photo by Joe McCarthy

When you meet someone new or are just enjoying discussions with other people, are you ever surprised when you find out they don’t share your views? I keep having this experience! Tonight while at dinner with a group of women, one of them mentioned her pre-teen son being baptized at their church since he just “got saved” and how excited she was. During her story, I kept expecting a punchline—as if she would suddenly laugh and tell a story about going skinny dipping in the baptism dunk tanks. But no, she was totally serious, and nothing’s wrong with that.

It made me wonder: Do we assume the people with whom we get along are going to think the same ways we do? I think I do! For instance, I’m skeptical about the paranormal; I do not believe ghosts exist. A friend of mine gabs constantly about ghost hunting and the supernatural, and all the while  I laugh and think she must be joking because, hell, who honestly believes in ghosts? Well, she does. Why am I so surprised? Is it my ego?

I remember feeling this way as a Christian as well; If I met someone who wasn’t a believer, it was like a trip into a different world. They were strange, foreign, and mysterious. How could they not believe in Jesus? Of course, Christianity is so popular that it’s sometimes difficult to find people who openly identify with something else—at least in my area. So why am I walking through life as part of the atheist minority assuming everyone else thinks Satan is silly and God is a figment of our imaginations? I have no idea! I guess I think I’m normal!

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27 thoughts on “Expecting Atheism to Be Normal”

Wendy Wagner · June 21, 2011 at 1:15 am

I’m the same way! When I meet someone I like, I always expect them to be another atheist. I guess part of it is that when we like people, we just expect them to be like us in most ways.

Of course, I like to think of it as giving people the benefit of the doubt … they could be normal like me!

Joe Unseen · June 21, 2011 at 1:32 am

You are normal and I know what you mean. I have politely explained to Theists, “You know that feeling you get when you see a Harikrishna banging a tambourine or a Monk of another faith walking about in strange robes? Well that’s the feeling I get when you explain your religion to me.” They don’t seem to grasp the fact that there are many religions, many gods, and many faiths. They naively think other religions are versions of their own. And it’s astonishing to them that anyone could dismiss them all!

Andrew Hall · June 21, 2011 at 6:32 am

This particular bias must have a name. If not, then you should name it something really cool.

arcane · June 21, 2011 at 12:17 pm

I don’t think you’re alone. I hang out with some cool peeps who are rational, intelligent people. So it is, naturally, surprising when they fail to apply that rationality to religious beliefs they still hold. I think we should all continue to be surprised by this behavior. It shouldn’t be normal. There are people I expect to believe in gods and people I don’t.

    Alex · July 17, 2011 at 2:00 pm

    So, is it impossible for someone to be rational and intelligent and have a faith? Or that if they do have faith then they must not be applying reason to that one aspect of their lives?

    I respect both atheism and atheists, but one frustration I have is if I were to make the same comment you did being a Christian (which I would not) I would be considered bigoted or narrow minded. Imagine if I said something like “I have met some really amazing, intelligent and rational people but then I found out they are atheists! I couldn’t believe that they could be so blind and fail to accept Jesus Christ as their Savior.”

    Again, let me reiterate that I would not say or even think something like that, I am simply giving an example of how it seems to be okay for atheists to marginalize Christians or people of faith but if people of faith do that (and I’m aware MANY of them do!) then they are narrow minded, judgemental etc. I don’t support that kind of comment from anyone, but it surprises me coming from atheists when I thought that the offense they generally take from people of faith is the holier than thou attitude.

    But, if one can apply that criticism to them, being that you are exercising intelligence and rational thought, why not apply the same standard to yourself? Why not respect the “other” and recognize that it is arrogant to assume you have all the answers just as it is arrogant for them to assume so.

    The fact that there are some cool friends of yours who are both intelligent and rational in your view as well as people of faith could also be looked at as a testament to the fact that it is possible to be those things and also have a faith, and that having a faith does not have to be a negative thing that only “stupid” people would adhere to. That is a negative stereotype, and I’m sure you don’t appreciate when Christians make negative stereotypes about atheists, so again why be and represent what you hate in others, just playing for a different team?

    ps- I am not trying to pick on your post, I have simply come across this a lot in my experience with atheists and I find it to be surprising. Maybe it is more an element of human nature rather than a belonging to any particular group.

      Jim Jones · December 11, 2011 at 8:27 pm

      “So, is it impossible for someone to be rational and intelligent and have a faith?”

      It probably means they’ve never investigated their religion. It may also mean they can hold quite incompatible ideas in their heads.

      But the most likely explanation is that they aren’t rational nor intelligent, they’re just good at faking it. That’s what most adults do. Few can actually work through a logical argument especially if it conflicts with their basic assumptions or world view. In almost all cases they learn phrases that let them respond to comments from other people in a manner that seems intelligent.

      The two areas which expose this best are crime and religion. For example, logically thinking through the evidence in the Casey Anthony trial would lead you to conclude she is factually innocent. Try getting most people to accept that argument. Equally, not only is there no evidence for a historical Jesus outside the bible, there’s really none in it either. Good luck on that one too!

