Atheists as other: The most disdained group in America?

A three year old study has resurfaced on the blogosphere with this recent mention on the daily atheist. The study (cited below) is here, and the older commentary is here.

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.

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0 thoughts on “Atheists as other: The most disdained group in America?

  1. The way that I found to combat hatred, discrimination, and incorrect preconcieved notions towards Atheists was to only “come out of the closet” when you have reached a certain level of trust and respect from your community. This not only destroys what a person can wrongly imagine about you, but it also teaches people that Atheism does not lead to moral decay. Being a modern Atheist, I have found that, in order to dispell all of the lies and discrimination, we must stand up, live good and empathetic lives, and show the world that not only are we right about god, but that us being right is a benefit to humanity.

  2. I wonder if the association of atheism with communism, something that is not the case in Europe, for instance, has anything to do with it. Atheists are therefore the enemy. It doesn’t help that standard religious (in particular Roman Catholic) apologetics casts all the major 20th century dictators (Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot) as being atheists and as prime examples of where inevitably atheism leads.

  3. … 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.”

    Either Americans are really open-minded about gay marriage, or they really distrust atheists. I think that most Americans simply don’t know any (out of the closet) atheists and have this straw man conception of what an atheist is. This is why I love it whenever a popular celebrity comes out as an atheist.

  4. Most Christians seem to think that belief in God is necessary for moral behavior. They will even admit that they wouldn’t have much reason for self control if not for their religious beliefs. So natural they imagine that others are equally craven.

  5. It is easy to naively assume that religious people can tolerate atheism. I have had two unpleasant experiences after outing myself. One time a regular on the city bus had a nice long chat with me, but when she found out I didn’t believe in any god, she flat out ignored me and made the cross sign with her fingers while saying “Devil be gone!”. Yes, she was crazy I later learned in a conversation with the bus driver, but still. Yeesh! Another time I casually mentioned my atheism to an older man and he clenched his fist and shook it at me saying “Why I ought to pop you right here!” I thought he was joking at the time, but on reflection it was probably a serious threat.

  6. A recent post on some research in this area:

    The last few paragraphs with conclusions:

    To me, this result strongly suggests that distrust of atheists is mostly due to fear of ‘others’. It suggests that the main reason for the distrust is that the subjects had not realised that many of their fellow students were, in fact, atheists.

    Once they learned that atheists were not a weird, alien group, but rather people just like them, they felt able to trust them. And I think this conclusion is supported by the experience of atheists in places like the UK, where overt atheism is much more prevalent and distrust of atheists is correspondingly lower.

    There are two lessons here. First, it suggest that theories that religion evolved as a tool to enforce in-group trust may be wrong.

    Second, it suggests that all those bus ads may well be serving a useful function, even if they’re unlikely to convert anyone. If they normalise atheism, then they should also help to change the lot of atheists in the USA from social pariahs to trusted community members.

  7. The bus ads are about as far from a conversion attempt as could possibly be imagined. Instead they seem to be saying; “Atheists probably aren’t going to eat your children, so relax.”

  8. Interesting article, and sadly often true. In my opinion, reason is the only true remedy for the kind of religious extremism that guides those with a faith that they feel entitles them to self-righteous bigotry. This is not to say that there are not plently of people who believe in god yet still personally answer to reason when it comes to defining their standards of behavior towards others; reason and rationality are simply the basis of morality for most serious atheists and tolerant believers alike.

    I would argue that demonstrating better judgment, character and integrity as an atheist is the best way to show that one who is an atheist is anything but a threat to society’s well-being, but in fact a valuable asset who truly believes in and upholds individual liberty.

    Of note, I agree that the often automatic association of atheism to communism definitely contributes to the suspicion, but I would add something else. Today, in our very globalized world, I think many Americans realize that our country is by far the most religious civilized one left. This may well contribute to an irrational attachment to this trait as essential to the character of the country, much as our health care system is defended to the bone by many who know all too well about its inefficiency and flaws, but consider its uniquely heavy dose of private and for-profit market share as uniquely American, and therefore a must-have for our national identity and cultural well-being.

  9. Very interesting, but not surprising. And I say this as a very out and outspoken atheist. There may well be an evolutionary component to this (just because an evolutionary component can be identified does not make it good)

    Humans have the most complex social structure of all animals. Deep instincts influence or control how we behave with others, how we respond to others in areas of affection, trust, like or dislike. Some researchers have concluded that the evolutionary function of religion is ‘in-group’ identification. That is, it makes no difference what the beliefs of the religion are, but that the members of the group share those beliefs. People are conditioned, throughout their lives with the implicit feeling that trustworthy others share some core belief. So it threatens them (it even threatens people who may not intellectually believe there is anything wrong with atheists) just that there is a certain ‘shared belief’ missing.

