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New faith column: Atheists finding community and confronting the bigots

July 11, 2010

I always enjoy writing about atheism, partly because I love the challenges non-believers pose to believers. I think it’s good for everyone to ask difficult questions, examine their beliefs and determine what is true in this world. This piece looked at the new billboard I blogged about earlier and the efforts among atheists, secularists, agnostics and others in Austin to invite skeptics to join communities such as the Atheist Community of Austin and the Ethical Society of Austin, among others. I also address some of the negative attitudes our society holds toward non-believers. Here’s the link to the column on Statesman.com and the full text below.

Billboard seeks to tell non-believers: you are not alone

Don Rhoades isn’t interested in stealing anyone’s faith. His wife and many of his family members are Christian. But as an atheist, Rhoades, a 58-year-old project manager for an Austin semiconductor company, enjoys sharing a meal or hearing a lecture with like-minded people.

As he figured, doesn’t everybody? Which is why Rhoades and other Austin-area atheists, agnostics and secularists are promoting a billboard that went up last month on Interstate 35 near Grand Avenue Parkway. It reads: “Don’t believe in God? Join the club.” At the bottom is the Web site for the newly formed Austin Coalition of Reason.

The billboard isn’t meant to mock religion or even deny the existence of God, says Rhoades, the coordinator of the coalition. It’s a message to folks out there who don’t believe: There are other people who think like you. You, too, can find a community.

Members of the coalition — six local groups that include staunch atheists as well as the Ethical Society of Austin, which welcomes believers and skeptics alike — gather regularly, do charity work, hold pot-luck dinners and support each other in times of need.

“This is something the Atheist Community of Austin has in common with the First Baptist Church,” says Rhoades, the coalition’s coordinator.

On one level, the billboard extends an innocuous invitation. On another, it’s a threatening statement that will likely anger and threaten some people. (A billboard in North Carolina that read “One Nation Indivisible” recently was defaced when someone spray-painted “Under God.”)

So far, the negative reactions to the Austin billboard have been limited to e-mails and comments in online forums and on talk radio shows. In a city that celebrates diversity, I am always startled by the stereotypes and suspicion that emerge when the conversation turns to atheism.

I see this every semester at the University of Texas, where I teach the course “Journalism and Religion.” We study major faiths and talk about how journalists can fairly and accurately represent those believers. At the end of the semester, when we study atheism, I ask students what comes to mind when they hear the word atheist. Responses often include: Selfish. Angry. Amoral. Narcissistic.

Their opinions usually soften after I bring in Matt Dillahunty, president of the Atheist Community of Austin, to speak. He talks about morality and science and explains why he doesn’t believe in supernatural stories, whether it’s God or Bigfoot or the Tooth Fairy. Most students leave with the conviction that atheists — like any other group they cover — deserve fair treatment by the press.

But many in this country still hold a dim view of nonbelievers, as evidenced by polls in recent years. One survey showed atheists as the least trusted minority group in the U.S.

There’s a certain element of absurdity in the notion that people are untrustworthy because they choose to not believe in a higher power. That if people are not motivated by reward or punishment in the next life that they will not be able to behave well in this one.

But these attitudes are deeply ingrained. Rhoades speculates that as free thought began to flourish at the turn of the 20th century, the emergence of socialism and communism — often in the form of godless dictatorships — frightened people.

“Atheism,” he says, “became associated with the enemy.”

Today, one could argue that atheism is experiencing another resurgence with the wild success of authors such as Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett. But religion has not lost its influence on public policy, elections, education and culture.

And negative views toward atheists persist, Rhoades says, which is why it’s important for skeptics to become more mainstream and help remove some of the baggage associated with atheism.

“There is a huge number of people who are non-theistic of one stripe or another,” he says.

And in a climate that’s still frosty to non-believers, it may be comforting for those folks to know they have friends in Austin.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. bob fletcher permalink
    July 12, 2010 8:55 am

    I thought your piece was a little of the variety of “they’re not bad people–why, look at this guy over here who is gentle and peaceful and does volunteer work and lots of other nice stuff and just happens to be an atheist.” Maybe contrary to what you think, most people get that not all atheists are awful creatures just like not all Muslims are homicidal maniacs. The problem is that when often someone encounters an atheist (most typically in the media–think Bill Maher) they are indeed strident jerks (“a__hole” is more appropriate but this is a religious blog) bent on casting dispersion far and wide on Christians (let’s be honest and admit that Jews and Muslims are included in their rants).

    Full disclosure: I’m technically a Catholic, but a lapsed and pitiful one at best and mostly agnostic. I see a lot in organized religion that no longer or never had any appeal to me but I don’t feel the need to criticize those who find comfort in their faith. Hard core atheists would be better received if they were less about that big chip on their shoulder and more about borrowing one of the better aspects of Christianity and being a witness for their (non) faith in living their lives and interacting with others. I guess what I’m saying is that self-righteousness is not exclusive to believers.

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