So, I’m sure you’ve seen all the stats about how people would vote for a Muslim before an atheist, and how atheists as a group are considered less trustworthy than people of any religion, and all that sort of stuff. I think I may have a rough idea about why that is.
We all know it’s not polite to rag on people for their religion. That’s not merely because it’s polite to show respect for other people’s beliefs and opinions. For most people religion isn’t so much a worldview as an upbringing.
Some people do adopt a new religion (or get much more serious about religion than they were brought up to be), but most people go to pretty much the same church, in pretty much the same way, as their parents, and their parents before them. Criticize someone’s churchgoing habits, and you’re not just criticizing what they believe, you’re criticizing the way their parents raised them.
Even people who know their upbringing has been kind of screwed up will tend to get defensive about it when someone else criticizes it (don’t believe me? Try criticizing someone’s mama right after he gets done criticizing her — let me know how that works out for you). And most people understand that other folks can’t entirely help the way they were raised, and tend to make accommodations for such differences in upbringing.
But atheism’s a bit different. Sure, some people are raised to be atheist, and probably quite a few people go through the motions of religion with an awareness that going through the motions is really all that they’re doing. But atheism isn’t a choice of religion, it’s a repudiation of religions.
It’s one thing to be a Protestant talking to a Catholic (or vice versa); it’s a whole other thing to be an atheist talking to a Catholic (or Protestant, or Muslim or Hindu or whatever). It’s not like telling a Packers fan that you like the Bears (though that can be problematic enough), it’s like telling a Packers (or Bears) fan that you think football itself is silly.
In short, atheism bothers people because it’s usually a conscious decision to reject religious upbringing, rather than a reflection of it. If someone belongs to another religion, even one that says you’re going to hell, you don’t treat them as if they’ve reached that conclusion — it’s what they were raised with. Bashing someone’s religion is like bashing their family.
(T-shirt pic via Zazzle)