        Alex · December 23, 2011 at 11:15 pm

        ‘Ello Jim!
        Just saying, I don’t remember posting this, but the writing style sort of looks like my own, and I haven’t met many an Alex online, so I’ll answer as though I did write the first part.

        Yes, it might mean they’ve never critically examined their religion. I agree. People often don’t critically examine something that’s been with them for the longest time. I have recently reexamined my views on very commonplace concepts, mostly to do with our perception of our surroundings. Before, stars were just points of light in the sky. I *knew* what they were, of course, but it had never stricken me as so incredible that a light source billions of miles away radiates electromagnetic waves in all direction,and that one of those waves fired in a random direction happened to trigger a response in a nerve cell in my retina, thousands if not millions or billions of years later. It is truly mind-blowing, and we see stars practically every night. How come then do people not realize this? Partly because when something is familiar, we feel no need to examine it in detail.

        By that statement, you mean to say that about a third of the world’s population is neither intelligent nor rational, but merely good at faking it? You mean to say that the many scientists who happen to be religious somehow stumbled upon their scientific discoveries? I think you’re doing them a great disservice.
        You seem to be talking about a minority of religious people, albeit a very large minority. Not all religious people have thought-stopping phrases, that act like reflexes when they hear certain things. Some people simply choose not to hear what the other has to say in order to protect their own beliefs. To others, religion is a spiritual and emotional belief rather than an intellectual one.

        I’m sorry, I’m unfamiliar with the Casey Anthony trial. I might read on it later but it is fairly late for me now.

        As for evidence of Jesus, I do not deny that he existed, or that the tale of Jesus was inspired by a man or many men living at that time. I have not made sufficient research. What I do deny however is the whole miracle thing, resurrection, son of god, etc etc etc.

        Also, I recently discovered my atheism (less than a year) and as such I am reading a lot and learning a lot on various religious subjects. I never really believed, and I still do not.

Clare · June 21, 2011 at 3:32 pm

It was great to read this. I feel this way so often and its nice to have this feeling validated 🙂

I get to know someone new. Perhaps I learn that they are an atheist, or a sci fi fan, or read fantasy genre and assume they are an open minded, rational person (i.e. like my (modest!) perception of myself) and then they act in a prejudiced manner or reveal some woo thought. Completely surprises me.

Alison · June 21, 2011 at 5:58 pm

I remember someone telling me one time, “I know you know God. I can tell by just looking at you.” I wanted to laugh very loud and tell them they don’t know me at all. How can you assume that about someone? I didn’t tell her anything, I just kinda laughed and nodded. I should have said something, but I didn’t want to open that can of worms.

    Godless Girl · June 22, 2011 at 11:24 am

    You know what they say about “assume” making an ass out of “u” and “me.” Yuk yuk.

    But it’s true. It’s a lesson that my wishful thinking about having these important things in common with someone is just that: wishful thinking.

nullefide · June 22, 2011 at 9:03 am

See, I’m the exact opposite. I have always been aware that everyone has different beliefs and so usually when in a group (especially one I don’t know well) I tend to keep quiet for a bit until I can get an accurate gauge of what is and isn’t okay for me to talk about. And especially now that many of my views and beliefs have changed since I got out of college, I am even more aware that my ideas aren’t anywhere close to my parents’ or many of the people who live around me (yeah, Texas, whoo -_-). So usually, when I’m talking to people, I’m often more surprised when they agree with me or share my views than when they have different views from me. I guess maybe it depends on whether you grew up in an environment where those around you always had similar beliefs or not. I kind of always thought the same as my parents when I was younger and more religious (and conservative, but only because I didn’t know better), but I always had a questioning nature and never felt like any one person had all the answers. So I guess maybe my take on all this is just because I have kind of always felt like a slight outcast when it comes to my beliefs and opinions?

vjack · June 22, 2011 at 2:02 pm

I am increasingly trying to normalize atheism, and I do that by acting as if it is the norm that it should be. “Of course I’m an atheist! You mean, you’re not?” When I encounter someone who appears to believe in religious absurdities, I feign surprise. “Oh come on, you can’t be serious.”

This is a fairly new approach for me, but the old one of keeping my mouth shut wasn’t getting me anywhere.

    Roofwoofer · June 27, 2011 at 9:44 am

    Where is being deliberately offensive and insulting going to get you?

    You could try saying “I’m an atheist” without any further comment, making it clear you don’t think it has to be explained.

    Trying to convince people that what you believe is “the norm that it should be” makes it look like you’re insecure instead of mature.

      Alex · December 23, 2011 at 10:59 pm

      I fail to see how his acting method is in any way insulting. He is not insulting, he is not insinuating, he is pretty much acting exactly the same way the majority of people would react.

      The point is he’s not trying to convince, he’s trying to show atheism isn’t that abnormal. He just wants people to realize that atheism is not the soul-killing devil-spawn baby-eating pseudo-religion it’s made out to be. (yes I know I’m laying it on heavily with sarcasm, but you get my point)

k77 · June 23, 2011 at 7:03 am

I expect people to be insane to some degree or another and I’m rarely disappointed. Even the most normal seeming person can come out with something nutty in a conversation.

