Research Sample #1
April 10, 2012
The American Atheist
When I was younger, much younger, around the age of seven or eight I had a very important, and in retrospect silly, conversation with myself. I can remember the scene vividly. I was pacing around my room, it was late afternoon and the windows were streaming light directly into what was otherwise a very dark space, muttering under my breath the series of frustrations and grievances that I felt at the time. At the top of the list was my mother who had passed away when I was five, and the question of why that would happen was the main point of discussion.
The anger that had lead me to this conversation had come from the consolations that adults had given me over the past couple years. From the completely empty, “I’m so sorry for your loss” to the more vapid, “It will get easier” I found zero comfort in any attempt at sympathy. However, it was not until I began to hear their efforts for reasoning that I became anywhere near as angry as I was that day. When someone would say “Everything happens for a reason” I wanted to scream, and when someone told me, with what I’m sure was nothing but good intentions in mind, that my mother was in heaven with God, I decided that I should have a talk with the person who was apparently accountable for my mother’s slow and painful death.
This was to be my first and last conversation with God, and was surprisingly very one sided. In my room I asked, begged, pleaded, ordered, demanded, and bartered for some kind of sign, answer, or even an indication that the pain I felt, that the pain my mother suffered, was for some good or higher purpose. What I received was nothing. No response. No answer or sign; Just nothing. I waited for a while but the silence lingered, and in a rather anti climatic way I decided that there probably was not even a god, because, in my young mind, if there was he would not inflict such suffering on the people he supposedly loved.
Though I did not realize it at the time I had just stumbled into atheism, a belief that neither the Judeo-Christian God nor any god existed. What I also had failed to realize, a flaw of a seven year-old’s critical thinking, was that I had just placed myself in a group that was largely disliked, and sometimes outright hated in my home country. As I have experienced personally in the past few years atheists like me might be one of the worst treated groups in America. My openness about my lack of faith has been treated with several responses, each generally more hurtful than the last. The only good to come from the many encounters I have had is that I have begun to understand the reason why people tend to treat me and my fellow atheists this way. Atheists are treated poorly because of complete misunderstanding of what atheism is and subsequent poor portrayals in media.
Atheism, much like religion, is very difficult to define. A literal definition only goes so far and limits how much we can understand about the atheist ideology. To define atheism as its completely literal form, that is the belief that God does not exist, we find ourselves with too broad a definition that does not paint a detailed enough picture of what modern atheist actually are. An atheist’s beliefs can be just as complex and as innumerable as the various spiritual worldviews that theists have. The only thing that is for certain about someone who calls themselves an atheist is that they do not believe in a god. Their ethics, morals, or any other ideas that they have about the world are determined by things beyond simply being an atheist. These various ideas about our universe can be frighteningly uncaring or beautifully sympathetic.
It may be best to think of atheists as a group of people who don’t believe in God, whose morals, ethics, and personal philosophies are entirely dependent on an individual and whether good or bad are not more or less representative of the group in question. Atheists are a group of people who are skeptics at heart and who have actively decided that they do not believe in a god rather than a belief that they have passively acquired. It is this group of people who has undeservedly been given unfair treatment here in American, this is the group with we will be examining.
If you are at all curious as to what unfair treatment means or what it looks like, take the story of David Mills. In the late 1970’s Mills decided to protest a faith healer who came to his town every year preaching to the population about need of faith over medicine. Every year at this preacher’s miracle rally this preacher would frequently encourage diabetics to toss aside their insulin and cancer patients to stop their chemotherapy treatment. Before protesting Mills went to his local police station:
I did an incredibly stupid thing: I drove to the local police station to ask law-enforcement authorities for information and for police protection against potential threats from religious zealots during our protest march. The first police official with whom I spoke … said that he himself planned to attend … and would not hesitate to spit directly in my face as he walked past our demonstration. The next police official I encountered … said that if any trouble broke out … he would arrest me. (Atheist Universe 52)
Mills decided to drive home and try to call the station instead, in hopes that he would get in contact with someone of higher authority. When he finally got a sergeant on the line the sergeant took no time to tell him that “No policeman wants to protect a goddamned atheist” (52). Mills wasn’t even protesting religion, he was protesting a man who was collecting money fraudulently and endangering public health. However, because he happened to be an atheist he was threatened by the police for trying to help his community.
This is very much a horror story and realistically no, this kind of thing does not happen to atheists every day. It is important to realize that all this happened because of his particular lack of faith because as a white male the odds of him being discriminated about race or gender is unlikely. This event is however a perfect example of just how far the animosity that atheists face every day can go.
