Why do atheists inspire such hatred?

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The question, "Why do atheists inspire such hatred?" was the on-screen title of a televised discussion segment[1] hosted by Paula Zahn, which aired on CNN on Jan 31, 2007. The discussion followed a prerecorded piece[2] about two atheist families who say they were discriminated against because of their beliefs (or lack thereof).

The segment

The panelists, all of whom were theists (two Christians and a Jew), included:

The questions asked by Zahn in the segment were:

  1. So, do you think atheists should keep their religious beliefs secret?
  2. Are any of you [panelists] going to defend them here tonight?
  3. What happened to "love thy neighbor" and that we should able to practice free speech?
  4. How do you believe they [atheists] are imposing their beliefs?
  5. When you look at the statistics that atheists are the most hated of all the minorities, above gays... [Okay, not a question, but a comment. All the panelists seemed not to believe the statistics were accurate.]
  6. Can you explain to me where you feel the assault, when 97% of the folks in this country claim to worship some kind of god, so you have 1 to 3 percent of this population that doesn't believe in God — who are they hurting?

Although some reasonable statements were made, each panelist raised several points that were clearly incorrect or misleading, or based on various fallacies. The following remarks are paraphrased in many cases, but try to adhere to the intent of the speakers.

Points raised by Karen Hunter
  • Atheists believe in "nothing".
  • "When does it end? I mean, we took prayer out of schools. What else do they want?"
  • Atheists don't have good PR or marketing.
  • If atheists had "Hallmark cards", maybe they wouldn't feel so left out.
  • Atheists "need to shut up" and "let people do what they do", and "stay in their [place]" (the actual word used is not intelligible, but the meaning is clear from the context).
  • Atheists are "crying wolf all the time".
  • Taking prayer out of schools left a lack of morality in schools.
  • Prayer was "taken out of schools" because "an atheist went to court". (In fact, regarding the two most relevant Supreme Court cases, Engel v. Vitale involved nine parents of students in New Hyde Park, New York, and the case Abington Township School District v. Schempp was brought by a Unitarian Universalist resident of Abington Township, Pennsylvania.)
  • If you don't want prayer in school, then don't pray.
  • You can't pick an atheist out of a crowd. [True, but presented as an argument against the statistics that indicate atheists are the "most hated of all the minorities".]
  • According to the latest Harris poll, nonbelievers constitute about 8 to 12 percent of the population.
  • Atheists aren't hurting anyone, and I don't personally have any problem with atheists.
  • Atheists shouldn't "impose on my rights" to have prayer in schools, say the Pledge of Allegiance, or honor my God.
Points raised by Debbie Schlussel
  • Atheists discriminate against those who are religious (more than the other way around).
  • America is a Christian nation.
  • Atheists don't complain about cases of religion in school settings when the religion being promoted is Islam.
  • Atheists are "the intolerant ones".
  • Freedom of religion does not mean freedom from religion.
  • "Obnoxious" Michael Newdow took his Pledge of Allegiance case to the Supreme Court, while his child [on whose behalf the case was brought] "didn't know what was going on". [In fact, Newdow won in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, so it was the school district who appealed the case to the Supreme Court.]
  • In Europe, there are more atheists, they have "lost God", and "the Church is not that strong".
  • "Europe is becoming Islamist, it's fast falling, and intolerance is increasing."
  • The United States has not become "like Europe" because "we have strong Christians, and because atheists are not strong".
Points raised by Steven Smith
  • You are entitled to believe what you want, as long as you aren't imposing your beliefs on other people. [The first reasonable argument presented in the discussion.]
  • Atheists mainly encounter problems in "red states", not in places like New York City.
  • Everyone I know loves the Lord.
  • Atheists don't "need to shut up" because "there's a whole bunch of people in this world that we can look at and say they need to shut up, and they certainly don't". [An odd argument, to be sure.]
  • I don't believe that atheists are the most hated minority group.
  • Atheists want to take "under God" out of the Pledge of Allegiance, saying that's a Christian thing, but what if you're a Muslim? What if you're somebody of a different belief? If we're "inclusionary", why don't we include all things? But we're not, and that's my point. [The exact argument being presented here is not clear, but it should be pointed out that while the phrase "under God" was originally supposed to refer to the Christian god, in fact Jews, Muslims and Christians all worship the same god.]

During the latter stages of the discussion, a wall-sized monitor in the background was displaying the question, "Are atheist tactics too militant?"


As pointed out by Matt Dillahunty on The Non-Prophets, instead of "Why do atheists inspire such hatred?", the question should have been phrased, "Why do some people hate atheists?"

Atheism doesn't "inspire" hatred. In fact, atheism doesn't have anything to do with hatred or love, war or peace. It is simply rejection of theist claims.

Some atheists do in fact unleash "hate" against theists, but that is not part of the "teachings" of atheism (mainly because there are no teachings), and such atheists are not acting on their "atheist beliefs" (i.e., the lack of belief in any gods) but upon other beliefs separate from, but perhaps compatible with, their atheism.

On the other hand, one could easily turn the question around and ask, "Why does religion inspire such hatred?" This question not only makes more sense than the original one, it has several possible answers:

  1. Indoctrination
  2. Religious forms of nationalism
  3. Divisiveness
  4. Competition
  5. Prejudice

Religion has spread a lot of hate not only around the globe, but also down the generations. Not only are atheists targeted, but other theists who do not share the beliefs of other theists. (In fact, the minority theist group is often labeled as "atheists" by the dominant one.)

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