Can Atheists Be Classified by Behaviors?

“. . . for atheism . . . We lose a lot of the inferential richness that often comes from categorization. What kinds of behaviors are typical of atheists? Not going to church? Not praying? There are trends, to be sure, but the only feature that unites most members of the category is a belief. So it makes sense to define the category in terms of belief but, to fill out an otherwise thin classification, the most salient examples of atheists may play a disproportionate role in the inferences we draw — making it easy to think that all atheists are (say) like Dawkins when it comes to their behaviors, not (say) like Tyson.” ~ Tania Lombrozo, psychology professor at the University of California Berkeley. 

The preceding statement is the answer that Professor Tania Lombrozo provides to the question of whether Atheists can be classified in terms of action instead of belief. She seems to have a point, being that there are many types of atheists, with many types of actions, it may be impossible to to come up with a list of behaviors that are universally characteristic of atheists. And even though avoiding religious services may get pretty close to being universal, it’s simply a fact that every week many atheists, perhaps newly minted, perhaps married to a person with belief, will  find themselves willingly going to some religious service or another, perhaps even regularly.

The fact that Atheists exhibit such a wide variety of behaviors may be partly to blame for statistics showing Atheists are not particularly trusted in America.  This is because trust is in part a function of predictability. Deutch (in Rempel,  Holmes,  & Zanna, 1985) described trust as “confidence that one will find what is desired from another, rather than what is feared,” and Scanzoni (in Rempel,  Holmes,  & Zanna, 1985) describes that because trust involves some sort of risk, it is difficult to achieve when parties have limited experience with each other. It also stands to reason that given that trust is associated with risk, that it is hard to achieve when groups have a history of negative experiences with each other. Indeed Rempel, Holms and Zanna (1985) found that in interpersonal relationships belief that relational partners will behave in loving and caring ways regardless of uncertain and difficult circumstances, and that partners can predictably be depended upon is important to trust. Given that groups of people are likely to share similar psychology to individuals (groups are made up of individuals after all), the same may also be true when it comes to trust between groups of people.

Here at Secular Vision we are beginning to lay out a philosophy that nonbelievers should not just share their disbelief, their “No I am not,” they also need to share their “Yes I am,” if they are to be more trusted in society. The reason for this is pretty clear: throughout history disbelief has gotten a bad rap. This is perhaps because when what someone know about out is what you do not believe it is hard to predict how you will behave.  Shared belief is associated with shared values, and shared values are a means of predicting behavior. For instance if two people value the same music you can perhaps expect to see them playing together in a band or attending the same concerts or listening to the same radio station. These shared values translate into a reasonably predictable set of possible behaviors based on the shared value.

Atheists certainly must share some values with our believing brothers and sisters otherwise we could not live in pluralistic societies peaceably. In fact atheists and most believers in America probably do values separation of church and state (albeit for differing reasons), and both groups likely value democracy and the rule of law, peaceful gatherings, public safety, togetherness and a sense of community, and service to one’s community among many other values we’re likely to share. The challenge might just be for Atheists to publicly be seen reliably exhibiting behaviors that are predictors of these and other shared values.


Rempel, J. K., Holmes, J. G., & Zanna, M. P. (1985). Trust in close relationships. Journal Of Personality And Social Psychology49(1), 95-112. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.49.1.95

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How atheists harm their own ability to be accepted by others

Browsing the internet one can’t help but observe a lot of snark across causes and groups, and the atheist community is no exception. Memes decrying believers’ intelligence and taunting nonbeliever’s intellectual prowess, many of them humorous and many of them not, get circulated frequently. One has to wonder what’s behind this sort of tribal behavior, and whether the benefits of such behavior outweigh the detriments. Certainly tribalistic behavior is a double-edged sword in that it sorts people into in-groups and out-groups, which to some extent is the root of distrust between groups. It’s well documented in the persuasion literature that people trust those they view as similar more than they trust those they view as different. For confirmation of this one only has to look to the numbers when Americans are polled about their likelihood of voting for a well qualified atheist who happens to be  a member of their own party; the numbers are grim. 