    Of course ‘shared belief’ does not have to be religious. To soldiers on a battlefield, shared belief in patriotism is probably more significant than religion. Sometimes shared belief could be political or social ideology. But shared belief is nonetheless at the core of many of our social bonds.

  10. I think it’s complicated, with prejudice against atheists being “sanctioned by religion” (I realize that they’re supposed to “hate the sin” but “love the sinner,” but that’s rarely if ever what happens) in a way that other prejudices are not. So are they being pious when stating their bias against atheists, or are they really as opposed to atheists as polls indicate?

    It wouldn’t surprise me if a lot of it really is motivated by “piety,” but that doesn’t mean that hating the “sinner” doesn’t follow along with that.

    The way they lie about “evolutionists” (who are “atheists” in the view of many), without compunction, shame, or any guilt, is something that I never really get used to. They really do seem to think that anything and everything can be said, no matter its veracity, and if they’re ever convinced that they’re wrong they’re simply busily digging up more lies. Opposing the “out group” appears to be what really drives anti-evolutionism, and that “out group” is usually atheists, though sometimes they’ll throw in liberal Xians as well.

    Then atheists are generally considered to be smarty-pants elitists, with the added benefit of being very harmless indeed–at least in general. So they’re safe to bully.

    And seriously, why do religions actually exist other than to designate who is “good” and worthy of consideration, and those who are “bad” and to whom one should not even listen? In general, religionists do not want atheists to be heard (many seem to fear that atheists do have good arguments), and so they dehumanize them (read David Klinghoffer, though he graciously includes theistic evolutionists among those who are to be hated first, and only then “argued with”). I’m not saying all are like that, of course. Nevertheless, the non-religious are held to be wrong in every way, from arrogant skepticism (when they’re not being denounced for lack of skepticism, that is), to being morally relativistic and/or reckless hedonists.

    Atheists are supposed to be the out-group, by most religious calculations, never to be given an equal chance with the “legitimate ones.” Many religionists who hold to this notion will not say as much, they merely act to uphold that belief in shunning atheists. It’s a defensive, reactionary position, because they collectively (often not individually) recognize that religion has no chance from an evidentiary and rational perspective.

    Glen Davidson

  11. I think it’s a mechanism of religion itself. If we think of religion as a way to build a group that strongly holds together and tries to overwhelm competing groups, then faith is the mean to grant the survival of the group. An Atheist strongly attacks this faith. He is the single biggest obstacle to faith. Science can be interpreted in a way that they do not stand in the way of faith, but the atheist shows that “faith” isn’t something “natural” in a way that no one can live without and, even worse, that you don’t need faith to be good (or for anything else for that matter). The whole good-evil world view would go crap if one would respect the atheist as a normal human being.
    People might say they regard atheists as causing “moral and social disorder”, but I think what they really fear is the possible destruction of their own supporting and sense-making group (as opposed to the whole society). People of other faith may be attacking their personal type of faith, but not the whole faith thing itself. Therefore a Muslim poses a minor threat to the average American, compared with Richard Dawkins.

  12. physicalist you beat me to it 🙂 I think a large part is atheists make religious people “look stupid” in their own eyes and no one likes to be thought of as stupid, especially when the matter in question concerns the basis of one’s entire world view.

  13. Well, as I have seen I wasn’t the first to post something like that. It seems to suggest itself. Btw. sorry for the mistakes, but I’m no native speaker. Here in Germany Atheists also have a pretty bad image, but luckily people are far more tolerant. We have far less religious people here.

  14. I’ve read about this study before, of course, but I have a hard time relating to it. Maybe it’s because I’ve never lived anywhere other than Minneapolis, where it’s no big deal to be an atheist. I’ve never felt any particular need to hide my atheism, and I’ve never had anyone so much as flinch at it. I’ve never felt even remotely persecuted or discriminated against. Even religious folks seem to take it in stride around here.

    Yeah, I know it’s not like this in many other parts of the country (or world). Which makes me slightly nervous about traveling.

  15. I like to call myself an Autotheist, or sometimes a Burtist. When asked to explain, I go on to say Iâ??m sort of like a Buddhist but I subscribe to the philosophy of Burt instead of Buddha wherever the philosophies diverge. Autotheism is that I create my total experience (as do we all) exactly as if I were the God in which theists believe. It can be more inflammatory than declaring yourself an atheist in certain circles, but usually gets me the rolled eyes and disbelief that Iâ??m serious.

  16. This is why it’s important to be an “outspoken,” or at least “spoken,” atheist.

    I became godless at the age of 17, while living in a Midwestern state located in the stitching of the Bible Belt. I never hesitated to let my non-beliefs be known, and the dreadful repercussions were . . . nonexistent. Even the most devout Christians I spoke with treated my viewpoint with, at worst, puzzlement; more typically with politeness and curiosity. Certainly I was never threatened, ostracized or even rejected–then or now.

