Category Archives: Views from the Great White North

Canadian organizations can convey positive image of atheists

Canadian atheist organizations can support their members and all non-believers by presenting positive images of us as individuals and as a community.

Increase our visibility

“I think that something similar to the ‘atheist bus campaign’ would work, but with pictures of people with names, occupations and simply, ‘I am an atheist’. Letting everyone know that they all know someone without beliefs in the supernatural.”

“I believe that increasing the visibility of ‘average people’ who are non-believers would help dispel the idea that non-believers are ‘not like me’. Being more visible in the public sphere in everyday contexts such as participating in charitable events might help, as would encouraging the non-religious to readily identify themselves.”

Provide examples of how we can be good without god

“I think the biggest problem is defamation and discrimination based on a misguided concept of morality as religiously-based. Information campaigns to combat this insidious denial of humanity to atheists are a good deal more important than ‘there’s probably no God’ billboards which only taunt and antagonize believers.”

“Simply promote the position that atheists are just as good and just as moral as anyone. We need to eliminate the bigotry.”

“I think giving examples of successful and moral atheists is the best way to reduce the stigma of being labelled an atheist. Once the stigma is removed, I think more people will admit to being atheists.”

“Demonstrate that non believers are not vicious about religion, that we are good people, good without god.”

“Show that atheists aren’t bad people without morals, demonstrate that one does not need to believe in a deity to be a moral and productive member of a society.”

Show Canadians we care about our communities

“Provide visible opportunities for non-believers to contribute to their community.”

“Work towards increasing explicitly atheist community charity endeavours and volunteer opportunities for atheists.”

“Anything that encourages atheists to make a positive contribution to society rather than focusing on the negative aspects of belief will improve our public appearance, and it’s just the right thing to do.”

“Be helpful to everyone – food drives, road clean up, etc.”

“I think just by helping and being visible without proselytizing our non-belief. If we are seen helping the poor, for example, without pushing ideas on them and holding a sandwich ransom for listening to a sermon, people will see that we are moral, helpful, and modest.”

 

*all quotes are drawn from answers provided by Canadian atheists to Tom Arcaro’s Serving Atheists survey.

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Guidance for Leaders in Canada’s Atheist Movement

I’ve finally gotten around to reading all the comments that Canadian Atheists generously typed in while filling out Tom Arcaro’s Serving Atheists survey.

The answers to the question – what can leaders of atheist organizations do to better serve non-believers? – can be summarized as follows:

  1. Make the movement more visible to everyone (believers and non-believers);
  2. Provide the public with positive portrayals of atheists and non-believers;
  3. Get political – play an advocacy role to defend the separation of church and state, and defend the rights of non-believers;
  4. Welcome everyone – don’t get hung up on labels, make space for families, strive for inclusion;
  5. Provide educational, awareness-raising and social events.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be sharing respondents’ detailed comments about each one of these recommendations. There’s so much for us to learn! What would you have Canadian organizations do to support non-believers? Leave a comment – let’s get this discussion started.

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Canadian atheists share experiences of stigmatization

Canadians are notoriously polite, which doesn’t mean we don’t discriminate or oppress each other. When it comes to religion and atheism, similar rules apply – believe what you will, just don’t talk about it.

“I live in Canada, where there is general indifference to one’s religious beliefs. If you casually mention your beliefs in a conversation, no one will care.” – Male survey respondent, Canada

Religion in casual conversation – “What did you do this weekend?” “I went to church.” – is generally ok. But speaking fervently about your belief or non-belief generally makes folks feel uncomfortable.

“Mainstream believers (Christians except for ultra conservative sects) are not stigmatized at all, while religious minorities (e.g. Muslims and ultra conservative Christian sects) are strongly stigmatized.” – Female survey respondent, Canada.

Similarly, if you are a quiet atheist, most people will not care. But if you start talking about it…well, that’s when stigmatization rears its ugly head.

When asked to provide a recent example of a social situation where they had experienced stigmatization because of their atheism, 57 women and 97 men from Canada shared their story.