The question for atheists if we indeed want to become more powerful is “how do we become more trusted without losing our identity and values?” The answer here is that we need to do more to demonstrate and talk about values we share with believers. In his book “Start With Why” and his TED talk “How Great Leaders Inspire Action” Simon Sinek discusses how shared values motivate behavior. The basic take away is that people buy into not what you do but why you do it, and that if you want to inspire people to action (perhaps the action of trusting you with legitimate power) you need to discuss why you do what you do, how your beliefs and passions motivate your own behavior. This is of course backed up not just by Sinek’s own observations, but by over 2000 years of rhetorical theory starting with Aristotle, who first pointed out that to be considered credible one must not just appear to have expertise, but also demonstrate good moral character and goodwill for others. Here at this blog I’ve been using the phrase “sharing our yes I am” (credit for coining this phrase goes to Jeff Isbell) to talk about this very thing.

The problem we face is that much of the “why” behind a lot of our public discourse doesn’t reflect very good moral character or good will toward those whose beliefs differ from ours. When we post memes making fun of religious folks’ intelligence and critical thinking ability, we don’t appear to have good will toward them. And there are entire blogs and Facebook groups that seem to exist for this very purpose. Whether it’s true or not, these behaviors appear to be motivated by a need or desire to be superior to others, which probably isn’t perceived by believers as demonstrating particularly good moral character.

I have to admit that I’m guilty of this very act. When I’ve done it, I’ve done it because of the laughs and likes it gets from my fellow nonbelievers. It draws us closer together; what we laugh at is a great tool for identifying shared values. But as atheists draw closer to each other in this way, we move ourselves further away from our religious coworkers, neighbors, friends, and family. The question we must ask ourselves is “which is more productive, to draw us closer to each other in this way or to draw ourselves closer to those who believe?” There’s no easy answer to this question, and there’s probably no uniform answer either. Because all communication is strategic and goal oriented, which behavior will be appropriate when will always be contextual. I’ll admit, however, that as I’ve grown older I find myself siding in more instances with wanting to be respectful toward those with whom I disagree than I had in my youth.

And that in itself is an interesting phenomenon. Sometime back I found myself studying identity formation and I found Cass’ Stage Model of Sexual Identity intriguing. Even though this model is focused on homosexual identity formation, its stages seemed relevant to my own atheist identity development, particularly the identity pride and identity synthesis stages. The identity pride stage is marked by a certain arrogance/pride in one’s own identity and resentment of the majority identity. In the case of atheists, memes demeaning believers are likely a manifestation of people who are experiencing and may even be stuck in the pride phase. In the identity synthesis stage one still takes pride in his or her identity, but is more at peace with their identity and is less likely to be hostile to the majority group.

At the end of the day, I’m not sure how we move ourselves from identity pride to identity synthesis, but identity synthesis seems like a better place for the majority of our community to be from a public relations stand point. Perhaps the journey from pride to synthesis is a personal one, or maybe it’s a fundamental part of the human experience, something akin to Jospeh Campbell’s cosomogonic cycle in which the hero comes into his or her own by coming to confront the truth about herself with the help of guides and helpers before coming a helper or guide herself. If that is the case, we perhaps have a duty to each other as atheists to guide those coming after us through their stages of development. One way to do that may just be a matter of encouraging each other to mindful when criticizing those who are different from us. Maybe we should be asking ourselves important questions like, “what are my values and how does this behavior reflect them?” and “does this behavior adequately share my ‘yes I am’ or does it share my “no I’m not,’ and which is it more important for me to do in this space?”

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U.S. Navy Approves Atheists Lay Leader

Given the controversy surrounding the ongoing denial of Major Ryan Jean’s bid to become an atheist chaplain, the news that the U.S. Navy approved Chief Petty Officer Martin Healy as an atheist lay leader may have surprised both believes and nonbelievers. This in fact this should probably be unsurprising in the wake of a recent federal court ruling that reclassified secular humanism as a recognized religion for establishment clause purposes.

The appointment of atheist lay leaders in the military is not  just good news for atheism as a movement, but in fact is also good news for both religious and nonreligious soldiers alike. Obviously atheists, agnostics and skeptic soldiers deserve the same senses of belonging and community that are enjoyed by their fellow religious soldiers. There is no doubt that the types of fellowship that result from sharing beliefs and philosophies in a formal space are a net benefit to the emotional and mental well being of those soldiers who participate in those activities. All of us, whether believers or not, should be grateful that the young people who fight on our behalf will have more access to this kind of support.

For the secular movement as a whole this presents the soldiers among us with an opportunity to share their “yes I am” with those who may not understand secular humanism very well. There is a certain power that comes with official recognition and endorsement. Persuasion researcher Dr. Robert Cialdini talks about the power that consensus holds in decision making; his argument is that once an activity or product is endorsed by others, individuals are more likely to choose that activity or product. Official Navy recognition of an atheist lay leader means more soldiers are likely to feel comfortable sharing not only their disbelief, but also what it is in which they do believe because that recognition acts as an endorsement of those behaviors.

