Like 40 percent of Americans, I found myself on a Sunday morning in a place of worship; specifically, I was sitting in the pew of a church. Not just any church, but Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains, GA, which former President Jimmy Carter attends and where he was scheduled to teach Sunday school that morning. After "checking in" on Facebook, I received notifications and text messages with the same question, "You're in a CHURCH?" Yes, this atheist was in church. Yes, this atheist was going to listen to a Sunday school class and participate in a full church service. But just because I don't believe in any higher power, did that mean that I couldn't reap any judicious lessons about humanity that might be taught?
There's a common misconception that atheists are untrustworthy and immoral and will burst into flames upon entrance of any religious facility. Now, there are people of all faiths or nonfaith who are untrustworthy or immoral, but I am here to tell you that none us will spontaneously combust. All jokes aside, this is a harmful and hurtful stereotype that those of nonfaith face. The New York Times recently published an article highlighting a new study by the journal Nature: Human Behaviour that showed a strong bias against atheists among those questioned in more than 13 countries, including the United States. The shared suspicion of nonbelievers as dangerous is still alive and well worldwide. The survey showed an "extreme moral prejudice against atheists," and respondents even said they believed serial killers were more likely to be atheists. (Which begs the question: what about terrorist attacks conducted by faith-based persons vs. atheists/agnostics?)
The nonbeliever portrays an unwelcome threat to the religious, when, really, we are just trying to live our lives.
Teachings from the books of various religions including Christianity, Judaism, and Islam reinforce punitive measures for those who don't obey the religious teachings as lessons to be learned — often brutal lessons. This is to, literally, put the fear of God in you. One would think that this would lead to better behavior among adults and children, a kinder mentality toward fellow humans. And yet, another study conducted by a team of developmental psychologists found that "children from religious families are less kind and more punitive than those from non-religious households." This is not to say that there aren't some good lessons to be learned from these religious books; on the contrary, commandments such as "Love thy neighbor as thyself" and not to gossip about others are exercises from which we could all do a little better in practicing. But when these teachings cease to be about genuine kindness and more about who can be the better worshiper, this is when religion starts to lose its credibility in regards to morality.
The author, right, with former president Jimmy Carter, center, and his wife, Rosalynn Carter, left, at Maranatha Baptist Church. Photo courtesy the author.
Here's the thing about atheists: when we show altruism, it's not to assuage some higher power or in the hopes that we are going to get a front-row seat in some kind of heaven or afterlife. We also don't have the fear or guilt that often comes with religious pledging. We practice acts of decency toward our fellow humans on this earth because that's just what you do. So why are atheists still judged and treated as if we're dangerous? My take on this is what plagues all of us at some point in our lives: fear of the unknown. In my experience, many who have not found their own comfort and confidence in their religious lives project their unease onto "the other." Atheists are routinely seen as "the other." The nonbeliever portrays an unwelcome threat to the religious, when, really, we are just trying to live our lives.
What the study published in The New York Times failed to explore or answer was why atheists are seen as immoral and less trustworthy. What we should now ask is why atheists and agnostics are seen as more likely to be "psychopathic serial killer(s)," when there's not any evidence proving this belief as accurate? Who gets to define "morality"? Why is the idea of morality synonymous with religion, when no one should have to be driven by gods, faith leaders, or fear to simply be charitable, decent people?
The person to my left, who was raised Baptist but turned Episcopalian, guided me through the service, as I stood unfamiliar and unsure.
I sat in the sanctuary that Sunday with a wide array of people from various states, countries, faiths, and nonfaiths, all of our differences acknowledged and welcomed. The person to my left, who was raised Baptist but turned Episcopalian, guided me through the service, as I stood unfamiliar and unsure. President Carter's lesson that morning focused on Ezekiel 37 and The Valley of the Dry Bones. While this lesson serves as a reminder to those of the Christian faith that God can make bad things in their lives better, President Carter's words and actions transcended the scripture. He himself presents as an example, as he takes the dry bones of wood and turns them into homes through his volunteerism for Habitat For Humanity. Regardless of how big or small, our gestures to humanity as a whole are how we make a difference, rather than where or who we choose to worship or not.
Atheists are your neighbors, your coworkers, your classmates. As an atheist, I awaken each day with the same hopes and fears as those who believe in a higher power. I just go about tackling those challenges a little bit differently. Rather than continuing to further the idea of atheists as "immoral" and reinforcing a falsely based fear, we need to redirect the dialogue and have the conversation. As people navigating this planet for a fairly short amount of time, we're all just trying to do the best we can, while leaving this place a little more compassionate than before, whether we believe in a god or not.