This animosity was proved in the form of general distrust when in 2006 a study conducted by the University of Minnesota found that atheists were the least trusted group in the United States (Miller). What is probably most interesting about the study is that the researchers put atheists as a throwaway group, thinking they were entirely irrelevant. They firmly believed that Muslims would be the least trusted. This along with a few other studies found that not only are atheists distrusted but that people also felt as though atheists are the group least likely to share a collaborative view of society (Miller). When asked why people ranked atheists so high they said that they “believe atheists have no sense of community and promote cultural elitism and the almighty dollar” (Miller). In other words atheists are a group of self-centered materialist know-it-alls.
Of course this isn’t the only reason people dislike atheists. Those three qualities while certainly bad do not warrant the frequent vitriolic confrontations an atheist faces about their non-belief. The second part to the equation comes from those who find atheists and by extension, atheism, uniformed and extremist. In his analysis of seven atheist book published in the last decade, theologian Owen C. Thomas is quick to call well respected authors among many communities unobservant or “massively uninformed” (196). He states that in the case of Richard Dawkins, a figure know in many circles for both his knowledge of evolutionary biology but also being well versed in religion, that his view of religion “amounts to a caricature” (196). Dawkins is often consider an authority on atheism so if his voice is so quickly thrown aside what does this say about Thomas’ view of the rest atheism? That the rest are even more ignorant?
There is also the commonly held belief that atheism is inherently a type of fanaticism. Phillip Kitcher in his article describing “Militant” atheism states that many view this kind of atheism is combating fanaticism with more fanaticism. He describes modern atheism as “intellectually simplistic, aggressively intolerant, and dangerously polarizing”(2). A statement which could easily be transplanted to describe the religious fanaticism atheists tend to criticize. This of course has a simple explanation which Kitcher also points out, in regards to religion, but it works here as well. He explains that the most visible and prevalent forms of ideas are not the subtle ones, but are instead the much cruder views that people eventually attack (2). In the same way that atheists, of all kinds, take issue with the extremist forms of religion here in the United States and elsewhere, those that are religious see and attack the extreme forms of atheism that they see. In both cases this kind of generalization from both sides leads to quite a bit of misunderstanding. At the very least atheists are doing nothing more than their theistic counterparts.
If we take all three components and combine them, the intellectual elitism, extremist nature, and a completely misinformed understanding of various religions, then we form a pretty darn unlikable human being. I even hate that guy and I am supposed to be on his side. This version of atheism, despite being wildly inaccurate, is the version that most people living in the United States have. If that depiction of atheists was in anyway correct it could almost be justifiable to hate them. Assuming you could justify hate.
Curiously, why people believe these things about atheists is unclear. Those researchers who found atheists to be the least trusted theorized that atheists are essentially the new communists. That is, people on the opposite side of “a symbolic moral boundary” (Miller). This is really the only explanation anyone has made for this anti atheist behavior. Really though how people came to dislike atheists might not be so complicated. If we assume that the inaccurate view of atheists has to be taught or learned somewhere then we can narrow down probable causes. And if those lessons that are being taught also further the us vs. them mentality suggested by the researchers we can see even more reasons for why atheists are viewed like they are.
The first possibility is that a sizable population of atheists with all these bad traits exists out there and have come into contact with enough people to influence this kind of thought. With the American atheist population at an estimated three percent it seems fairly unlikely that many people who have a distaste for atheists have even met one, at least one who was open about their belief (Miller). Even if most atheists behaved like this the odds of encountering one are fairly slim, and the notion that these rare encounters would color the perception of the majority of Americans, even slimmer.
The second possibility is the point researcher Penny Edgell made about atheists being like the new communists (Miller). Atheists are a new group to dislike and because of that these cultural beliefs about them get spread around without anything more than the occasional anecdote to back them up. People who dislike atheists, because they have these held beliefs about them, further spread the prejudice by perpetuating the same beliefs that lead them to dislike atheists in the first place. It is a cyclical process.
The largest and certainly most probably possibility is that people act based on the representations of atheists that they are fed. Media, as a whole, has the largest population to work with, and given the limited roles an atheist plays in both film and television, character traits become all the more pronounced. When a character does something bad it usually doesn’t mean anything, but when the only picture someone has about what an atheist is comes from the bad actions a fictional character does it is easy to see the problem.
Television seems to have a more tolerant view on atheists and atheism. At the very least there seem to be more atheist characters on television than film. Of a very less than comprehensive list of forty eight notable atheists in television and films it listed twenty four atheist characters in television. Which would be equal to the amount of film characters if four of them weren’t from the same movie and another four of them Woody Allen characters (“Atheist Character”). This puts television at the front of the media argument.
