May 30, 2013
Last week atheists were all over the news and social media. But in a world that frequently focuses on conflict, it seemed like we were hearing a different — and to many, surprising — story about atheists.
Last Tuesday, CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer interviewed Rebecca Vitsmun, asking her if she “thank(ed) the Lord” for the fact that she lived through a disastrous tornado in Oklahoma. Holding her infant child in her arms, she replied, “I’m actually an atheist.” And then she added: “You know, I don’t blame anybody for thanking the Lord.”
In a couple of short sentences, Vitsmun delivered two equally powerful messages: that she was not embarrassed by her atheism, and that she respected her religious friends and neighbors. Blitzer’s question represented a common assumption that most people believe in God. It was an indicator of widespread religious privilege in our culture, and Vitsmun challenged it in a way that also humanized atheists.
The clip went viral and quickly became one of the most-discussed stories to emerge from the Oklahoma disaster coverage. All the while atheists, along with Muslims and many others, were at the forefront of recovery efforts.
That same day Arizona State Rep. Juan Mendez made headlines when the Democrat offered a rousing, moving atheist reflection during the time prayers are typically offered prior to the Arizona House of Representatives’ afternoon session, invoking the words of the late astronomer, author and agnostic, Carl Sagan: “For small creatures such as we the vastness is bearable only through love.”
The next day Pope Francis surprised many by offering a defense of atheists, saying that atheists can do good — and that religious people and atheists can “meet one another” by doing good together.
What was most remarkable about these three incidents wasn’t simply that each was about atheists, or that they made headlines. Rather, it was that they showed atheists in a positive light. They demonstrated the reality that most atheists are kind, moral individuals.
This seemingly simple fact shouldn’t be notable, but it is. Unfortunately and unfairly, atheism is commonly associated with a set of negative stereotypes that are bolstered and reinforced when the primary public representations of atheism are voices of conflict. It frequently seems that atheists mostly make headlines when an organization such as American Atheists puts up a billboard like one that claimed that Christianity has a “sadistic god” and “useless savior” and that it “promotes hate.” When stories like that represent the most visible public expressions of atheism, it’s no wonder many people seem to think atheism is a synonym for antitheism.
That concerns me, as atheists continue to be among the least trusted groups in the world. According to a recent study by the Public Religion Research Institute, atheists are feared more than any other group in the United States, with 39 percent of respondents saying that atheists are changing this country for the worse and only 10 percent saying they are changing it for the better. While this surely has its foundation in cultural anti-atheist bias, negative representations of atheists may sustain these biases.
It is understandable that stories of conflict will receive more attention than those of cooperation. But perhaps we can take a lesson from the stories about atheists that made headlines last week, and make an effort to push out a different narrative about atheism — especially because we live in a world where atheists are regularly demonized and discriminated against.
Public representations matter because they change the cultural climate and make it easier for people to be honest and open, which facilitates destigmatizing relationships across lines of difference. Positive media representations have helped more and more LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer) Americans come out, and the resulting relationships that LGBTQ people have built with others have transformed public opinion. The Pew Research Center reports that among the 14 percent of Americans who changed their mind from opposing same-sex marriage to supporting it in the last decade, the top reason cited was having “friends, family, acquaintances who are gay/lesbian.”
Atheists and people of faith need to build such relationships, too. Instead of beginning with trying to convert or convince the other, let’s start by listening to one another’s stories.
As an atheist and interfaith activist, I’m encouraged by last week’s indications that people are ready to hear a different story about atheists — one that reflects the reality that most atheists are just like most everyone else. If the leader of the Catholic Church can recognize that there are atheists doing good all over the world, it’s time to share the stories of people like Vitsmun and Rep. Mendez more broadly.