Ten years ago sociologists at the University of Minnesota conducted a research study that discovered that among a list of racial and religious minority groups in America atheists were the most disliked group of people.
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. In 2016 another study was conducted with a sample of over 2500 respondents. The findings suggested that Americans still have a 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 are tabled as follows:
According to one atheist writer 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).
What explains this rather high distrust and dislike of atheists in American society? According to the study,
“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” (4).
Regarding who Americans would vote for as president, a recent Gallup poll found that ninety-six percent (96%) of Americans would vote for a Black candidate, ninety-five percent (95%) for a Catholic, ninety-three percent (93%) for a Jew, and seventy-six (76%) for a gay or lesbian. Only sixty percent (60%) said that they would vote for an atheist. Americans are even more likely to vote for a Muslim president (66%) than an atheist one and only a socialist (47%) ranked lower than an atheist (5).
There is also a study in which participants were presented with a story about a person who accidentally hits a parked car and then fails to leave behind valid insurance information for the other driver (6). Participants were asked to choose the probability that the person in question was a Christian, a Muslim, a rapist, or an atheist. They thought it equally probable the culprit was an atheist or a rapist, and unlikely the person was a Muslim or Christian.
A 2019 Pew Research Center survey asked Americans to rate groups on a “feeling thermometer” from 0 (as cold and negative as possible) to 100 (the warmest, most positive possible rating). U.S. adults gave atheists an average rating of 49, identical to the rating they gave Muslims  and colder than the average given to Jews , Catholics , and evangelical Christians . (7)
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. World Religion News. 2016. Atheists Remain Most Disliked Religious Minority in the U.S. Available.
5. McCarthy, Justin. 2019. Less Than Half in U.S. Would Vote for a Socialist for President. Available.
6. Grewal, Dasiy. 2012. In Atheists We Distrust. Available.
7. Pew Research Center. 2019. Feelings toward religious groups. Available.