What television doesn’t have going for it is a positive view of atheism. Take three of the characters off that television list. Dr. Gregory House from House, Dr. Temperance Brennan from Bones, and Dr. Spock from Star Trek. There are many traits the characters share with each other. Obviously they are all doctors so this fits the intellectual view of atheists. They are all considered very rational, generally considered a positive trait. And they all appear to lack empathy, and frequently this trait is pointed out as quite unusual, weird, or inhuman. It would be difficult to claim this as a positive characteristic. It is hard to say for certain how this affects the viewer’s perception exactly, especially without any studies done about it. Though, realistically to point to an atheist character and say just how different they are compared to everyone else, like say the viewer, and the reason for the dividing line becomes much clearer. Empathy is an ability that almost everyone has, intellectual, atheist or not. Yet the predominance of this trait among atheist characters is a frightening depiction of how both these writers and America in general seems to view atheists like something separate from the rest of the population.
This divide is only furthered when the atheists exhibit the narcissism attributed to them in the first place. For the character House, that is one of his defining characteristics, the star of a show that even on a bad week pulls in millions of viewers. Worse though is when the characters are just down right evil. Michael C. Hall’s titular character from the show Dexter is an atheist serial killer. There is no spin that could make that a good thing or even justifiable. If it makes for good television, whatever, the issue here is that an atheist is going around killing people and while not his motivation for doing so, the two ideas are certainly linked.
None of this proves causality and we end up with a chicken or the egg kind of scenario. It is difficult to ascertain if these characters represent what people already feel about atheists or if they create the ideas in the first place. Logically you could make the argument for both, seeing an atheist character do something bad, if it is the only exposure you have to atheism will color your perception somehow, and the possibility remains that someone could be writing these characters out of reaction to their current perceptions of atheists. Assuming both are true, which very well might be the case, atheism seems to desperately need some good public relations.
As it turns out atheists do try to get some kind of good publicity out in the general public which is the whole point of the “Good without God” billboard campaign. Unfortunately, atheists are fighting against a public that already has a poor view of them, so for many they see these campaigns as an attack on religion (Urbina). This is part of the problem with atheism in America, even if everything stated about atheists thus far is false, people don’t like them because everything they do disrespects someone’s religion.
It’s a battle that can’t be won, because honestly, from an atheist’s perspective, religion demands too much respect. Richard Dawkins, is known as “Darwin’s Pitbull” because of his apparently aggressive stance on both religion and those who believe it, but as he points out in his book The God Delusion he’s just given it the same about of respect he would give any other idea (42). Rather than the preferential treatment he claims society bends over backward for, he discusses it as he would any politic view or scientific theory. From an atheist’s view point, nothing is being disrespected, religion to an atheist is just an idea, and as such they discuss it like an idea. None of this matters though because more often than not religion is too willing to call atheists out on their lack of respect than entertain the thought that they aren’t being crass just to offend. A point theologian Thomas forgot in his examination of Dawkins and other atheist authors (Thomas 197).
This matter is really just compounded by those who operate on the assumption that all atheists act like how we have discussed so far. Yet everything that is claimed to justify the distaste for atheists is hardly unique to this or any particular group. Atheists do not have a monopoly on loud, annoying, self-centered, hypocritical, fanatics. You can find these people in every group ever, and interestingly these same characteristics get repeated about those groups too. Atheism certainly counts members who act like this, but that doesn’t mean the group at large encourages that kind of behavior or even respects the individual who acts like that. They only share a common disbelief in God, to judge a group based on its loudest member is hardly useful. At worst you would end up with a complete misunderstanding of what atheists as whole act like, and at best you learn that one person is a bit of a jerk.
The absolute bottom line is that atheists don’t deserve the kind of treatment they get. In fact no one does. Everything about atheists is based on generalizations that lack a backing of what atheism actually is, or in the case of television creating stereotypes that do nothing more than further the ‘alien’ image people have of them. Atheists did not earn this hate. They are not a hate group who go around spreading intolerance or try to force their beliefs through fear. Atheists are not responsible for destruction or hurting people. Atheists are simply a group whose ideas you might not agree with, nothing more, nothing less.
Whether the intolerant behavior towards atheism is because of people misunderstanding it, or forming their opinions on what the media tells them, it is unecassary. The hate for a group based on a lack of religious belief is a frustration that we could end. It is completely within our control to take a step back and look at a person and not on what we believe we understand about what they believe. And really maybe we are not that different, as Richard Dawkins said, “We are all atheists about most of the Gods that humanity has ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further.”
Due: Access, print and read Sample Essay #1 (under Sample Research Essays); Type a 2 paragraph response to the essay, identifying its strengths and weaknesses. Be specific — look at the thesis, appeals, evidence, organization, documentation, transitions to state what you find to be effective or ineffective.
Due: Outline for Research Essay
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