A recent study by Gervais et al in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (2011) shows people look down on atheists with similar disgust and mistrust as they do rapists. (HT to Epiphenom for the review) Indeed, I know from experience that it is safer for me to call myself a Buddhist or a secular Humanist rather than an Atheist if my objective is to preserve respect from the person I am talking with.
Well, at least that is how it is in Christian privileged America. This is something many Christians are blind to. They may not want to feel they do this, but they do. Yet it is not just Christians who are disgusted by atheists. In the past six months, for instance, I have seen this happen with two possible new friends of mine: a New Age guy and his wife, and a lapsed agnostic Catholic. These people invited the sharing of beliefs during casual conversation but were not ready for what they heard when I said I was an “Atheist” — it was too much for them.
But there is good news here too. As I discussed in my previous post, there is a dynamic mutual influence between your respect of a person and your respect of your own beliefs (1). My illustration here is a concrete application of that principle: what happened when I shared that I was an atheist. The good news is that coming out about your atheism to someone who may respect you to some degree will lessen their prejudice about atheism even if they may now feel disgust for you. So though they now think of you with the same disgust they have of rapists, your “coming out” may help lessen that person’s bigotry against the next atheist he/she meets. Isn’t that comforting!
Of course, the same is true for Christians if they are a minority in their country. But I’ll wager that declaring yourself a Christian does not get you thrown into the distrust pile right there with rapists.
So, we should be thankful to those loud, publishing New Atheists who sacrifice their public opinion to help the rest of us non-religious in this religion-privileged land. Not only does coming out help other individual atheists, it also slowly weakens the negative grip of the dark side of religious thinking on politics and science. So as you feel safe to come out, realize that though it most certainly will involve a sacrifice, that sacrifice will serve many others.
Note: (1) I apologize that I have no reference for this principle. I have asked a few people to help me search for it. For now, you’ll just have to take it on faith ! 🙂 Just kidding. Please keep doubting, I will keep looking.