Sunday, January 13, 2008


You only have to watch television for about 27 seconds before you see a stereotype. The husband who is incompetent in the kitchen. The female who knows nothing about sports. The dumb blonde. The over-bearing boss.

I must confess one of the reasons I do not publicly label myself as an atheist is the stereotype that atheists have loose morals. We live in a smaller community. Everyone goes to church. Sure, some are Catholic, some are Lutheran, and some are Baptist. And we attend each other’s Vacation Bible Schools (to entertain our children as much as possible in the summer) so that’s O.K. It’s fine if you attend St. Mary’s or First Baptist Church, or the Methodist Church—as long as you attend.

But I have heard the lowering of the voices—the pause, before the word “atheist” is spoken. As in: “He’s an…an atheist, ya know.” It is a designation that is not considered positive. Might as well say, “He’s a…a convicted felon, ya know.”

I know exactly what my children’s friends’ parents think. ‘Cause I have heard it. If Bill, down the street, goes to ___ church, then it is just fine for Hank to spend the night with Bill’s son. Because it is safe—Bill goes to church—nothing can happen. But if Bill was an atheist; why, what keeps him from being a child molester? Nothing—that’s what!

We all know stereotypes are wrong. We know fellows who are brilliant in the kitchen. My wife knows basketball far better than I ever could. We have seen smart blondes, and nice bosses. Unfortunately we treat the non-stereotypes as exceptions; different than the norm.

How many times have I read how some atheists can live moral lives? As if we are straining to keep what few morals we have left with But the rest of those atheists are wallowing in ethical voids.

So—am I wrong? Is it only me that sees this? If not—how do I change it?


  1. Good post, Dagoods. Stereotypes are everywhere and in many ways they are inevitable. Comedians would be out of business if it weren't for steretypical characters they portray for laughs; Archie Bunker, Bill Murray's lounge singer, Dana Harvey's Church Lady, etc.

    I agree the atheist stereotype is much more cynical. The solution is not as simple (unless you decide to believe in God - Ouch! :-).

    I would recommend calling oneself "agnostic". I think that best describes you anyway. The uneducated will think you work on tires for a living and the educated Christians will think there's "hope for you yet".

    At least they'll leave you alone. Good luck.

  2. stereotypes are not neccesarily "wrong" -- they are because they are... we all accept and conform to certain stereotypes every day in how we dress or act, etc....
    I suppose some atheists could live moral lives, but where do they get their morals from?

  3. Jim Jordan, there are two problems with calling myself an agnostic.

    1) It is not true.

    2) Unfortunately, I fear it will NOT cause them to leave me alone. Far from it. “Agnostic” is often seen as someone who doesn’t know. Yet. And it is the person’s god-given mandate to make sure I DO know. Once they find out I know more about “God” then they do, it will only cause problems.

    Curious, though, that “agnostic” is seen as a better moral title than “atheist.” Do others think the agnostic stereotypes would tend to be considered more moral than atheist stereotypes?

  4. jk –

    Atheists get their morals from the same place deists, theists and agnostics do—communicating with other humans and observation of the world about us.

  5. A single exception does not disprove a stereotype; stereotypes are generalizations, not universals.

    If you look at secular morality, the idea that atheists are immoral fails even as a generalization. Atheists are at least as unlikely (and perhaps more unlikely) to commit legal crimes as people of any religion.

    Part of the problem is that, by Christian lights, atheists are immoral. Not only is it the highest moral belief to believe in God, but we get tons of the little stuff wrong too.

    It's utterly depraved and immoral — by (certain) Christian standards — to tolerate homosexuality, divorce, pornography, premarital sex. It's a terrible sin to criticize the President or the government. Islam has its own hang-ups.

    More precisely, it's immoral and sinful to do such thing unless you claim divine authority. Then it's ok: So long as God authorizes your belief (or so you say) it's just a difference of theological opinion.

    But it's the worst sin — the sin of pride — to do something just because you want to, to tolerate something just because you personally find nothing objectionable about it.

    In just the same way, an atheist has to look at a Christian in just the same way: No matter how amenable the details of some Christian's morality happens to be, the Christian is, by the atheist's lights, committing the worst sin of all: submitting one's moral will to another, "passing the moral buck" if you will to avoid personal responsibility for his or her moral beliefs.

  6. "So—am I wrong? Is it only me that sees this? If not—how do I change it?"

    I think these are the questions behind Richard Dawkins's Out Campaign.

    As much as I recognize that stereotypes are often false, I guess I take some comfort in knowing that they can cut both ways. What does the word "Christian" connote now, for example? Increasingly: judgmental, intolerant, bigoted, anti-reason, anti-science, etc. Some Christians are getting worried about this.

  7. DagoodS: Jim Jordan, there are two problems with calling myself an agnostic: (1) It is not true.

    Depends on the definition, I guess. Some definitions give "not claiming to know anything about the existence or character of God" (that seems to be the first definition at Going by that, I'm both agnostic, and atheist. That seems to be a popular definition among the agnostic/atheist community, and also seems to be how it was meant by Huxley, who according to a couple entries coined the term (which wouldn't surprise me).

