This was originally published on AtheistRepublic.com in February 2015:
There are many common misconceptions and negative attitudes about atheists. If you are an atheist then you have likely heard them all. If you are a theist, then you very likely have thought these things of atheists. I have been faced with a wide variety of attitudes related to my lack of religion. I am lucky to live in a country and a culture which may attach a stigma to atheism but still allows me to believe (or NOT believe) whatever I want. However, that does not mean that I am immune to negative attitudes or stereotypes. Just as with any minority, atheists are often discriminated against, misunderstood and vilified.
As a matter of fact, I have friends who are fearful for their bosses to find out that they are atheist as they might lose their jobs. This is absurd. Could you imagine the reverse? There would be an outcry in America (and rightfully so) if Christians, for example, were unable to be honest about their beliefs in the workplace. This hypocrisy is at the root of every civil rights issue in history. People often assume that atheists are actually Satanists or, at the very least, without a moral compass. To the contrary, some of the kindest, most loving people that I know are atheists. Their atheism allows for them to love without boundaries and to be non-judgmental.
It is unfair to say that all atheists are nonjudgmental toward religious types. There is a faction of atheists who have very negative attitudes toward theists. This may be born of feeling persecuted themselves or they may simply not be very nice atheists. (Believe it or not, I don’t like all atheists.)
However, most atheists that I know would just like to be allowed to live their truth without fear of judgment or punishment.
This is strikingly similar to the gay rights movement currently going on in the U.S. and, at the moment, both of these groups are being treated poorly by American Christians who believe we challenge their way of life. To me, that makes the entire foundation of Christianity seem a little shaky. If I can destroy your whole belief system by simply NOT believing in it, then how solid can the system really be? This is not an original thought on my part but the thought of many atheists. I don’t know a single atheist who is actively seeking to destroy anyone’s way of life and we are all confused as to why people assume that we are. Moreover, why would it be so easy to do? Atheists simply want the freedom to live our own lives in the way that we see fit.
In order to dispel myths and foster tolerance, I would like to discuss some of the negative stereotypes of atheists and, hopefully, shed some light on the realities versus the myths.
Atheists are egocentric
Of course, there are some egocentric atheists just as there are egocentric Christians and Muslims and Buddhists and Hindus. The way I see it, this is a personality trait and not a result of a belief system. Many attribute humility to a fear of god but one can be humble for many other reasons. For example, humility can be born of struggle or persecution, can be a result of hard work and can be fostered by meeting or spending time with the right types of people. I have had my most humbling experiences through great struggle and from learning about the lives of others. I do not feel that I am superior to theists. I simply do not believe the same things.
Atheists are Satanists
I would like to believe that this belief has subsided in recent years but I am not sure how much. To be clear, atheists are NOT devil worshippers. We are not worshippers. That is the entire point. We are not evil. We do not lack a sense of right and wrong. Because we have rejected the idea that a “god” should rule our lives or that we should live according to a specific set of guidelines or a book, we are able to care for others in a totally universal manner. It is worth mentioning that many religious people can and do care for others in this way. This is not an ability exclusive to atheists but I do think it is something that likely comes easier because we lack the mandates and preconceived notions that would make accepting all people more difficult.
Atheists are going to Hell
Let’s be clear. If you are religious then according to YOUR belief system, atheists may be going to hell. That is something that can be difficult for theists to comprehend. If I do not adhere to your rules and I reject your entire system then I cannot suffer the consequences for breaking the mandates. With that said, if you believe that I am going to Hell then that is your right and your prerogative. You are not alone, either. However, you cannot tell me where I am going when I die or what my fate is. Just as I cannot prove to you that there is no heaven you cannot prove to me that there is one. For me, personally, that is OK. I do not feel the need to disprove anyone’s belief system and, therefore, I would appreciate the same respect.
We just need religion explained to us
Most every atheist I know is well aware of the tenants of the world’s major religions. We get it. We have read about your religion and probably a lot of others too. We may have even been raised with religion. My husband’s favorite class in high school was a course on the Bible. I have an atheist uncle who has read it from cover to cover. I was raised in the Catholic Church and attended Catholic school. I took World Religion courses in college. I have friends who come from every church and belief system you can think of, who have rejected the notion of a god or gods. We are not naïve or confused.
We do not lead an examined life
Religious people do spend a great deal of time and energy trying to be what they believe that their god or gods would want for them to be. This leads to a great deal of examination of oneself and one’s behaviors and attitudes. At least that’s the idea anyway. However, the notion that atheists do not possess self-awareness or do not “work on themselves” is, in short, asinine. As an atheist I believe that I examine my life more deeply than many religious people. Here’s why: There’s nothing telling me how to live. There’s no rule book and there’s no one “watching over” me. I am the master of my own destiny and I am responsible for making my own decisions about how to live. I don’t choose not to steal because God says I shouldn’t. I don’t love my children because they are gifts from the heavens. I don’t show kindness and empathy so I can get into heaven. I do these things because I feel that they are the right things to do. This life requires an enormous amount of self-reflection.
We are raising heathens
If you believe that atheism is a result of a lack of “goodness” and a shortage of self-awareness then it would follow that atheists would be raising demonic little spawns of Satan. My husband has been told, in so many words, that our kids are hopeless and going to Hell because they are being raised in a godless home. First, to ever assume such a thing about an innocent child borders on mental illness, in my opinion. Second, raising children in a godless home is not the same as raising children in a home without ethics, rules or love. This goes back to the whole notion that atheists are heartless, cold or somehow less than human. My children are vibrant, kind, thoughtful and intelligent. They are loved beyond words and kissed a thousand times a day. They are constantly learning about the value of family and being taught social and emotional skills. My husband and I are teaching them to respect others and show compassion and empathy for others. We are exposing them to all kinds of people and allowing them to be open-minded. We are trying to raise freethinkers and kind men. They may be “godless” but they are not heathens. They are lovely, really.
We hate theists
I cannot speak for all atheists and I know that there are those out there who really do despise religion and religious people. I, however, am not one of those people and I don’t know any like that. I know atheists who respectfully disagree with theists. I also know atheists who can, at times, have negative attitudes toward religious people. However, every single atheist I know loves and cares for at least one religious person. I know atheists whose parents, grandparents, closest friends and siblings adhere to religious doctrine. I, personally, love and care for many people who believe differently than I do. I do not, under any circumstances, hate (or even dislike) most religious people. I, generally, try to like everyone who doesn’t give me a reason not to.
My point here is that tolerance is really all that most atheists want. If theists do feel the need to address religion with us, then a respectful debate and an attitude of acceptance would be really nice. We are not just confused and we do not just need you to explain to us the value of religion. We are not sad, desperate or unhappy people. We do not need a specific belief system to lead a fulfilling life. I know that most believers feel strongly that their religion enriches and gives meaning to their lives. I am happy for them if that is the case. I just don’t happen to feel the same way.