    So, while these poll results might be accurate, keep in mind that most of the respondents have probably never actually met an atheist, or at least not one who ‘fessed up to it. Nothing weakens bias like being exposed to real people rather than straw men.

    So speak up!

  17. Dear Greg,

    I am not religious, nor a real atheist (from a Western cultural vantage point) – but I do understand your struggle…and your daughter’s (if she ever runs for office).

    I do like skeptics, even in science, and feel that “an open mind” (that includes the body and the heart), as taught by Eastern philosophies (different from religion), is very important.

    That objective, detached, probing, curious, fair, sensible – but sensitive and open (as well as an experiential) mind is critical in any field – certainly in politics.

    One problem with many atheists in the US is that they have the same attitude (of rigidity and fundamentalism) as some arse—- of religious guys. It is unattractive and hard to engange with.

    My suggestion, to you and your daughter (if she really wants to run), is to “focus on your ethics, standards for community welfare, vision for a better society, philosophy of life, where you got that philosophy from and your general and specific values…”.

    Once people hear that (at least the intelligent ones) they might be less worried or suspicious (that you might be a fundamentalist parading as an atheist for political convenience), and might go beyond who or how you worship.

    Purusing and protecting unregulated capitalism, money at all cost, business profits at any cost and “Fountainhead” philosophy are also forms of “worship” (in the so-called some secular or atheist world) that many people (with strong commitment to social justice) might find unappealing, unattractive and suspicious.

    Focus on your rituals of reflection – and your philosophies. That would be attractive to other atheists, agnostics and non-Western religious people too! This way your atheism might not become a problem for some voters.

    I also hope your daughter travels the world to do some social work. That would give her the demonstrable sensitivity and compassion that many people, unfortunately, do not associate with “atheists”. That too might help.

    Oh, by the way, I am a “Goddess meditator” – and I am a Goddess! :)) Atheist or not – make your daughter a Goddess – not a princess (there are too many foolish ones in many patriarchal cultures).

    Dr. Meera

  18. I don’t think its that bad. Many people I know are only member of a religion in name. They don’t go to church, don’t practice, are a hair away from being agnostic, anyway. Though they aren’t ready to make the leap to atheism, they are barely any different and don’t really care who believes what.
    I will bet there are as many people like I described in America as there are religious followers.

  19. Dr Meera

    who or how you worship.

    As an atheist… I do not worship!*

    You may think that you are being all inclusive in your comment, but the underlying bias (that worship is necessary) indicates that you have a ways to go!

    With you – it’s woo all the way down.

    * I *do* worship my wife and kids, but I don’t suppose that counts!

  20. Lisa, if you and the study see things differently, I can think of three possibilities.

    (1) The study was not well done. This is possible, but I don’t recall seeing any results to contradict it.

    (2) You’re wrong. Have you talked to the people you point to about atheism specifically, or do you just assume that their tolerance of different beliefs applies as well to nonbelief? What percentage of the people you know (not just have enough in common with to have these discussions) do those “many” constitute?

    (3) You live in something of a haven, and atheists elsewhere have it much worse than you do, as is reflected in the average degree of tolerance reported in the study.

    This is the problem with counteracting broad data with anecdote.

  21. I was a catholic who once trained for years for the catholic priesthood. It has taken me a long time to shed the indoctrination by the catholic church, which commenced with being given a â??christianâ? name and baptism at birth, confession, communion, confirmation, etc., and continued through my formative years into early adulthood.

    About 8 years ago I started working as an interstate driver. Spending more than 100 hours a week, every week, driving on the highways of Australia meant I had to do something more than just listen to music as I drove, so I started to think â?? about my life and, of course, my religion. I arrived at the point where I seriously wondered why we had to have â??faithâ?, why we had to believe in something for which there was no compelling evidence.

    Over the next couple of years I finally came to the decision, ever so slowly, but ever so surely, that â??there is no godâ? – so beautifully described by Julia Sweeney in â??Letting go of Godâ?.

    I am now 68 and over the past 7 years or so I have moved through becoming a non-theist, to agnostic, to â??probableâ? atheist, to being a fully fledged, convinced and active “out-there” atheist, one who proudly, willingly and frequently proclaims his atheism. I fear no shunning, or reprisals, nor have I experienced any.

    I am very lucky to live in a relatively tolerant country (Australia) where our latest census (2006) showed that close to 20% of the population is atheist, agnostic, humanist, or some other â??no-religionâ? denomination, so the level of tolerance to beliefs and non-beliefs is much higher here than, say, in the US.

