Imagine being a member of a minority group that almost everyone hates. In the news, at work, at home, from friends, family, co-workers, bosses, politicians, and even complete strangers, from everybody everywhere you are bombarded with messages that you are a second-class citizen, selfish, hateful, evil, worthless. Atheists all over America know exactly what I mean.
Do some of you think I am exaggerating? Let me show you the tip of the iceberg, and you can decide for yourself. In 1987, during his presidential campaign, George Bush Sr. said that, as far as he is concerned, atheists are not real American citizens.
Bush is hardly alone. American politicians regularly vilify anyone who is not religious, particularly when talking about a so-called "moral issue". The September 11 terrorist attack and the recent 9th Circuit decision on the pledge of allegiance are good examples. These events provoked waves of religious posturing and hatred of non-believers among our national leaders.
Not even gay people suffer so much prejudice anymore. If any politician utters a slur against homosexuals, half the nation immediately pounces and chastises them, which is proper. Atheism and atheists, on the other hand, never receive such protection. This despite the fact that recent surveys indicate that non-believers make up more than 14% of the U.S. population.
The real horrors, though, are not announced publicly over nation-wide news broadcasts. Most of the harassment and violence is much more quiet and personal. Even school children get into the act.
Meanwhile, people regularly accuse atheists of being "arrogant" or "belligerent", and that is when they are being polite to us. Seriously, given what we have to go through on a regular basis, is it really difficult to understand why so many of us are so aggressive and angry?
I like to think that I am rational and calm. I certainly strive for it. I try to accept those people around me who are religious.
Unfortunately, those very people make it very difficult. Even when confronted by someone like me, very even-tempered and polite, if and when they learn I am an atheist all the usual stereotypes and prejudices boil up.
"You're an atheist?! I hate people like you, who push your godless evil onto society! Why don't you move to Russia or China, where people like you belong?!"
Granted, most responses I receive are nothing this extreme, but the extreme ones like this are not as uncommon as you might want to think.
I have managed to hold onto most of my calm and objectivity despite all of that, but many atheists do not. No matter what people think of us, we are still human. A lifetime of suffering from hatred and bigotry often causes people to succumb to anger and hatred themselves.
Hence, you have a vicious circle. Religious and agnostic people treat atheists with disdain and hatred. Atheists, in turn, become belligerent and aggressive in order to protect themselves from such treatment. Thus, they become the very things these anti-atheists always claimed them to be, which makes the anti-atheist crowd believe their bigoted attitudes to be justified. And so, they continue to treat atheists with disdain and hatred, arrogantly believing that the fault for this problem lies entirely with the atheists.
Because of this, aggressive atheists often counter-punch before the fight even starts. That is hardly rational or fair of them, but a life of bitter experience has taught them that they have no other choice. Right or wrong, they believe that nobody else will ever stand up for them, and that their aggression and belligerence is a matter of self-defense.
The hell of it is, the answer to this problem is so simple that even I am often infuriated by how few people are able to see it. It is the same answer to any kind of prejudice: when both sides start showing each other the respect they deserve, prejudice has a tendency to suddenly vanish. This is just as true for faithism (for lack of a better term) as it is for racism and sexism.
The one thing stopping this is that both sides need to meet each other half way, and neither is willing to do it. The angry atheists are far too convinced that they must protect themselves at all costs, and the anti-atheists are far too convinced that their prejudices are justified. So the self-fulfilling prophecy continues on its merry way, and no progress is ever made.
I try not to fall into that trap. I treat others with respect, and I ask that they treat me likewise. However, it does not seem to do any good. Merely by asking for respect and equal rights, I am immediately accused of (as one agnostic recently put it) "bludgeoning people with my atheism." Or I am called a "godless commie," if my accuser is of a more McCarthyist bent. I have even seen people accuse atheists of being responsible for the terrorist attack on September 11, 2001, though I personally have never been accused of this.
It is neither a crime nor harassment for us to insist that our rights and dignity be respected. To those of you who have not been giving us this respect, I think you will find that all atheists will be far more accepting of you and your beliefs if you were to start now.
You might even get a better reaction from those irrational atheists who tend to counter-punch before the fight starts.