Athesit meetings aboard ship are already beginning to happen, and this along with recognized leadership further emboldens the movement by giving it structure that can be observed by nonbelievers and believers alike. This means that atheist soldiers and the good they do is less likely to go unobserved or unrecognized because awareness of their presence on ship will be heightened. It’s widely thought that racial integration of the armed forces was a great boon to racial equality in civilian life; when whites saw blacks exhibiting honor and bravery or were the recipient of their support in battle and vice versa, it surely challenged preconceived notions of racial inequality. Here we have another opportunity like this. Once the atheists in foxholes can also be seen exhibiting their honor and courage, it will be harder for their religious brothers and sisters in arms to continue to think them evil or morally inferior, and those good religious folks who come to understand secular people as morally equivalent will bring those opinions with them when they return from serving our country.

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Raise up your voices

The Local CBS News in Sacramento is reporting that Shauna Baker, a speech and debate teacher at West High School in Tracy California, has taken up the practice of penalizing students who who omit the words “under God” when reciting the pledge of allegiance. Derek Gardena, 17 years old, omitted the words, and has subsequently had points docked from his grade and has been forced to serve detention.  As a university debate coach this hits close to my heart. The whole point of a speech and debate curriculum is to encourage thoughtful citizenship, to teach children the power of their voice and actions to create change in the world, to teach young people that they can use their voices instead of coercion to resolve conflicts, and to learn which ideas are harmless and which may lead to violence. That last category, the category into which we place hate speech, inciting riots, and fighting words, is the kind of speech we punish. If disbelief and a refusal to pay lip service to a god one doesn’t believe in can be categorized with these other despicable behaviors, the secular community will live in constant fear of punishment and coercion.

What’s more, we cannot teach our children that their voices matter if we simultaneously punish them for voicing their opinions. A speech and debate curriculum should only punish students when their behaviors are demonstrably harmful to others or disruptive without pedagogical value. What Baker has done is to forsake an opportunity for debate to occur in a controlled learning environment in which both sides could have the opportunity to change hearts and minds. Instead of punishing this young man and resorting to coercion in the face of peaceful dissent, a behavior that should be regarded as an affront to American and Western values, she could have turned this into a debate, which doesn’t seem like too much to ask of a speech and debate teacher. But now she’s likely taught her students to fear the consequences of speaking up for their beliefs or lack thereof. This is truly a sad day for the academic debate community.

If you’d like to voice your opposition to Baker’s actions, you can email West High School Principle Troy Brown at

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Yes I am

This blog’s first post was about the news that Secular Humanism was ruled a religion by a federal court judge. As was alluded to in that post, it’s not our legal classification that makes nonreligious people who we, it’s what we believe and what we do. Still, labels do matter in that people ascribe meanings to them and then act in the world based on those meanings. How we think about things, how we see them, is how we treat them. In the wake of the court ruling my friend Jeff Isbell sent me the following message, which I think has some important ideas, in response to that first blog post:

“Americans are most comfortable including people who demonstrate possession of certain qualities. One of those qualities is being ‘in’ and not ‘out’. One of the ways to be ‘in’ is by being part of a religion. Why? After all, most people are not very religious . . ..

There is a human quality that is expressed by the use of codes and passwords, [though] these words are not [usually] recognized as codes or passwords. What gives them vital importance is that they are AGREED to be TRUE. As such, acceptance of the existence of God is ‘The Test’ for admittance to the group.

Secular Humanism has been legally named by the court to be a religion with regard to the Establishment clause of the Constitution. This may be a turning point for atheism in society. Approval by the highest court in the land may gently open the door to the inside of society. The question is whether society is ready to accept [our] membership in a ‘religion’ as a replacement for ‘belief in God’. It may be. Most people seem to be moving away from literal belief in the Bible. Mormons and Scientologist are more accepted than atheists though their beliefs are arguably more bizarre. A nominal ‘worship’ of the ‘goodness of the human spirit’, may be sufficient to be accepted.

While the name ‘atheist’ says ‘NO I am NOT’, the name ‘Secular Humanist’ says ‘YES I am’, thus removing any threat.”

