Common Misconceptions about Atheists (agnostics, too)
Today I’d like to talk about religious stereotypes. Well, actually, I should say non-religious stereotypes. Okay, atheists. I want to talk about atheists.
Yeah, I know. That topic sounds about as inviting as a naked soak in a cesspool with a hepatitis-infected leper, but indulge me a moment. My proposed job here is to get us to examine our assumptions and beliefs. And I would bet pretty decent money that most of us have a stereotype or two about atheists floating around our brains. Granted, those stereotypes aren’t nearly as colorful as those that attend the big three -- Jews, Christians, and Muslims – (God seems to prefer uniformity of practice). But I think any attempt to combat misconception, no matter against which group, is a noble pursuit, particularly if it encourages mutual understanding. Or at least mutual diminishment of blatant ignorance.
One of the most common misconceptions about atheists is that they are amoral; they are callous beasts driven wholly by self-interest. This misconception is born from the fallacious assumption that morality cannot exist in the absence of God (or gods). If there is no higher being to hold you accountable for your deeds, religious folk reason, then what could possibly keep someone on the straight and narrow? Why not live for the self? Why not say “screw the world, I’m living for me,” if no divine justice awaits you at the end of your days? Why should the godless ever do the right thing?
Why? Because it’s the right thing to do.
Contrary to popular belief, one can believe in a greater good without subscribing to a greater being. And it is this greater good (the betterment of society, of the environment, of man himself) that motivates the atheist to behave unselfishly. In a sense, the atheist subscribes to the fundamental tenet of most religions – to treat others with the same respect and compassion that you yourself want to be treated with – without seeking to please a divine creature in the process. The reward is the action itself, is the good it propagates here and now, not some prize that awaits one in the after life. Likewise, the punishment for wrongdoing is the harm and horror it wreaks here on earth.
Furthermore, the atheist doesn’t reserve his love and respect only for those of the same belief; he isn’t kind just to other atheists. Nor does he offer his good deeds with a sermon attached; no attempts at conversion accompany his compassion. The atheist doesn’t see saved and unsaved, believer and infidel….us and them. Instead, he sees only humans, some misguided perhaps, or even willfully blind. And yes, there are some that he may harbor prejudicial attitudes toward (atheists are human after all). But in the end the atheist respects the religious person’s right to believe as he believes and doesn’t make proselytizing the cost of altruism.
Part of what propagates the view that atheists are selfish, amoral, hell-bound savages is the fact that atheists are not organized. There is no atheist canon, no church to attend, no rituals or traditions to follow. While there are numerous atheist and secular organizations that perform and fund charitable work around the world (see the end of this article for a very partial list of such organizations), atheists have no visible institution to unite them or identify them with their shared belief. Thus, when atheists engage in good works they do so independently or under the banner of other organizations that have no atheist affiliation. As a result, atheists do not garner the credit; other organizations or sometimes even other religions do.
So what’s the take-home of my baby rant? If you think all (or even most) atheists are heartless monsters that don’t give a crap about anyone but themselves, check yourself. How did you arrive at that conclusion? What sort of experience and knowledge is that assumption based upon? More important, ask yourself how such an assumption isn’t as condescending and prejudicial as many atheists are accused of being toward the religious? If you cannot judge atheists on the quality of their character rather than on the perceived stigma of their belief, then how are you any better than they are?