    OTOH, a definition from Webster's 1913 gives it as "neither affirming nor denying a personal Deity", which would obviously rule you out.

    I have described myself as an agnostic atheist, on occasion. However, I do generally avoid describing myself as "agnostic" only, as it seems like insufficient/misleading information.

    (jk, atheists who balk at the idea of dishonesty? Amazing! ;) )

  8. wait a sec -- atheists have "sins"???

    I think if you ranked the stereotypes by desirability, atheists would score more points than Christians...

  9. Micah Cowan,

    I think it was the Kinsey Report that claimed all humans were bi-sexual. However, some were so overwhelmingly attracted to the opposite sex, they were heterosexual (say 99% opposite sex, 1% same sex.) And on the opposite end of the spectrum, some were so overwhelmingly attracted to the same sex, they were homosexual. (99% same sex, 1% opposite sex.) But most fell somewhere in-between on the spectrum.

    Whether that is true or not, I will let the reader decide.

    However, I could see “agnostic” becoming so broadly defined as to obtain a similar result. Since no one can absolutely know or prove the existence/non-existence of a god, we could equally say all persons are agnostic. Some are so overwhelmingly convinced there is a god, we call them theists. Some are so overwhelmingly convinced there is no god, we call them strong atheists. And most fall somewhere in-between on the spectrum.

    Again, I will let the reader decide.

    For me, “agnostic” does not speak strongly enough (in my opinion) for my stance on god. I am firmly convinced no such creature exists. Could it? Sure—just like proof could come out tomorrow that Brittany Spears is a sane, stable, exemplary parent.

    Yeah, right.

    In the meantime, until such proof rears its head, I will label myself as “atheist.” If others want to call me an agnostic, I think they are wrong, but what can I do? Like the stereotype, still others secretly think I shave down my horns, too.

  10. The Kinsey Scale

    It's a little more subtle than you describe, but the notion of a range of behavior is fully supported.

    I suspect, though, that very few people are actually uncertain about the existence of God in the same sense that we are uncertain about the existence of extraterrestrial life. I suspect that most "agnostics" are every bit as confident that no God exists as they are that no unicorns exist, but there is such a strong meme to demand absolute certainty for atheism that they are unwilling to commit to a stance.

  11. Funny you should mention the Kinsey scale. My wife and I rented 'Kinsey" the other evening, and really enjoyed it. Wow, talk about a movie that I would *never* watch as a Christian!!

    More to the point though, your comparison of theistic belief with the Kinsey scale is thought provoking. I guess that is why issuing such tags as 'atheist/agnostic' is ultimately futile. Since it all exists in shades of gray, these terms mean different things to different people.

    I am torn whether or not I am atheistic or not. The argument goes round and round who has the burden of proof, and the claims that formal logic prohibits absolute proof of a negative claim, etc etc.. Frankly I get bored with such tedious talk.

    I just look at it this way - Every evening I have to drive home from work. I am *certain* that I will make it home safely to my wife without getting in a fatal accident or crash. I leave work every afternoon without a doubt in my mind that I will arrive safely. Now, strictly speaking the very slight possibility exists that I may die a horrible death in an auto crash. But I never think about that when I hit the road because that possibility is so remote that I never even consider it. As I turn the ignition key, I can state with utmost confidence and certainty that I will arrive home safely.

    I think of the existence of God in much the same way. I am certain that a supernatural being does not exist. Yes - as certain as knowing I will drive home from work safely tomorrow, I am certain that God does not exist in any way. Now, I admit that logically speaking, there is a possibility of a supernatural being of some sort that exists. But it seems such a contrivance to me, such a remote possibility, that I don't waste time wondering what, if anything, this god wants from me.

    Does this make me an atheist? An agnostic? Blast if I know.

    I guess this just means I am perhaps a 1 on the DaGoodS Theistic Scale (TM).

  12. DaGoodS, more to your point of stereotypes of atheism -

    My wife RoseMary and I are soon to start a family. She is catholic Christian - something inherited from her culture. She stopped me the other day, really worried about what sorts of things we were going to teach our children if I was not religious. In her words, "Where will they get their morals from?"

    She knows I am a good man, and our marraige is as strong as ever. But that stereotype of the amoral atheist has penetrated her mind even without her knowing it..!! Of course, we had a long talk that was difficult for both of us, and I am sure the issue will come up again as our future children get older.

    What do we do about it? Frankly, I choose the chicken way out. As far as my religious beliefs, I stick with the ol' Don't Ask Don't Tell policy. I really am afraid of how some of my Fundamentalist workmates would react if they knew. Criticizing Christianity in my workplace is akin to creating a hostile work environment - and I am sure I could legally press the issue if it ever came up, but it just does not seem worth the effort to me. So I keep my trap shut.

    That is how I feel now. There are some things that just don't need to be made public if you want to keep the peace. And it does suck to some degree, but.. ah well, there you go!

  13. HIS --

    **My wife RoseMary and I are soon to start a family.**

    I'm interpreting this as you and your wife are expecting a child? As in, she's pregnant?

    If so, congragulations. :)