That governmental inclusion of a godless group as a ‘religion’ opens the door for it’s people to take their place as equals among a society’s religious masses is an interesting proposal. At the very least it further enshrines our right to have our preferences for treatment considered equally under the law, even if it doesn’t necessarily change the Bible Belt’s private thoughts about us. Take for instance that becoming a legally recognized “religion” grants a stronger case for the recognition and inclusion of atheistic chaplains in military and bureaucratic service, a greater claim that government should support atheistic alternatives to addiction recovery programs like Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, and better opportunity to exempt our organizations from taxation in the same ways that traditional religious organizations enjoy. This last one is particularly important if we are to have any power as a movement. If money equals power, and the ideological competitors who seek to impose their beliefs on us and the public sphere are not only more numerous than our movement, but are also able to keep every dollar they make, while we turn a percentage of our organizations’ earnings over to the government, it’s easy to see how this artificially disadvantages our movement.

While these sorts of legal advantages are important, it would be nice to win over the people in the Bible Belt; it would be nice to not just be “in” as it were, but also to be welcome. For this to happen secularists need to be a visible, positive force in our communities. As Jeff claims, ” . . . the name ‘Secular Humanist’ says ‘YES I am’, thus removing any threat.” But we may be getting ahead of ourselves here. Does the name “Secular Humanist” actually say “yes I am”? I’m not sure, but I know it’s trying to, however if our message isn’t received, then our attempt to say anything is futile. To be clear: we need the idea that we have something positive to offer society to be well understood and accepted if we are to truly take our place as equals in society.

There have been several ongoing attempts to do this, and I think they should be lauded. The most important of these attempts are those that organize Secularists into groups for community service and outreach. Here in San Luis Obispo, California Atheists United  regularly has an outreach booth at the farmers market, and every time I’ve walked by it seems like a friendly place with everyone in good spirits. The Sunday Assembly (the “atheist church”) in London, New York, and Los Angeles offers a weekly forum with a nonthreatening and familiar organizational structure and purpose. And of course there is the American Atheists Association, the Skeptics Society, and other outreach and advocacy organizations. Also of importance are the texts that try communicate who we are and what we value. Greg Epstein, the Humanist Chaplain at Harvard has laid out a wonderful text titled “Good Without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe” and A.C. Grayling’s “The Good Book: A Humanist Bible” are notable examples of the many texts that are honest, beautiful tomes that layout the goodness of the secular community, and how it may even out perform the goodness of traditional religious doctrine.

Lawrence Krauss recently made the claim that all it takes for religious belief to disappear is one generation of people who don’t find the relevance of scripture to their lives. The millennials, with the highest reporting of being nonreligious of any generation of Americans ever, appear to be pushing America in this direction. This presents a unique opportunity for the secular community to offer alternatives for what will stand in place of religion, for how we will make sense of our innate moral impulses, and how we will act in the world. The reclassification of Secular Humanism as a “religion” may just give us new unique ground to share our positive vision for a future in which Jesus, Yahweh, and Mohammed, have joined the ranks of Zeus, Odin, and Zoroaster in western society. But we can really only do that by sharing our “yes I am” rather than our “no I’m not.”



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Red Herrings and Islamophobia

There’s been a lot of talk lately conflating Islamophobia and racism. Of course the knowledgeable among us know that Islam is not a race but a religion made up of people of diverse ethnicities and races. Those who use the term racist to accuse others of Islamophobia are themselves guilty of a kind of racism that views all muslims as brown, exotic people from the east, when that simply is not an accurate depiction of all Muslims. But there’s no magic in words, so terminology aside, I think we need to ask ourselves a question about the role of criticism and how it’s received in western society when it’s deployed against religion.

Religion is a tricky thing. Though it’s a set of ideas that one freely ascribes to, these ideas area held so deeply that they are exalted as a fundamental part of someone’s personhood; it’s tied up in many people’s identities. The result is that when religion is criticized there’s an impulse to get defensive in the same way one reasonably does when they hear someone ridicule another for their race, sexual orientation, sex, or gender. But religion isn’t like those things because those things aren’t ideologies; they do not inherently come with prescriptions for thought and behavior that can be upheld or ignored. They may be in some ways reasonably generalizable predictors of thought and behavior, but those thoughts and behavior are contextual, not inherent.

