A Tempe family appeared on a billboard this month promoting the Freedom From Religion Foundation in the hope of dispelling some of the myths about nonreligious free-thinkers. The Schinellers — Freddie and Holly and their four children — are pictured alongside the slogan: "Love + critical thinking = open minds."
Sometimes I realize what a bubble I live in. I'm lucky enough to have a supportive family and to live in an area of the country where people don't talk much about religion, much less judge each other for it. But in a place like Tempe, coming out as a nonreligious family is a brave thing.
A quick scan of the Internet reveals some of the more common assumptions about nonbelievers. They include, but are not limited to, the following:
- We hate religion and religious people.
- We raise our kids without a moral code.
- We want to wipe out Christmas.
- We're liberal, Fox News-bashing, tax-loving socialists.
- We're arrogant, angry, militant, selfish and generally unpleasant to be around.
- We secretly believe in God.
- We turned away from religion because of a bad experience or trauma.
- We don't believe in charity.
- We can't be trusted.
- We enjoy trampling on people's rights to express their religious beliefs in public.
- And, my personal favorite, we worship the devil.
Now, I'm not particularly fond of any of these stereotypes. I'm even less fond knowing that children might, at any point, suffer as a result of them. And, like the Schinellers, I lament the fact that my daughter might be judged by the faith of her family and not by the content of her character. (Something tells me that Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. — a man of deep and abiding faith himself — would understand that lament.)
But let's be honest: Stereotyping is a two-way street. Another quick scan of the Internet reveals some of the more common stereotypes about believers:
- They want to convert everyone else to their point of view.
- They think everyone outside their faith will go to hell.
- They're uneducated, conservative and close-minded.
- They reject evolution and distrust science.
- They think everything in the Bible is factual and/or the word of God.
- They support school prayer.
- They would never elect an atheist president.
- They're homophobic and sexist.
- They love Fox News.
- They use religion as a "Get out of Jail Free Card."
- They stereotype nonbelievers.
Stereotypes may be built on shaky ground, but they still manage to stay standing year after year. I don't know if it's realistic to hope that our generation can shift the tide of public opinion on either side of the religion debate. Or that we can — in small, everyday ways — make the world a kinder, gentler place for our kids. But I think it's possible. And don't we owe it to the Schinellers to try?
In closing, I'll mangle another brilliant line from a 60s icon: Ask not what others can do to break stereotypes about you. Ask what you can do to break stereotypes about them.