A humanist friend of mine recently learned that his reputation had been unfairly tarnished many years ago when he was in medical school. Somehow, his name had become associated with a bizarre and infamous prank. The incident featured several of his male classmates, who, drunk on at least testosterone, sneaked into the morgue one night, removed a cadaver’s penis, and placed the severed member into the pocket of a female classmate’s lab coat that was hanging on a rack. The unsuspecting medical student donned her coat the next morning, reached into her pocket for her key, and, much to her horror, discovered instead the cold, disarticulated masculine unit.
My friend, now a successful pediatrician, tells me he has no idea how he became known as one of the perpetrators of the prank. Perhaps his name is similar to that of one of the real culprits. Perhaps the story is pure fiction and a scorned ex-lover spun the tale ex novo in an act of vengeance. Whatever the case, my friend’s fellow alumni shunned him for years, assuming him to be at worst a misogynistic, necrophilic gore-monger or at best a brat with a bad sense of humor. Even now, despite the best alibis, denials, and explanations he has put forth, his name and the fateful event remain yoked in medical-school lore.
Those of us who call ourselves atheists have a similar predicament. Most of us are nice, well-behaved people, worthy of being sought out and retained as loyal friends, trusted employees, and even noble politicians. And yet, our bad reputation seems unshakable. Urban legends, vague associations, and blatant fabrications continue to color the atheist persona; like my pediatrician friend we find ourselves associated—wrongly—with the evils of others.
Take the most exasperating example. “Hitler was an atheist” has become the great booger we can’t seem to shake off our fingers. No, as our greatest representatives have explained tediously, time and time again: Hitler was at most an observant Catholic or at least a cynical manipulator of distinctly Christian beliefs and biases. Regardless, the very phrase “Hitler was an atheist” remains intact and, apparently, immortal. Google the phrase with no quotes and you will find more than 457,000 results (and a healthy 41,000 results with quotes). Ask even a fairly nonreligious person with no particular stake in the debate, “Was Hitler an atheist?,” and he or she will furrow his or her brow and reply, “Yeah, that sounds familiar.”
“So-and-so was an atheist” stories need not be about monsters of the distant past. Many are within chronological reach and apparently are created afresh whenever a new villain surfaces. Surely, by now, we have all heard that the Columbine killers were atheists and were somehow motivated by unbelief to storm their high school and blast bullets into the bodies of their classmates. Indeed, the killers shot at least one of their victims as “punishment” for answering “yes” to the question, “Do you believe in God?”—or so the story goes. Since its proliferation in 1999, the “Columbine killers were atheists” myth has been publicly dismantled. However, plenty of websites continue to report the “Do you believe in God?” incident as a fact of history, while many other websites refer to the Columbine killers as atheists with no further explanation. Meanwhile, my eighteen-year-old stepson graduated high school having been taught that the September 11, 2001, hijackers were atheists. Of course, my husband’s and my first line of defense was simply to explain the etymology of the word atheist (no + God) and then point out that people who kill because they believe God will reward them for their efforts must, in fact, believe in God. Where did my stepson hear this myth? His appalling answer: “From my teachers.” Apparently, some teachers even in New York State are using the word atheist interchangeably with murderer, terrorist, or simply evil.
“So-and-so was not an atheist” stories can be even worse. In the same way that evildoers are associated with atheism, esteemed nonreligious (or not very religious) folk are repackaged as devout. Einstein believed in a personal god. Darwin repented on his deathbed. The Founding Fathers were observant Christians. And let us not forget the more generalized, “everyone knows” statements about atheists as a group. Everyone knows atheists are sad and morose. Everyone knows atheists have no moral code. Everyone knows there are no atheists in foxholes. Of course, our most intelligent and creative spokespeople have made scrupulous and elegant counterarguments that should dissolve most atheism-as-immorality nonsense in even the most obstinate (and stupid) minds. But atheism myths, like lurid medical-school tales, have remarkable sticking power.
So how does one shake off a sticky, undeserved, bad reputation? One solution, of course, is to change one’s name. In 2007, my husband and I spent our honeymoon at the Atheist Alliance International Conference in Washington, D.C. There, Sam Harris, with his hallmark tone of gravitas-with-a-touch-of-snark, made the recommendation that atheists consider ditching the word atheism. We newlyweds returned to our hotel room that night debating the pros and cons of this tactic and deciding (as newlyweds often do) on what would be our official, married-couple position: atheism was a good and proper word, we concluded; we should continue to support its use.
Now, I am not so sure. Harris may be right; the word may have been damaged beyond repair. After all, many well-meaning people (including my own stepson until recently) seem unacquainted with the definition of the word, to say nothing of their grasp of the veracity of stories about famous “atheists.” What’s more, myths and urban legends, whether about medical school or atheism, tend to accumulate layers of exaggeration like hailstones cycling through clouds. In time, the nucleus of truth becomes too deeply obscured.
Then again, perhaps we are working too hard to erase bad (albeit false) memories and not hard enough to create new, positive ones, for example through charity efforts clearly labeled as “atheist” and by encouraging each other to “come out” to friends and family whose admiration we already have secured. When my pediatrician friend learned his reputation had been sullied by the deeds of others, he never considered changing his name. Nor did he bend over backward to undo the false association. Instead, he worked that much harder to become the humanitarian and wise doctor that he wanted his name to stand for.
Perhaps, in the end, building a positive reputation is more important than dismantling a negative one. Most important, we freethinkers, attached as we are to logic and the scientific method, must realize that reputations, connotations, and legends live in the murky realm of feeling. The most cogent refutation of an atheist myth is like a newspaper retraction buried in the corner of a page, helplessly apologizing for a sensational front-page story that long since took on a life of its own.