Typical reactions they encountered included:

  • Questions
  • Doubt and fear
  • Surprise or ‘double-take’
  • A cold shoulder
  • Sadness and pity: You’ll never be happy or fulfilled, etc…
  • Social awkwardness
  • Shunning
  • Loss of friendship and family relations
  • Accusations of being immoral: lacking a moral compass

There were also more aggressive and discriminatory reactions that included being given a bible or crucifix, online death threats, being fired from a job, or being preached to during times of grief and loss.

“I was fired from a job after one month. A week after my born again Christian boss found out I was an atheist.” – Female respondent, Canada

“I once casually told one of my managers at work that I was an atheist. Turned out he was a member of some kind of evangelical Baptist church. After that he started causing me grief and eventually invented reasons to get me transferred out of his team and leaving me with a huge black mark on my personnel file.” – Male respondent, Canada

“My children were attacked (physically) when they innocently told playmates they didn’t believe in a god. When I confronted the parents of the attackers, only one reprimanded their child. The rest called me an unfit mother and a satan worshiper. After that, I was no longer asked to participate in school functions, community events. My children became ‘persona non grata’ as well.” – Female respondent, Canada

These go beyond stigmatization to outright discrimination. But when compared to the responses of American atheists (many more rejections, death threats, much more fear and social consequences to being out as an atheist), most examples of stigmatization provided by Canadians were relatively mild. One respondent compared her experience in Canada with her previous experience of living in the States.

“I don’t have a recent experience, but I did have an unpleasant Thanksgiving while living in D.C. I was pressured to go to someone’s (from work) for dinner. I was asked to say grace, which I found extremely presumptuous and I replied that I didn’t say grace, I was an atheist. You would have thought I had horns, the way they all looked at me! I had never experienced anything like that in Canada.” – Female respondent, Canada.

Indeed, when I read the examples from our American counterparts, I can’t help but think we’ve got it easy. Of course, politeness should not be confused with acceptance – we still have a long way to go. How can we talk about the wacky beliefs of our politicians if speaking about people’s religion is seen as impolite? That’s one of the challenges facing the atheist movement up North.

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Is Canada more accepting of atheists?

Well, I’ve reviewed the U.S. and Canadian data and one thing stands out. Canadians feel less stigmatized and more comfortable letting others know they are atheists.

35% of Canadians who completed the survey felt no stigma related to being an atheist. Only 14% of their U.S. counterparts could say the same.

When asked how stigmatized they felt atheists are in their culture, 15% of Canadians said not at all, but only 2% of U.S. respondents could say the same. 49% of American respondents said atheists were very stigmatized, compared to 10% among Canadians.

Canadians were also less likely to feel that there would be any social impact to having people at their workplace find out about their atheism. 70% felt that there would be no impact at all, but only 45% of Americans agreed. In fact, 67% of Americans said there would be moderate to major negative impact if people in their workplace found out. Only 27% of Canadian respondents felt there would be such an impact.

The results were similar when we asked if they felt there would be any social impact if people from their local community found out they were atheists. 70% of Canadian atheists felt there would be no impact, compared to only 38% of American atheists. 59% of U.S. respondents felt there would be moderate to major social impact.

It’s little wonder that Canadian atheists feel more comfortable being open about their non-belief. When asked if they would feel comfortable telling people they were atheists at a social gathering (if the topic came up), 58% of Canadians said yes, while 40% of American atheists agreed. Maybe that just means American atheists are extra courageous for coming out in such a hostile environment.

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Excited about Canadian Data

Let me start with a short introduction.

I’m an atheist and I have a naturalistic perspective on the world. That means I reject god and other extraordinary claims that lack  supporting evidence.

I first met Tom a couple of years ago after reading the results of his last study on non-believers/atheists and stigma. I wrote him an email and we’ve been chatting ever since.

I’ve just had a peak at the survey responses from Canadians. I can’t wait to delve into them and see what’s there. I’ll be posting findings and my thoughts on what they might mean on this blog.

 

Rachel

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