Ten years ago sociologists at the University of Minnesota did a research study that found that among a list of racial and religious minority groups atheists were the most disliked group of people in America (I’ve very briefly looked at this study here). There it was found that nearly 50% of people disapproved of their child marrying an atheist, while 40% of Americans felt atheists didn’t share their vision for society. However, in 2016 another research study was conducted with a sample of over 2500 respondents. The findings suggested that Americans still have negative view of atheists and the non-religious in general. According to the researchers their goal was to replicate the analysis “from a decade earlier” and, this time around, “to consider the factors that foster negative sentiment toward other non-religious persons” (1). Their findings were tabled as follows:
Thus, according to one atheist writer writing for the website Patheos “the journal Social Forces, shows that, despite the demographic trends showing an increase in those who are religiously unaffiliated, atheists are still really, really unpopular… those results are still surprising given all the progress we’ve made over the past decade… this is a stigma that continues to haunt us and we’ll have to keep working to get rid of it.” (2).
Researcher Penny Edgell explains that “The findings of this most recent survey support the argument that atheists are persistent cultural outsiders in the United States because they are perceived to have rejected cultural values and practices understood as essential to private morality, civic virtue, and national identity. Moreover, any refusal to embrace a religious identity of any type is troubling for a large portion of Americans” (3)
I think a big factor at play is the perception/self-identity that atheists have been giving to the general public over the last 16 or so years. One shouldn’t be surprised then that they remain disliked when they openly mock and ridicule religious people and beliefs via events like The Reason Rally and Blasphemy Day. Books, full of contempt and bigotry, penned by atheist fundamentalists like Dawkins and Harris only adds salt to this open wound. Thus, Edgell explains, “I expect that in the near future we’ll see more effort on their part to change perceptions” (4) especially regarding the role of religion in everyday life. These atheists can only blame themselves but we should, at the same time, avoid putting all atheists in the same boat. In fact, I feel sorry for the many atheists out there whose worldview has now been tarnished to the extent that many Americans will associate them with outsiders of whom they seriously distrust. But, as the research study shows there are several reasons behind this perception, “atheists are persistent cultural outsiders in the United States because they are perceived to have rejected cultural values and practices understood as essential to private morality, civic virtue, and national identity. Moreover, any refusal to embrace a religious identity of any type is troubling for a large portion of Americans” (5).
For more on this I’ve also looked at five major reasons why I think atheism remains, and will probably always remain, a minority worldview.
1. Edgell, P., Hartmann, D., Stewart, E., Gerteis, J. 2016. “Atheists and Other Cultural Outsiders: Moral Boundaries and the Non-Religious in the United States” in Social Forces (2016) 95 (2): 607-638. Available.
2. Mehta, H. 2016. A Decade After Atheists Were Found to be the Most Disliked Group in the Country, Little Has Changed. Available.
3. Edgell, P., Hartmann, D., Stewart, E., Gerteis, J. Ibid.
4. Edgell, P., Hartmann, D., Stewart, E., Gerteis, J. Ibid.
5. World Religion News. 2016. Atheists Remain Most Disliked Religious Minority in the U.S. Available.