Disrupting Perceptions About Atheism

In recent months, I’ve been fascinated by a number of stories in the news about Christians speaking out on bigotry in the church and challenging other liberal and progressive Christians to do likewise. They do so with the goal of combating stereotypes about Christian faith and Christians, and also because it’s an important part of their faith; their version of Christianity doesn’t include the propagation of hatred and abuse. Making people aware of the natural variations in the practice of Christianity is also an act of evangelism, of course, alerting people to the fact that Christianity doesn’t necessarily exclude them, but it’s also a great public relations move, getting people to rethink Christianity and their perceptions of it.

I’ve always said that we don’t have a Christian problem, we have an asshole problem. Some Christians are assholes, and they use their religion as a tool for their assholery; they twist and abuse the Bible to make their points, for example. This creates a negative view of Christianity and when no one is counteracting that view, it means that people generally think that being Christian means you are an asshole, even though a few minutes of critical thinking ought to break that down.

There’s also been a recent tide of articles about ‘the problem with atheism,’ framed from a variety of perspectives. I generally classify myself as an atheist; I don’t believe in a higher power, I don’t believe in faith, I don’t think we are here for any mystical reason. I believe in science, and the amazingness of nature and the series of complex chemical and electrical reactions and interactions that make up consciousness. I don’t fear death, objectively, because I assume that those reactions just stop, and my various components are broken down and recycled for use somewhere else. The end. Some people call this bleak, I call it life.

I don’t really feel a need to push my atheism on people; I know and associate with people of many religious stripes and I welcome religious dialogue and discussion or I wouldn’t be doing things like inviting people to post about their convincement on my website. I like reading religious texts and reading about religious practice and I’m not interested in proving that I am ‘right’ about religion or our existence or G-d or anything else. It’s just not my style. I am not, in short, an evangelical atheist. If you’re an atheist too, great. If you’re not, great. If you want to talk to me about faith and lack thereof, that’s also great.

This is pretty starkly different from the common perception of the mainstream atheist movement, as dominated by people like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, both of whom make a profession out of being asshole atheists. When people think ‘atheism,’ they often think ‘old white dudes who are also assholes.’ I push back against this in my own small way, as do a lot of other atheists of my acquaintance, and when I was talking to Andrea about this issue recently, I realised that one of the key problems with atheism, is not a problem with atheism. It’s an asshole problem; people are letting the words of a few assholes determine how they feel about atheism, just as they do about Christianity, and it’s really hard to push back on that.

People who fall outside the old white dude norm are talking about atheism and are challenging narratives. All the time. And no one pays attention. In fact, many leaders of the movement are most definitely not old white men, but, as usual, the voices of a few drown out the rest of the movement, and those few tend to be the people with the most privilege, because they have access to the most power; when it comes to being offered book deals on why one is an atheist, people turn to old white assholes, not, say, young Latina women.

People talk about ‘New Atheism’ but they don’t really seem to understand the movement, at all, let alone the people that inhabit it and the way they think. Now, I want to be clear here: I don’t really consider myself a part of the movement, really, and I am not an authority on it. But even I can note, in a fairly cursory way with a quick Google search, that atheism is diverse, that it includes a lot of different voices and perspectives, and that the vast majority of people in the movement are not, in fact, assholes.

So, how do we push back? Christians pushing back against Christianity’s bad rep seem to be having serious trouble convincing people, given the way I see people characterising Christianity and Christians. Clearly, attempts by atheists to unseat the old white dudes people ignorant about atheism (including many atheists) presumed to be in charge aren’t working out very well either. And this is a reminder of the many and insidious ways intersectionality can come into play; getting people thinking about atheism more broadly and challenging common assumptions about it requires getting people to think beyond the mode of assuming that the people in power and the only people with information of relevance are old white dudes. This is about more than not believing in G-d and wanting to talk about it.

Atheism’s bad reputation is a reflection of larger social issues surrounding dominance and power, and a number of people fall into the trap of depicting atheism as a movement dominated by sexism, classism, racist, and bigotry. That’s not actually the case, as anyone who bothered to spend some time on the ground would know, but apparently that’s not nearly as much fun as disseminating articles and commentaries containing clearly erroneous statements about atheism and atheists.