the Washington Post states:

    “A growing body of social science research reveals that atheists, and non-religious people in general, are far from the unsavory beings many assume them to be. On basic questions of morality and human decency— issues such as governmental use of torture, the death penalty, punitive hitting of children, racism, sexism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, environmental degradation or human rights — the irreligious tend to be more ethical than their religious peers, particularly compared with those who describe themselves as very religious.”

    But again, I have no hard data to back this up. I’m only speculating.

  2. Man, I have to work on my editing skills.

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