Let me just preface this post with a statement that may shock some people: I personally know some real life, actual atheists who are the nicest people you’d ever want to meet, caring, loving, generous tippers—no horns, no pitchforks.
So I was a bit shocked to hear one of America’s (and my) favorite actors compare atheists to sociopaths:
“The traits of a sociopath: no conscience, no sense of remorse, usually atheist.” —Denzel Washington on the Today Show 2/8/2012
He didn’t say that all atheists are sociopaths, but how many viewers heard just that, given the vilification of the word “atheist” by many of today’s preachers and conservative commentators.
It turns out that Denzel’s conflation of the two terms may offend a few million atheists, but will certainly not offend the Big Man Upstairs (for all you atheists, I’m referring to God):
The law is made, not for the upright man, but for those who have no respect for law and order, for evil men and sinners, for the unholy and those who have no religion, for those who put their fathers or mothers to death, for takers of life. —1 Timothy 1:9
That’s correct, right there in the Bible they lump together atheists and patricidal sociopaths. And when it comes to non-believers God does not mess around:
So shall ye perish, because ye would not be obedient unto the voice of the Lord your God. —Deuteronomy 8:20
But not all atheists are all bad, right?
The fool hath said in his heart, “There is no God.” They are corrupt, they have done abominable works. There is none that doeth good. —Psalms 14:1
So does Denzel have a point? Sociopaths by definition don’t play by other people’s rules, so it would certainly be surprising to find them behaving as devout religious believers.
But by tying together the words atheists and sociopaths, I have to say something to America’s coolest actor that I thought I’d never have to say: “Uncool, Denzel.”
Denzel wouldn’t think of saying any of the following factually accurate statements about Christians, would he?
- “Inquisition torturers: no conscience, usually Christian.”
- “Nazi prison guards: no sense of remorse, usually Christian.”
- “The Passion of the Christ director: allegedly Christian.”
- “The people that sang “Christian Side Hug“: disconcertingly Christian.”
Is it too much to ask that people drop the atheist-sociopath connection? It’s a bit like going up to an artist and saying, “You know who else was an artist? Hitler!” (BTW: also uncool.)
To avoid being confused with sociopaths, it’s not surprising that many non-believers avoid the “atheist” label and choose a more positive “freethinker,” “humanist,” or “skeptic” description instead.
US Army Major Ray Bradley recently made headlines by requesting that he be allowed to change his belief system designation in the military to “Humanist,” since the only other option currently available to him is “Atheist.” He prefers humanist because “Humanism is a philosophy that guides a person. It’s more than just a stamp of what you’re not.”
As Howard Katz, president of the Humanist Society added, “You could have an axe murderer who’s an atheist. Humanists have ethics and a philosophy.”
So in the spirit of good will, I call on atheists to refrain from mentioning the Inquisition every time they meet a Christian, and I call on believers to get out there and get to know an atheist, taking comfort in the fact that the odds are actually quite high that the person they meet will not be an axe-wielding sociopath.
And to give believers strength in reaching out to the atheists of the world, let’s let the Bible have the final word:
Now accept one who is weak in faith. —Romans 14:1
Live peaceably with all men. —Romans 12:18
Michael Morris is the author of Bible Funmentionables: A Lighthearted Look at the Wildest Verses You’ve NEVER Been Told!, which features all of the shocking and hilarious verses that your minister, rabbi, or charismatic cult leader is afraid to preach.