Saturday, March 25, 2006

The Godless Barbarian Hordes

In a humorous and thoughtful post from across the Atlantic, Citizen Sane (of Liberal Elite) finds himself understandably dismayed that a much-discussed survey reports that Americans believe that atheists "share their vision of American society" less than any other "minority group."

Unfortunately, the press release from the University of Minnesota doesn't tell us which groups--other than "Muslims, recent immigrants, gays and lesbians"--were included among the choices. (Pagans? Scientologists? Members of Congress? Telemarketers? The French?) Nor does the summary tell us what percentage of Americans labeled atheists as unworthy of their respect.

But I second Amanda's nonchalance about the survey's results:
Out of all the various outsider stances I have, I’d say that my atheism causes me the least trouble–I doubt a member of any non-Christian religion would probably report the same kind of experience. . . . [Atheists are] pretty much indistinguishable from the majority of Americans who have a religion in theory but in practice don’t set foot in church except for weddings, baptisms, and funerals. We’re easy to hate because we’re invisible.
And it's true: I can't think of the last time a bunch of teenagers drove in from the suburbs to take a baseball bat to the nearest limp-wristed secular humanist.

Moreover, I think such surveys say more about what people are willing to say to anonymous poll-takers than they do about people's real attitudes. You answer the phone and some stranger asks "Do African Americans share mainstream American values?" or "Do you trust Muslims?" or "Do you have a problem with lesbians?" You don't know who this schmuck interrupting your dinner is, but you absolutely don't want to be pegged as a bigot.

For better or worse, few people think of "atheists" as a discrete group, so any attitudes toward them aren't really considered aspects of a prejudice. To many Christians (and other people of faith), atheists are folks who've lost their way or who can't make up their minds or who justify their debaucherous amorality. Or, worst of all, atheists are really Satan worshippers dedicated to the destruction of Christianity. (Needless to say, worshipping Satan would pretty much disqualify you from being an atheist.) Belonging to no church and subscribing to no real agenda and having no lobby, atheists haven't, as a group, convinced Americans that freedom of religion also means freedom of no religion.

I suppose this survey means that the next time a coven of us gets together, we're going to have to put organizing on the agenda--right before we sacrifice a small child.