Perceptions about Atheists

I have come to the conclusion that the negative perception of atheists by theists seems to result primarily from interaction with two distinct groups. The first group is what I here term militant atheists. I fully realize that this term has been greatly abused by theists, but sometimes it's a completely appropriate description of certain individuals who are aggressively antagonistic toward believers without provocation. This group is rather small, but I can attest from personal experience that they in fact do exist and that they create quite an impression on the believers whom they encounter. The second group is what I here term delinquents. It includes criminals, thugs, hoodlums, hooligans, vandals and every other variety of habitually selfish jerk. Delinquents can be theists or atheists, but they are not representative of either group because of their marked lack of empathy. Theists often wrongly interpret, however, the lack of religious piety among this group as atheism even though it indicates only that they don't really follow a moral code, religious or otherwise. I believe the reason for this problem is that moral behavior is an inherent part of the concept of religious piety in the minds of most people. A delinquent theist is often dismissed as “not really a Christian,” but no one says that a delinquent atheist is “not really an atheist” because of his immorality. In fact, I have heard the exact opposite, that someone cannot possibly be an atheist precisely because he's moral!

I think there are ways to address these two sources of misunderstanding about atheists. First, although we can't really do much to convince truly militant atheists to calm down and relax, regular atheists can make themselves known as atheists. A theist who only meets militant atheists and a theist who meets a dozen regular atheists for every militant atheist will have very different perceptions of atheists in general. Second, we need to cultivate an image of a thoughtful, considerate atheist to correspond to the thoughtful, considerate theist that people already call pious. In order to do this, I don't think we can content ourselves with just simple atheism. An atheist is anyone who doesn't believe in gods. The word atheist says absolutely nothing about their other beliefs or actions and is no more useful than the word theist when referring to individuals. We need to move beyond our lack of religion and formulate what we do believe and value. I personally prefer the philosophy of Humanism, as I have explained previously, and I identify as a Humanist rather than as just an atheist whenever I can. It distinguishes me from nihilists, from postmodernists, and most especially from delinquent atheists. It says something about my principles and it identifies me as someone who cares about reason and compassion rather than just saying that I don't believe in gods. I'm not suggesting that everyone necessarily adopt this particular label, but I think it's a good idea to indicate what you think beyond your opinion on the single issue of the existence of deities.

Perhaps some readers will disagree with my desire to see atheists and theists in the same category, but I encourage them to remember that it's only with respect to their thoughtfulness and consideration. There is still a world of difference to distinguish the two groups.


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