A former student of mine (I'll call her Jan) was working for a time as a chaplain at a large hospital. While she worked with chaplains from many different faith traditions -- Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist -- during one coffee break she told the others that she could not work with a Wiccan. Unbeknownst to her, one of the other chaplains sitting at the table was a Wiccan. Not surprisingly, by the end of the day Jan had been reprimanded by her supervisor.
Now Jan was coming to me and asking my opinion. This was my first question to her: "Well do you know what Wiccans believe?" She looked puzzled and responded, "Well she's a witch." "Yes," I replied, "But do you know what she as a Wiccan believes? Do you understand the Wiccan concept of the godhead and the doctrine of pantheism? Are you familiar with Wiccan ethics?"
Not surprisingly, she did not have a familiarity with Wicca beyond pop-culture depictions like "The Witches of Eastwick". And that meant that she really had no familiarity at all.
Wiccans are among the more discriminated groups in society and this is due largely to an ignorance of their beliefs and practices. The same might be said of anarchists, communists, various immigrant groups, and homosexuals. But if we were to identify the one group above all that is the most misunderstood and discriminated against, I suspect it would be atheists. In poll after poll, atheist comes at the bottom of the list for those that people would be most likely to vote for public office or to desire as a neighbor.
Sadly, such attitudes are borne more out of ignorance than anything else. A couple posts ago I drew the ire of a busload of atheists who felt that my claim that atheism does not provide meaning was yet more discriminatory slander. It certainly was not intended as such. I believe that atheism has key weak points as an explanation of the world and the lack of objective meaning is one of them. (Of course, every other worldview has weak points as well, but the point of the piece was to critique atheism in particular.) That said, we always need to distinguish the intellectual tensions within a worldview from the often brilliant and good people who hold that worldview, atheists included.
But I am not quite done. While the Christian must shoulder some blame for the poor public relations of atheism, atheists themselves must also take some criticism. Just as the poor public image that goes with the title "evangelical" owes much to the poor behavior of evangelicals, so the poor public image that goes with the title "atheist" owes much to the poor behavior of many atheists.
Look at the frenetic and uninformed screeds that atheists purchase and read by the truckload: Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, Christopher Hitchens, god is not great: how religion poisons everything, David Mills, The Atheist Universe, Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation. Distortion, caricature, ad hominem, non sequitur and countless other blunders fill these writings. When it comes to philosophy of religion and theology, each of these authors writes with all the sophistication of a college freshman.
I wish that more atheists would seriously engage both with serious atheists like Austin Dacey and Quentin Smith, as well as equally serious theists like Alvin Plantinga and William Lane Craig. (Of course I also wish that more Christians were reading intelligent critiques on both sides.)
Anyway, we are hardly going to bring these two communities to a greater level of intellectual sophistication over night. So let's start small: for all you Christians out there, if you happen to have an atheist for a neighbor, invite him (or her) over this weekend for a barbeque. And don't worry about winning either converts or arguments. Just have a good evening.