    Atheists and other non-believers are seen, generally, for what we are, fellow citizens worthy of exactly the same level of tolerance and respect as theists or religionists or any other Aussie citizen. I do not claim to live in some fanatic-free, tolerance-rich Utopia, but compared to what I have read about the way atheists are treated in the US, I am pleased that I live “down-under” and not “up-over”.

  22. I’ve come to believe that distrust, intolerance and unreasoning hatred — and the concomitant anger — is a function of the fear of lost dignity. Serious homophobes are sometimes said to harbor repressed homosexual tendencies. Sexists may have problems with their sexual self-esteem. White racists, especially those of lower economic status, need someone they can consider inherently inferior in order to feel good about themselves.

    Modernity presents theists with a constant existential challenge, forcing them to continually question their faith system in the face of advancements in science. It’s impossible to tune out the cognitive dissonance for adults, and they fear for their children (rightfully so, I suppose. Society is so full of temptation!). I think the lowly status of atheists indicated by these polls makes sense under the circumstances. The majority of Americans are not repressed homosexuals, they do not suffer from sexual dysfunction, nor are they white trash. But the majority IS prone to accept the existence of some deity. As their faith is buffeted daily by reality, it can make them uncomfortable to encounter, or even consider, someone who’s unafraid of the naked world.

  23. Being a former Christian I have lost a lot of Christian friends simply because I decided not to believe in any god.
    Which makes me wonder as to why they were my friends in the first place. I had one such friend, a man from Uganda, who has seen what oppression is really like living in a third world country. He has seen how Muslims unrightfully treat others simply because they don’t believe in their god, and yet he now avoids me and refuses to have anything to do with me simply because I don’t believe in his god.

    Is my decision to lose faith right? I think so because I no longer live a life in doubt. I feel as though I now have integrity in which William Shakespeare said; “This above all things to thy own self be true”, I am no longer living a lie that others choose to live. Integrity means to be honest with yourself as well as to others.

    One day when I was volunteering at a homeless clinic’s pharmacy a patient ask me if I was a Christian, in which I told him no. I explained to him that you don’t have to have a god to be a good person, you just have to be humble, and that the destination of wisdom and the enlightenment of truth is traveled down the path of humility.

    If we are to be judged by those who wrongfully judge us, let it be by the merits of our works of our kindness so that they will then rightfully judge themselves.

    From the variety of life springs forth the fountain of diversity which only makes us more distinguished and less insignificant.

  24. What interests me is why people choose atheism. Or to put it more cogently, why people move from the default state of atheism (because no-one is born a practicing Jew or Muslim or Christian or Hindu or Buddhist, are they?) to practising a religion. Apart from an occasional flirtation with the Church of England for carol services and the like (whose religious views, as Eddie Izzard has succintly observed, can be boiled down to “cake or death?”), my upbringing has been entirely religion-free. Neither of my parents are of a religious bent (no, not even the C of E), nor are they ardent atheists. Religion just doesn’t have any claim on them, possibly apart from my stepdad liking the music of J S Bach. I was raised on a diet of home experiment kits from my mum’s Open University degree, Jacques Cousteau on the telly and a National Geographic subscription from my grandmother. My conclusion was that the universe is a wonderful place, and I saw no need for a god within it – from what I understood, it works quite well without anyone pulling the strings. It just *is*. This world view has terrified some of my (few) religious friends. All kinds of questions about morality and ethics come tumbling out. My answer is that a humanistic moral code based upon people respecting people would get my vote every time over one that is posited on appeasing an angry deity. Then we get into the debate about how humans are incapable of playing nicely with one another in the absence of the laws imposed upon us by a higher authority. My answer is usually that we don’t play nicely with one another anyway, ten commandments or no ten commandments. That’s the nature of human beings. At least a human-centric view of our own species’ behaviour, seen through the lens of evolutionary theory, gives some more meaningful explanation of individuals’ actions other than “they are evil” or “they are possessed” or “they are infidels”. I’ll stick with atheism (and science) for now, thank you, and take my chances along the way.

  25. I would like to no more about the test group. There are a disproportionally large number of people who would disapprove of an African-American spouse. In a large, and equally selected group, this should be on par with Caucasian-American.

    Also, I find it deceptive that Homosexual and Recent Immigrant were left out of the “marriage” portion. This would force higher numbers in all other selections.

    This study has the earmarks of being skewed.

  26. Marc, from what I know of the researchers and other aspects of the context, I’d be very surprised if this study was skewed in any nefarious and intentional way, as you seem to be suggesting. The points you make may be valid, but your suggestion that this is a setup job of some kind is probably not founded. In any event, the study team is accessible and you can certainly email the study leader and ask about these things. Then either report back or write a blog post about it and send us the link.

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