Since this is still utterly relevant, I thought I’d make it the subject of a post. I don’t think there is anything in it that is not absolutely current.
I guess, I have to be honest with my 14 year old daughter. No, Julia, you are never going to be president. Or even mayor. Because as far as I can tell you are an atheist. If you took up some religion and made it look like you were sincere, then maybe. Otherwise, not only are you not running for office but you better watch your back generally.
Every single study that has ever looked at the issue has revealed massive amounts of bigotry and prejudice against atheists in America. The most recent data shows that atheists are more distrusted and despised than any other minority and that an atheist is the least likely person that Americans would vote for in a presidential election. It’s not just that atheists are hated, though, but also that atheists seem to represent everything about modernity which Americans dislike or fear.
That is from Austin Cline’s contemporary commentary on the study. Continuing…
… atheists ranked lower than “Muslims, recent immigrants, gays and lesbians and other minority groups in ‘sharing their vision of American society.’ Atheists are also the minority group most Americans are least willing to allow their children to marry.”
Fortunately, fewer and fewer people do this “getting permission to marry” thing seriously these days. Usually not at all or only as a courtesy. (When I asked my wife “should I do that” she said “You’d better not.”)
Penny Edgell, the study’s lead, was initially surprised by this finding (which is, sorry Penny, kind of shocking) and
“We thought that in the wake of 9/11, people would target Muslims. Frankly, we expected atheists to be a throwaway group…. [atheists are] … a glaring exception to the rule of increasing tolerance over the last 30 years. Our analysis shows that attitudes about atheists have not followed the same historical pattern as that for previously marginalized religious groups. It is possible that the increasing tolerance for religious diversity may have heightened awareness of religion itself as the basis for solidarity in American life and sharpened the boundary between believers and nonbelievers in our collective imagination.”
“[atheists are seen as] … immoral people who threaten respectable community from the lower end of the social hierarchy.. [are] … rampant materialists and cultural elitists [threatening] common values from above — the ostentatiously wealthy who make a lifestyle out of consumption or the cultural elites who think they know better than everyone else.”
Holy crap. Expect bad things, fellow atheists, from your moral Christian neighbors. No wonder so many atheists are less out of the closet than many other repressed groups. In fact, we are not really all that repressed (comparatively) because most of us are in the closet! But the attitude is there, lurking large in the broader society, that we need to be vigilant.
Oh, and I really don’t want to hear ever again that atheists are just whining when claims such as documented in this study are made.
The author of the study makes this claim as to why this disdain exists:
“What matters for public acceptance of atheists – and figures strongly into private acceptance as well – are beliefs about the appropriate relationship between church and state and about religion’s role in underpinning society’s moral order, as measured by our item on whether society’s standards of right and wrong should be based on God’s laws”
But Austin Cline does not buy this (and neither to I). Cline suggests a different angle:
Although people may say that they consider atheists inferior because atheists don’t believe that civil law should be defined according to some group’s conception of what their god wants, I don’t think that’s the whole story. There are too many religious theists who also want civil law to be secular rather than religious. Instead, I think that a much better case can be made for the idea that atheists are being scapegoated the same way that Catholics and Jews once were: they are treated as social outsiders who create “moral and social disorder.”
Cline also points out that the characterization of atheists as bad because they are upper class elites and bad because they are low-life druggies suggests that the real causal basis for this effect has not been properly identified.
Edgell, Penny, Joseph Gerteis, and Douglas Hartmann (April 2006). “Atheists As “Other”: Moral Boundaries and Cultural Membership in American Society”. American Sociological Review 71 (2): 218. http://www.soc.umn.edu/~hartmann/files/atheist%20as%20the%20other.pdf