Have people considered before that the stereotype of the loud angry atheist may be entirely a result of selection bias?
Consider the average person’s experience with religious people. You see religious people going to church. You notice them wearing necklaces with crosses or Stars of David or dharma wheels on them. Sometimes they quote the Bible or the Quran, or they pray for things. Sometimes they run hospitals or schools or monasteries. The Pope occasionally shows up on TV telling people they should probably have fewer wars and famines and see if that works out for them.
And yes, occasionally religious people rant about how much they hate atheism, or the various other religions. But it’s hardly the only time you ever hear about them.
On the other hand, consider the average person’s experience with atheists. They may know many atheists. Their next door neighbor, or boss, or close friend might be an atheist. But they don’t hear about it. It rarely comes up in random conversation. Atheists don’t all go to one specific building, they mostly don’t wear necklaces, they don’t have holidays where they eat special atheist foods or dress up in special atheist costumes, and there’s no St. Lucretius’ Atheist Hospital.
Pretty much the only time you ever hear about atheists, unless you go looking for them, is when an atheist is criticizing religion or standing up for some kind of atheist cause. And so the reasoning goes: “Atheists must be bizarrely obsessed with religion, all the atheists I know about seem really into attacking it.”
But this is about the same reasoning pattern as “About half the medieval Europeans who I’ve heard of are kings; therefore I estimate medieval Europe had about one king for every two people.”
My guess is that most atheists, in the sense of people who don’t believe in God, rarely talk or think about it. But they don’t get much attention, and if they do, it’s not as atheists. “Famous atheists” brings up Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens – not Lance Armstrong and Maurice Sendak. If there wasn’t a selection bias in terms of whose atheism gets noticed more, we would end up with the stereotype that atheists ride bikes and draw awesome pictures of cartoon monsters.
I wonder just how far this bias goes in creating stereotypes. It seems most likely to be a factor when there’s a group that’s hard to identify except when it engages in activities stereotypically associated with that group, and which might be geographically/socially sorted well enough that members of other groups rarely come in contact with them naturally.
Anti-Muslim stereotypes might come from such a source. If people live in an area without Muslims – or if Muslims tend to be segregated from non-Muslims – then someone might only hear about them when they’re fulfilling some kind of negative Muslim stereotype. I actually think the same is true of Christians – if someone lives in a very secular area, most of the Christianity they hear about could be some kind of very extreme televangelist.
And although this is a stretch, the same might apply to groups that are easily identifiable if people don’t think of the concrete examples they know qua group membership. Imagine you interact with your friend Juan – because Juan is great – and your friend Pedro – because he’s great too – and then you hear a story about Mexicans illegally crossing the border, and that activates your “Mexican” category much more than Juan and Pedro do, because they’re just ordinary guys.
And okay, that’s just wild speculation. I’m pretty convinced about the atheism one, though.