Religion on the other hand does indeed come with inherent prescriptions for thoughts and behavior. Mind you there is a distinct difference between religious people and religion. Being religious in some ways acts as a predictor of thoughts and behavior as trends within religious sects, but by no means are those thoughts and behaviors necessarily uniform within or across sects. What is generally uniform across religious sects is the collection of ideas contained in the holy book or books that people in a given religion generally choose from to construct their religious identity. Because people don’t choose from those ideas uniformly, they must be open criticism. Simply put: while all people may be created equal, not all ideas are, and lets face it the wisdom of bronze age patriarchs often misses the mark for people living in the digital age, an age in which patriarchal structures are being dismantled and new power dynamics are emerging.

The problem as I see it is that the kind of push back we see against religious criticism is rarely a defense of religious ideas, but rather of religious people. The recent spat between Reza Aslan and Sam Harris is a great example. When Harris said that “Islam is the motherlode of bad ideas . . .,” Aslan didn’t respond by defending the specific sorts of ideas to which Harris was referring. Frankly, as a thinking person he couldn’t. What highly educated modern academic is ready to offer up a robust defense of the religious scriptures that allow the likes of ISIS to justify their brutality? But Islam is a part of Aslan’s identity so he had to offer up some defense of his identity, so he responded by defending moderate muslims. While we should be glad that there are intelligent, modern people who have looked over their religious texts and rejected the sort of ancient wisdom that calls for brutality in the name of the sacred, this in no way engages the point brought to bear that there is a lot of twisted nonsense in Islam and other religions that needs to be rejected for the sake of human decency. Furthermore, it is no surprise that moderates reject their religion’s brutal recommendations; this has been the status quo for the entirety of the modern era; let’s face it, though there are certainly timeless truths that can be learned from religious texts, the totality of ancient wisdom just isn’t applicable to modern life, and despite what ISIS, Al Qaeda, and others might believe, really liking Yahweh a lot probably shouldn’t be a suicide or death pact. To be clear Aslan goes wrong in this way: that there are moderates is not the point. Moderates only matter when they are willing to check the aggression of fundamentalists. In this vein the Kurdish Peshmerga are worthy of praise; much of the Iraqi Army leaves a lot to be desired. However, lets not get ahead of ourselves; we have yet to see what the most faithful of these groups would do with real power in their hands.

When it comes to defeating fundamentalism, the only prescription is to change minds, and the power of argument and criticism is one good means by which we can do that. Now argument and criticism of the ilk provided by Harris may not be an effective way to change minds; that seems a fair criticism. But if that is your critique, make that critique instead of offering the red herring of forcing the critic to pay lip service to a moderate majority that has yet to reel in the worst extravagances of the fundamentalist minority.

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A rose by any other name . . .

The world won’t exactly be rocked by news that on Oct. 30 a federal judge declared Secular Humanism a religion for the purposes of the establishment clause, but for a certain set of both irreligious and religious people this will be a source of consternation. It’s easy to understand why people on both sides of the issue might be rubbed the wrong way; however arbitrarily they’re assigned, words have meanings, and people and institutions take actions in the world based on those meanings.

For those who after much fretting and existential struggle decided to leave their religion of birth, it’s likely they went through a pretty major identity shift. This shift likely came with plenty of cognitive dissonance and pushback from many, if not all, of their religious friends and family; coming out as an atheist is often no easy task. For those who have remained faithful or gained faithfulness, they likely feel a special connection to the word religion because of their own personal associations between a word and a community defined at it’s core by a shared belief in not just the values that religion may bring, but the point of origin and ultimate enforceability of those values in the next life. Bottom line: both groups will have members who will experience some negative emotions over this for understandable reasons.

As previously stated any consternation over the legal reclassification of the term Secular Humanism is likely based on the fact that words have meanings and those meanings generate action in the real world. As atheists, agnostics, skeptics, and other secularists we ought to be sure that when we’re upset it’s about the actions those meanings generate, not our attachment to words. Secularists ought not treat the term “Secular Humanism” in any way similar to the way a fundamentalist cleric would treat the words in a copy of the Koran, as if they hold some special magic that need be protected. We should treat “Secular Humanism” like any other bit of language, as a fluid tool used to accomplish communicative and other goals. In this instance treating Secular Humanism as a religion, even if it’s absent a god or god’s, even if it leaves a sour taste in some of our mouths, serves the nobel purpose of ensuring people without belief have the same rights under the law as believers, and that is a good thing. Simply put, we likely have no more to fear from Secular Humanism being called a religion than religious folks had to fear from legally recognized homosexual romantic partnerships being called a marriage. It’s not the classification of our name that makes us who we are, it’s what we believe and what we do.

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