in a nutshell

This post is about perceptions of atheists, how people can improve them. And about a billboard that's about to go up in my home state of Kentucky. And why I think it's a bad idea. And some advice on how not to be *that* atheist.

the post

It's an interesting time for atheists in America. There are polls suggesting an overall decline in religiosity in the fairly religious US of A. Yet one of the final remaining candidates for the interminable race to the White House declared that "Any president who doesn't begin every day on his knees isn't fit to be commander in chief of this nation," a sentiment evidently popular with 40% of Americans. While atheists are still generally an afterthought in this country, atheist groups are cropping up, with various visions about how to engage with broader society. Some just meet to create their own secular churches. Others take out billboards and bus ads.

As a scientist who's managed to somehow carve out a weird niche career studying atheists and perceptions of them, this is fascinating stuff. And I've had the opportunity to talk about research on these topics to groups like the American Humanist Association, Openly Secular, and a variety of local and regional groups. I have one version of a talk loosely titled "popular perceptions of atheists (and how to improve them)" that I've now given a handful of times.

It goes something like this:

  1. Lots of people reaaaaally don't like atheists
  2. From a social psych perspective, this is kinda weird
  3. Seems to boil down to intuitions about morality, and people think atheists are capable of some pretty twisted shit.
  4. But, research tells us how atheists might be able to improve their plight.

Then I talk about the Contact Hypothesis, which is basically the idea that people are less likely to hate a group of people if they get to know members of that group and see that they're pretty much normal folk. This is complicated for atheists, because atheism is a concealable identity. Contact only works when people get that they just met an atheist. So maybe being open about one's disbelief can help.

But contact also only works when it's a positive interaction. People don't know a whole hell of a lot about atheists, and it's sort of an empty stereotype (ask yourself: what kind of food/music do atheists enjoy?). Or, as Ricky Gervais puts it: "atheism is a worldview like not going skiing is a hobby."

And if atheism is a hollow category without potent inferences, people are likely to fill in the stereotype based on their limited experience with atheists. This is problematic, because a lot of the most prominent atheist voices out there take a distinctly anti-religious tack. Or at least the prominent atheists who are known for their prominent atheism. When asked to name an atheist, I bet people are waaaaay more likely to name a Dawkins or Harris than, say, Warren Buffet, Bill Gates, Billy Joel, Natalie Portman, or Johnny Depp. So, most prominent people who are atheists are not prominent atheists. As a result, I suspect a lot of people "fill in" the atheist stereotype with the boisterous prominent atheist motif. For promoting tolerance and trust of atheists, this isn't a good thing.

Then I close with a slide that looks something like this:

So basically, I try to draw upon existing scientific research to make recommendations on how atheists might be able to help others see their group as less creepy and untrustworthy. And basically it comes down to: come out if you want to, but don't come out as a mini-Dawkins anti-religion crusader. Nothing revolutionary or earth-shattering in these insights.

Which brings me to the billboard...

yup, the billboard

Northern Kentucky is home to the Creation Museum. I've visited the museum. And it's not a good place for science. I totally get why a lot of people aren't too thrilled about their new Noah's Ark zoo that's going up, and the row about whether or not it deserves tax breaks. I get it.

What I don't get is one particular response. A local freethinker group (not all avowed atheists, but I often think "a rose by any other name") has decided to raise money to erect this billboard:

Evidently if you donate $500, you can have the privilege of your picture inhabiting one of those silhouettes. The group argues that the billboard is meant to "raise awareness." I don't think that will be the result. To keep things Fair And Balanced, I invited the group to send me a response to be published alongside this blog post (pasted below). To summarize my scientific opinion of this billboard (and others taking a similar approach):

This. Is. Not. A. Good. Idea.

I doubt the billboard will dissuade a single potential visitor. It will probably generate some free publicity for the Ark Park. And it takes a rather petty, parochial, and pugilistic tone that I fear will probably negate any gains made in promoting tolerance and trust of the nonreligious. After all, it's just one more negative piece in the "I wonder what atheists are like" puzzle in a lot of undecided heads. This isn't positive intergroup contact. And it won't ease anti-atheist prejudice. Might even make things worse.

Ironically, I actually gave the very talk summarized above to this group earlier this month. Same take home message slide and everything. Naturally, nobody has to listen to me or my advice. And presenting scientifically-backed advice for solving a problem doesn't guarantee that people will follow the evidence, or that easing anti-atheist prejudice is even the primary goal. But if it is a goal of this group...well, they're ignoring scientific evidence right here, just like the Ark Park folks they oppose.

moving forward

Different groups and people can have different ultimate goals. I have no idea how much it costs to erect a billboard. But I had a few ideas on better and worse ways to spend that money, depending on different goals, including 1) easing anti-atheist prejudice, and 2) promoting science and a scientific worldview.

If a billboard is the only thing that'll do, I'd recommend one of the following approaches, depending on the ultimate goal.

Some limited research suggests that reminding people that there are atheists out there can promote tolerance of atheism.

Some limited research suggests that reminding people that there are atheists out there can promote tolerance of atheism.


Promote science by helping promote the excellent science museum just up the road in Cincy!

Promote science by helping promote the excellent science museum just up the road in Cincy!

Interestingly enough, that top billboard came up right before I moved to Lexington. I thought it was pretty tame, basically just advertising a club. But even it caused a shitstorm, without even bringing up genocide and incest a little bit or dismissing people's core beliefs as based on myth. I can't even imagine the reaction to the new one by the other group.


To close, here are a few seconds from Kelly James Clark giving perhaps my favorite talk from my favorite conference last year (thanks again Cristine!).

Watch the whole talk for context (it's about why atheists shouldn't alienate religious folks from science). And there are some other great talks linked above.

the group's response

I invited the group to send me a response to the blog. Here it is, unedited by moi:

"We agree with your points on the most effective ways to reach out to Christians, but this was not the purpose of the billboard. Our target audience has always been the press. By creating a billboard and press campaign that will grab media attention, we can effectively reach out to closeted atheists and freethinkers to let them know that they are not alone. This is the tactic successfully used by American Atheists and it has generated a record number of members since we launched the campaign. The most resounding message we hear from these new members is "I never knew there was a local group like this here". We have over 20 meetups each month dedicated to activism, community service, education, and social events. We have an interfaith committee that addresses all the points made in your presentation and are working together in the community. Our billboard is advertising for our group, not a dove carrying an olive branch to our creationist neighbors."

Yeah, yeah. Caveats.

I do want to thank this group for inviting me to chat with them. Everyone was super nice. We had a beer afterward. I had a great time. It sounds like they have a lot of very cool stuff in the pipeline. I'm not trying to smear them in any way shape or form. Keep up the various other great things you're doing.

The scientist in me just can't get behind that billboard.

The only personal upshot I see in my role as a guy whose career is studying anti-atheist prejudice, it makes me think "job security."


Also, WTF...has it really almost 2 years since I had a blog post about something other than stats and methods? I've gotta get back to more posts about what I spend most of my time researching!

AuthorWill Gervais