The recent outbreak of tornadoes in Oklahoma seems to have brought out the asshole in some folks. From Minister David Brassfield and his preaching about non-believers being “conspicuously absent whenever people need comforting” to Joe Klein’s foot-in-mouth disease, it seems to be open season for slander and hatred toward the secular community.
We all know the stereotypes spread around about non-believers : we’re selfish, narcissistic, immoral, uncaring, and eat babies to boot (delicious in Pad Thai by the way). These ugly lies are certainly what lead people to trust atheists about as much as they do rapists, and they aren’t going away on their own, apparently.
These nasty biases are very hurtful to not only the secular movement as a whole, but to individual atheists in particular. Atheists face stigma and hatred because it’s assumed we’re evil, due in large part to these biases. We all know (or are) that person who was rejected by their friends and family when they came out as non-believers. Some have been discriminated against in employment and child custody disputes when it’s found out they don’t believe in deities. We’re forced to carry these misconceptions around and constantly fight them on a personal basis with those we encounter. They permeate the public conscious so completely that we spend much of our time explaining to believers that that, yes, we actually do donate to charity, volunteer our time for good causes, raise money for children’s hospitals and battered women’s shelters, and just generally do good things as a regular part of our lives. It’s exhausting, and not very effective on an individual level.
So, what can be done? How can we combat these prejudices? Clues about this can be found in the words of our slanderers.
Joe Klein’s “excuseapology” included this: “…it is certainly true, as my critics point out, that secular humanists, including atheists, can be incredibly generous. I never meant to imply they weren’t. But they are not organized.”
Minister Brassfield also gave us some clues. In his “regretraction” he said: “Another error was taking personal observations as a final say in a matter. In this area, I adopted a method of which I believe some atheists employ: Namely, the “if I don’t see it, it doesn’t exist” attitude. If it is wrong for one to use that approach to determine the existence of God, then it is wrong for me to use it to determine someone’s involvement in relief efforts.”
They’re kinda right. Ask yourself this – suppose you accused a church of only helping those who share their faith, that their good works aren’t really good works because they only benefit those who agree to listen to the “good word” in exchange for help, and the membership said “No way man, we help anyone no matter their belief”. Wouldn’t the skeptic in you insist on some evidence of this? Wouldn’t you expect to see some corroborating evidence of these unselfish good works? Why should we expect more evidence of their good works than we’re willing or able to present ourselves?
I think we can conclude that more open, organized and obvious good works on behalf of free-thought groups could combat some of the nastier stereotypes of atheists. After all, it’s really hard to hold on to the belief that atheists are selfish if you can see them as an organized group cleaning up what’s left of a stranger’s house after a tornado. The strange thing is, when I express this idea to the members of my local atheist group, I’m met with resistance. My friends fear that increasing the visibility of our good works by wearing matching t-shirts (or my favorite, Action Vests), using publicity methods like media interviews and press releases to promote our good works, or even organizing as a group (as opposed to “just showing up and working individually”) would lead to accusations of grandstanding or being media whores.
But it’s not just the stereotypes of others that seem so unfair. A member of my group stated on a public forum that identifying ourselves “to show others that we are helping is using the misfortune of victims to further our cause.” This and similar comments I’ve seen lately seem to be stereotypes themselves; that people who help as coordinated groups are only doing so to promote themselves and gain media attention.
While that may be true for some, and it is true that altruism should be the main reason anyone helps another, it doesn’t have to be the only reason. To think the only reason one helps another is for self promotion seems terribly cynical. I think it is possible to combine a selfless desire to help others with promotion that highlights the good works. Do we all really believe that Jimmy Carter only talks to the media about how he helps builds houses for the homeless in an effort to promote himself and how awesome he is? He does so to encourage others to serve, either by joining his group or another, or even starting their own. He promotes his efforts so he can expand the movement and bring more help to more people. As a result he and his organization Habitat for Humanity are highly respected and admired. He doesn’t promote Habitat to gain that respect and admiration, they are simply a byproduct of his efforts.
Look, I’m not trying to pick a fight. I think we have a bigger fight to wage against these stereotypes. But I do think one of the tools we could use against these ugly prejudices is media attention on the good works WE’RE ALREADY DOING. Coordinate matching shirts or vests so people can easily identify your group. If there is media present don’t be afraid to ask for an interview. Send press releases out when your group raises money for the local VA hospital or animal shelter. Learn to use the media for what it is – an enormously successful platform for disseminating information and knowledge.
Organization is extremely important because it allows small groups to punch above their weight while giving others a highly visible and effective example. You can get more work from 20 organized people than you can from 100 unorganized people. So set up a “Good Works Action Plan”. Identify those in your group who are natural leaders and task them with organizing small groups of people to plan fundraisers or charity events, then promote the hell out of them. Make sure you’ve identified those in your organization with special skills that would be helpful in crisis/emergency situations and keep them informed as to what’s needed and where. Plan ahead for potential relief and quick response efforts. But above all, don’t be afraid to tell the world who you are, what you’re doing and how they can join in and help.
Let’s all make sure we’re fighting these stereotypes in an effective and productive manner. Who knows, the unfair bias you crush just might be your own.