University of Minnesota Study on American Attitudes Towards Atheists & AtheismResearch Finds that Atheists are Most Despised, Most Distrusted MinorityEvery 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.
The most recent study was conducted by the University of Minnesota, which found that 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." The results from two of the most important questions were:
This group does not at all agree with my vision of American society...
- Atheist: 39.6% Muslims: 26.3% Homosexuals: 22.6% Hispanics: 20% Conservative Christians: 13.5% Recent Immigrants: 12.5% Jews: 7.6%
I would disapprove if my child wanted to marry a member of this group....
- Atheist: 47.6% Muslim: 33.5% African-American 27.2% Asian-Americans: 18.5% Hispanics: 18.5% Jews: 11.8% Conservative Christians: 6.9% Whites: 2.3%
Lead researcher Penny Edgell said that she was surprised by this: "We thought that in the wake of 9/11, people would target Muslims. Frankly, we expected atheists to be a throwaway group." Nevertheless, the numbers are so extreme that she was led to conclude that they are "a glaring exception to the rule of increasing tolerance over the last 30 years." It's not that bigotry and discrimination against Muslims is appropriate, but at least it's not hard to understand where such attitudes would come from.
Every group except atheists is being shown much greater tolerance and acceptance than 30 years ago. "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."
Some respondents associated atheism with illegal behavior, like drug use and prostitution: "that is, with immoral people who threaten respectable community from the lower end of the social hierarchy." Others saw atheists as "rampant materialists and cultural elitists" who "threaten 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."
Given the relatively low number of atheists in America, and the even lower number who are public about their atheism, Americans can't have come to their beliefs about atheists through personal experience and hard evidence about what atheists are really like. Furthermore, dislike of atheists doesn’t correlate very highly with dislike of gays, immigrants, or Muslims. This means that dislike of atheists isn't simply part of a larger dislike of people who are "different."
Why are atheists being singled out for special hatred and distrust? "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." It's curious that atheists would be singled out for special hatred on the basis of church/state separation which religious theists, including Christians, are usually on the forefront of fighting to preserve separation. It's rare to find a case filed by or supported by atheists which is not also supported by theists and Christians. In fact, I can't think of any off hand.
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."
Atheists can't both be lower-class drug users or prostitutes and upper-class elitists and materialists. Instead, atheists are being saddled with the "sins" of American society generally. They are "a symbolic figure" that represent religious theists' "fears about ... trends in American life." Some of those fears involve "lower class" crimes like drug use; other fears involve "upper class" crimes like greed and elitism. Atheists are thus a "symbolic representation of one who rejects the basis for moral solidarity and cultural membership in American society altogether."
That's obviously not going to change, because as long as atheists remain atheists, then won't be theists and they won't be Christians. This means that they won't agree that any gods, much less the Christian god, can serve as the basis for moral solidarity or cultural membership in American society. Of course, neither can adherents of many other religions who either don't believe in gods or who don't believe in the Christian god. As America becomes more religiously pluralist, America is going to have to change and find something else to serve as the basis for moral solidarity and cultural membership. Atheists should work to ensure that this is as secular as possible.
Gallup Polls & Other Surveys on American Attitudes Towards AtheistsOver 40 Years of Research Show Atheists Are Despised, DistrustedThe 2006 University of Minnesota study made a lot news about its revelation of how atheists are the most despised minority in America, but this wasn't news to atheists — it was just the most recent in a long series of surveys showing that Americas are very bigoted and prejudiced against atheists. For as long as organizations have been asking Americans about atheists, Americans have been responding that they wouldn't treat atheists as equals to theists and Christians.
A 1999 Gallup poll conducted to determine Americans' willingness to tolerate a Jewish president (Joseph Lieberman was the Democratic candidate for Vice President at the time). Here are the percentages of people saying they would refuse to vote for "a generally well-qualified person for president" on the basis of some characteristic; in parenthesis are the figures for earlier years:
Catholic: 4% (1937: 30%)
Black: 5% (1958: 63%, 1987: 21%)
Jewish: 6% (1937: 47%)
Gay: 37% (1978: 74%)
Gallup has been asking people about whether they would vote for atheists for president for quite some time. Here are the numbers who have said "no" over the years:
February 1999: 48%
August 1987: 48%
April 1983: 51%
July 1978: 53%
December 1959: 74%
September 1958: 77%
August 1958: 75%
It might be argued that there is some cause for hope here, since the number of Americans who would refuse to vote for someone solely on the basis of being an atheist has dropped from 75% to "merely" 48% over the course of 40 years. It's not much hope, though. First, the numbers of Americans whose prejudice would prevent them from voting for members of other minorities has dropped much farther much faster over the same period of time. Second, the numbers of those prejudiced against atheists hasn't really dropped in the past couple of decades — almost all the progress was made between 1959 and 1978.
Finally, other studies and surveys indicate that prejudice against atheists is going back up. A March, 2007 survey done by Newsweek shows that 62% of people would refuse to vote for any candidate admitting to being an atheist. Republicans were, predictably, the most bigoted at 78%, followed by Democrats at 60% and independents at 45%. Among those surveyed, 47% claimed that America is more accepting of atheists than in the past. I wonder where they got that idea? The only positive results from this survey were that 68% of the people felt that atheists could be moral — but this begs the question of why people won't vote for atheists.
In 2003, the Pew Research Center conducted a poll on "religion and public life" which asked people about their attitudes towards a variety of groups, including atheists. People's opinions of atheists break down:
Very Favorable: 7%
Mostly Favorable: 27%
Mostly Unfavorable: 19%
Very Unfavorable: 33%
So, only 34% of Americans have at least a mostly favorable attitude towards atheists; 52% have a mostly unfavorable or worse attitude. Opinions about people who are not religious are better:
Very Favorable: 9%
Mostly Favorable: 41%
Mostly Unfavorable: 19%
Very Unfavorable: 14%
So, 50% of Americans have at least a mostly favorable attitude towards the irreligious and just 33% have a mostly unfavorable (or worse) attitude towards them. Compare these figures with attitudes towards Muslims:
Very Favorable: 9%
Mostly Favorable: 38%
Mostly Unfavorable: 19%
Very Unfavorable: 12%
Muslims are thus regarded a bit worse than the non-religious, but much better than atheists. Attitudes towards "Muslim Americans" were even better than this. All of these attitudes translated into whether people are willing to vote for a person for president. Here are the percentages of Americans who, according to this Pew Research Center survey, would refuse to vote for someone based on the relevant characteristic:
Evangelical Christian: 15%
The 50% who would refuse to vote for an atheist is higher than the 48% who answered the same in a 1999 Gallup survey, suggesting that perhaps attitudes towards atheists are getting worse. These overall American attitudes are largely, but not entirely, the product of Christian attitudes. A 1995 study done by Barna revealed that the prejudice and bigotry of born-again Christians towards atheists was almost universal, but still very high among non-Christians.
Here are the numbers of born-again Christians who regard the impact of these groups as negative:
Here are the numbers of non-Christians who view the impact of the same groups as negative:
There is a large drop for each group, but the drop for atheists is smallest and the final number of people who remain prejudiced against atheists is significantly higher than for every other group — so much higher, in fact, that non-Christians are more prejudiced against atheists, relatively speaking, than they are against the other groups. Born-again Christians are more prejudiced in absolute terms, but they are generally more prejudiced against everyone.