Keeping an open mind can end the stigma surrounding atheism

Humans are wired to cling tenaciously to their beliefs. Regardless of how delusional, these beliefs tend to automatically make humans dismiss any conflicting evidence. In areas like politics and religion, this tendency is especially true. As a skeptic of organized religion, and as someone who falls closer to the atheism end on the belief spectrum, understanding the other side can be difficult for me.

At first, my own religious ignorance hindered my ability to truly explore the religious perspectives of others. My ignorance stemmed largely from the common problem all ignorant people have: a total lack of knowledge about the history, scripture and culture of a religion. This realization took an enormous toll on my self-perception. Up to this point, I had prided myself in just how open-minded and unbiased I thought I was. If anything, I was being more unfair and biased than even the most religious zealot: Not only was I dismissing conflicting evidence, I wasn’t even aware what the evidence was.

In a genuine endeavor to dispel my ignorance, I decided to make a change and educate myself. An idea I had was to interact and initiate meaningful conversation with those who fall outside my beliefs. This idea in practice, however, was always stymied the moment I “outted” myself as an atheist, and I frequently experienced what I can only label as a stigma against atheists. What started as a constructive and insightful conversation on topics such as God, belief, spirituality or faith, quickly turned tense, austere and sometimes hostile once I uttered the word “atheist.” After my irreligiosity was made known, most of those I talked with declined to continue our conversation, accused me of solely being interested in attacking their god and beliefs, and treated me like I was about to drag them down to intellectual hell with me. Others brashly laughed at my personal beliefs and blatantly accused me of acting too smart and too good for God, something I would later deeply regret, according to them. Yet, for me, the most poignant response was the tsk-tsk and the true pang of sorrow in someone’s voice when they would tell me, “You must be so unhappy without God.”

The stigma about atheists shouldn’t come as a surprise to me. According to a study by Pew Research Center titled “How Americans Feel About Religious Groups,” on a scale of one to 100, with one being the most negative and 100 being most positive, atheists were ranked at 41. Jews, Catholics and Evangelical Christians ranked at the top. Additionally, atheists were consistently ranked at the bottom and were overall perceived much more negatively by other religious groups in this survey.

Surprisingly, while 59 percent of those polled in this survey said they knew someone who was atheist, only two percent of those polled identified as an atheist. This figure is illustrative of how real the stigma is. It seems that on a personal level, such as casual conversations with friends and family, people are comfortable with identifying as atheists. However, it seems clear that atheists resist identifying themselves on a quantitative and large-scale level. Somewhere between the micro and the macro presence of atheism, this overwhelming stigma shrouds atheists and prevents accurate representation, in turn fueling the stigma. It is impossible to create and sustain meaningful religious coexistence and intellectual freedom when only popular interests — in this case, the interests of the most dominant beliefs — are represented in society.

Something incredible happens to us when we allow our psyche to soften. We become permeable to another’s experience in the world. This allows people to create a space where differences are explored and questioned. More importantly, stigmas can be thoroughly absolved and corrected in this space, which creates a profound understanding of the universe and our place in it.

[email protected]