Chris Stedman is the Interfaith and Community Service Fellow for the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard University and the Managing Director of State of Formation, a new initiative at the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue. Beacon Press will publish his book (F)a(i)theist in 2012.
That question, posed by religious people (to be fair, I've gotten that question from many atheists, though usually for a different reason-for more on that, check out this recent piece I wrote on atheists and interfaith work), is usually followed by a confession that the individual offering it hasn't met many atheists. I often push back on this a bit, inviting them to think about whether they truly don't know any atheists. Even after further consideration, most cannot think of a single atheist they know personally.
It isn't much of a surprise that many claim to not know any atheists; surveys demonstrate that atheists constitute an incredibly small percentage of the population. While some 15 percent of Americans report having no religion, only about 2 percent of Americans use labels such as atheist, agnostic, Humanist, and less widely-recognized identifiers like "freethinker," "bright," or "Pastafarian," to describe themselves, suggesting that the majority of nonreligious Americans don't identify as nontheists.
Because we represent such a small sliver of the American population and are often seen in a negative light, I believe that it is imperative that atheists make themselves known. A 2010 Gallup poll demonstrated something the LGBTQ community has recognized for some time: people are significantly more inclined to oppose gay marriage if they do not know anyone who is gay. Similarly, a Time Magazine cover story last year featured revealing numbers that speak volumes about the correlation between positive relationships and civic support; per their survey, 46 percent of Americans think Islam is more violent than other faiths and 61 percent oppose Park51 (or the "Ground Zero Mosque"), but only 37 percent even know a Muslim American. Another survey released around the same time, by Pew, reported that 55 percent of Americans know "not very much" or "nothing at all" about Islam. The disconnect is clear-when only 37 percent of Americans know a Muslim American, and 55 percent claim to know very little or nothing about Islam, the negative stereotypes about the Muslim community go unchallenged. The same logic can be extended to atheists-the fewer relationships we have with people of faith, the worse our image will be.
But it isn't enough that religious people know atheists -- the quality of the relationships that exist between atheists and the religious makes a significant difference in undoing anti-atheist attitudes. As Robert Wright wrote in the New York Times last year, the LGBTQ community has learned that engaged relationships change people's hearts and minds, and this is a model that can be applied to the issue of anti-atheist bias as well.
This is one reason I, as an atheist, believe that interfaith work is imperative. Humanizing those with different religious and philosophical worldviews is essential to ensuring that pluralism is upheld for all communities. Engaged diversity breeds the idea that all people's rights must be protected; through positive and productive relationships, we learn that another has value, worth, and the right to dignity.
Based on my experiences as an atheist and an interfaith activist, I have confidence that building diverse coalitions will alter the negative public perceptions about atheists. I'm working on a book about this, tentatively titled (F)a(i)theist: How One Atheist Learned to Overcome the Religious-Secular Divide, and Why Atheists and the Religious Must Work Together (Beacon Press, 2012), and I've been fortunate enough to speak about it and the work I do at nearly twenty colleges and universities across the U.S. this year. At these speeches, I've met more religious people than I can count who've told me that they'd never considered that atheists might hold similar hopes and aspirations, and that they were going to make an effort to get to know more atheists so that they could better understand a group of people they had previously seen as radically unlike them. I'm daily inspired by the willingness of religious people I meet to challenge their beliefs about atheists, and by atheists I know who are dedicated to building constructive relationships with the religious.
The other day I had dinner with my grandma, and we got to talking about the work I do. As a progressive Christian, she has long been supportive of my queer and interfaith activism, but she's never seemed to fully understand my atheism. After some discussion, she surprised me by asking directly how I can offer the nontheist students I work with a sense of purpose and hope. I talked to her about my habit of finding a quiet outdoor spot to sit and consider the wonder of the natural world and the joy of making meaning alongside others, and the satisfaction I've gotten from sharing that practice with others. Speaking excitedly, I explained that the community of atheists I work with at The Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvardis a diverse group of people interested in having a positive impact on the world and living lives of fulfillment. Sipping her tea, she smiled and said, "We may not believe the exact same things, but I think I finally get where you're coming from."
I'm sure I will continue to get questioned about my atheism as I persist in this work, but as I build more and more positive relationships with people of faith, I'm also sure that those questions will lead to increased understanding.
Engaging in interfaith coalition-building efforts requires a certain level of vulnerability and humility -- to be understood, we all must work to understand. To understand our privileges, our pasts, our prejudices, and what we each bring to the table in order to strengthen ourselves as a community and as a country, we must be willing to challenge the beliefs we have about "the other."
It begins with a relationship. To atheists and religious people alike: Are you willing to put yourselves out there and meet one another in the middle?