“When you’re born in this world, you’re given a ticket to the freak show, and when you’re born in America you’re given a front row seat,” George Carlin.

Blake · June 24, 2011 at 4:22 am

This happened to me somewhat recently as well. A good friend, whom I’ve known for some time bit my head off for something I said about someone’s stupid religious beliefs, and it completely threw me off guard. It was a very weird feeling, because he’s a smart guy, and I assumed we’d held similar beliefs. Lesson learned I suppose.

OlderMusicGeek · June 24, 2011 at 5:55 pm

i so know what you are talking about. and it goes beyond spirtual beliefs. i get surprised when say we both like the same music and i find out their a conservative. or if i’m joking and laughing with someone and find out they can’t stand some of my favorite music. although i don’t let this stop what could be a wonderful friendship, there is always a part of me disappointed!

lianna · June 24, 2011 at 6:52 pm

Im a bit surprised at the responses on here. Most people have said that they are surprised when they find “intelligent” people to be religious???? Firstly, intelligence is measured in different ways, so what do mean by this. And secondly does this mean you think only stupid people are religious??? If you do then quite frankly you are the ignorant one!
I am not religious myself but have studied religion and the sociology and philosophy behind it for six years now and i believe that people who judge, like you, are the people who cause the problems in life.
Copernicus, the man who discovered the mathematical formula for the planets rotating around the sun was religious. Is he stupid?
Rene Descartes, one of the greatest philosophers, he believed in god, so are you surprised he is intelligent?
Accept people for their beliefs. Being “rational” as some of you has put it does not mean you cannot believe in God.
Come on people, wake up!

    ChristopherTK · June 24, 2011 at 8:06 pm

    I get your point but you would have made a better case if you could have used living examples of intelligent believers, or at least much more recent intelligent believers with a scientific focus rather then reaching back to Copernicus & Descartes.

    Jim Jones · December 11, 2011 at 8:30 pm

    Copernicus and Descartes were very intelligent. Neither wanted to be executed for disagreeing with immoral, theistic idiots. Damn smart choice.

diane · June 25, 2011 at 4:58 pm

I do this too! For me I’m always shocked when I meet someone new I really like and then they bring up their kids. (Although the fact that they wait so long to bring up their kids still makes them cool – obviously they still have other interests). I always feel like people I like should agree with me about not wanting kids.

Roofwoofer · June 27, 2011 at 9:34 am

That tendency might be what’s going on when athiests run into believers who are blissfully unaware that you don’t think like they do. I’m sure it can sound offensive, butu it isn’t all bias, prejudice and discrimination. It’s being human.

Mike · June 30, 2011 at 1:54 pm

To give you perhaps an example . .. I am on the verge of becoming either an atheist or agnostic or deist . . . yet I am in no way at all ever going to be liberal. I am anti abortion and the whole gay marriage thing seems odd to me. So yes people don’t always fit in a box. Have a great day 🙂

Mike · June 30, 2011 at 1:56 pm

PS; I think it is my sense of naturalism and justice that keeps me conservative in some ways.

Michelle · July 15, 2011 at 3:24 pm

I generally tend to assume people have some sort of religious belief simply on the basis that for the majority, they are brought up to have it. I make this generalization, however, on the flawed basis of personal experience. As a child, I was brought up to believe, and so I did. It wasn’t until high school where a well regarded religion teacher (yup, Catholic school – 12 years, ugh) let slip we don’t really know who wrote the gospels. My reaction was, “Wait, what do you mean we “don’t know”?” My belief paradigm was based on the understanding that the gospels were well understood fact. We knew for sure who the players were, and we had concrete factual evidence that all this amazing stuff really happened. That drove me to read and research (I have a little OCD that way) until I finally had to ask myself, “Yeah, why do I believe this stuff anyway?” I had read Greek myths at the same time as I read the bible as a kid, and looking back, the only difference I could see was that a person in authority told me one was true and one was not. Here is the thing – I’ve long since come to find out most people don’t go looking for problems in their world view paradigm, but instead build a bunker around it. Let’s face it; it is pretty comfortable in there. Everyone loves you, you have an all powerful protector, and as long as you don’t screw up too bad, even death is nothing but a thing. I’m not defending this, by the way, but simply relating what I think is. Long story short, I think most people are brought up with a belief paradigm, and as I suspect the majority keep it, when I encounter “unknowns” I try to remember the numbers are in favor of them being religious even if they seem like me.

Jim Jones · October 11, 2011 at 11:47 pm

Be careful with the assumption that most people are intelligent. IME they aren’t. They appear intelligent because they have learned to respond to conversation with comments they have heard from others. Some are better at this than others so there is a continuum of response but fewer than you might imagine can actually think original thoughts.

The exceptionally silly ones like Michele Bachmann, Sarah Palin or the like are easy to spot. Many of the right wing politicians are far better than these – they can actually get millions to vote against their own best interests with slick phrases and illogical social sloganeering. Repetition tends to convince others that these claims are ‘correct’.

If you can find a way to test them you will still find their abilities are lacking. This goes some way to explain their ability to tolerate cognitive dissonance.

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