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Hostility to Atheists:

As I noted below, the hostility to atheism in America seems remarkable, and quite troubling. A July 7, 2005 Pew Research Center poll, for instance, asked people several questions about their views of various religious and political grounds, and whether "your overall opinion of [the group] is very favorable, mostly favorable, mostly unfavorable, or very unfavorable?" Here are the numbers for various groups:

Group

Very favorable (%)

Mostly favorable

Mostly unfavorable

Very unfavorable

"Catholics"

24

49

10

4

"Jews"

23

54

5

2

"Evangelical Christians"

17

40

14

5

"Muslim Americans"

9

46

16

9

"Atheists, that is, people who don't believe in God"

7

28

22

28

This strikes me as quite troubling — 50% of Americans have an unfavorable view of people whose great sin, as best I can tell, is that they refuse to take on faith what others are willing to take on faith. I'm pleased that hostility to Jews and Catholics seems to be much less than what it used to be in the past. I hope the same will soon happen as to Muslim Americans and Evangelical Christians; that one may disagree with some Evangelical Christians' political agenda, for instance, is surely no reason to view them unfavorably as people (just as one's disagreement with most American Jews' liberalism is no reason for viewing them unfavorably). Yet the high level of disapproval of atheists should make us worry about American religious harmony and tolerance more broadly.

UPDATE: For more information, which may more precisely reflect willingness to discriminate against individuals (at least in voting) and not just unfavorable viewpoint of a group, and which involves a poll that didn't use the possibly negatively laden term "atheism," see the post above.

UPDATE: One of the commenters thought these were all options in answering one question; I've tried to clarify above that there were separate questions for each group.

FURTHER UPDATE: Another commenter wrote, "I dont know about this poll. How much of this might be blowback from the lawsuits about the pledge of [allegiance], the 'holiday' season, the cross in the city seal of LA, etc etc etc?" Well, I can't speak to all these lawsuits, but we can probably control for the Newdow pledge of allegiance lawsuit; that lawsuit really hit the news, to my knowledge, in June 2002, when the Ninth Circuit ruled in favor of the plaintiff. A Pew Research Center poll in Feb. 2002 asked "Now thinking about some specific religious groups, is your overall opinion of...Atheists, that is, people who don't believe in God very favorable, mostly favorable, mostly unfavorable, or very unfavorable?" 5% said "very favorable," 29% "mostly favorable," 23% "mostly unfavorable," and 31% "very unfavorable" — results quite similar to those found by the 2005 poll.

Klaus from Oakton (mail):
Not to be pedantic, but it seems to me that someone who merely "refuse[d] to take on faith what others are willing to take on faith" would be agnostic, not atheist.
12.12.2005 2:25pm
cdow (mail):
How come they didn't poll non-Evangelical Christian main-line religious affiliation like Episcipalians, Presbeyterians, Methodist, Luteran etc? Sure, we're declining in numbers, but why do we have to be lumped in with "Atheists"? Just because I'm an Episcipalian and not an evangelical doesn't make me an Atheist. This is a terribly worded poll question.
12.12.2005 2:29pm
cdow (mail):
If the definition of agnostic is "someone who merely refuses to take on faith what others are willing to take on faith" Then count me in as agnostic, not an atheist. They should have included that option in the poll question.
12.12.2005 2:32pm
buzz:
Eh, I dont know about this poll. How much of this might be blowback from the lawsuits about the pledge of allegence, the "holiday" season, the cross in the city seal of LA, etc etc etc? I seriously doubt the majority of the 50% would say the same about Bob, the atheist neighbor across the street. I might have been part of that 50% if included in that poll, and I certainly dont disapprove of myself.
12.12.2005 2:35pm
Rich (mail):
I think your making too much of this. Why should we be concerned? Your making quite a leap from people disapproving of atheists to getting the kindling wood ready. Technically, at least to me, atheists mean that they have no faith in anything higher than human. I have my own problems with that but it doesn't mean I'm getting the Smith and Wesson out and going to work.
12.12.2005 2:37pm
Robert Lyman (mail):
I suspect that much hostility to atheism comes from the annoying militant sect therof, that does things like sue to remove "In God We Trust" from money, or openly mock religious believers with things like the "Flying Spagetti Monster."
12.12.2005 2:37pm
Jeff Kuebler (mail):
I consider myself an atheist or agnostic, and if given the poll might also give an "unfavorable" rating for atheists in general. I think some of the actions by ACLU and their clients are divisive and do not really have meaning except to get the radical theologians incensed.
12.12.2005 2:37pm
JB:
I think Buzz has it right. I'm a pretty strong agnostic, and I've got a mostly unfavorable view of the militant atheists who are responsible for the stuff Buzz mentions. I can only imagine what more religious, less generally-tolerant people than myself feel.
12.12.2005 2:39pm
Julian Morrison (mail):
I'd guess the hostility stems from defensiveness. Atheists are percieved not as a neutral group content to live and let live, but as being on a mission to exterminate religion.
12.12.2005 2:41pm
anonymous coward:
"I suspect that much hostility to atheism comes from the annoying militant sect therof..." Perhaps, just as some of the hostility to evangelicals may come from the "God Hates [Gays]" sort of stuff.

I really have no idea. What does "unfavorable" mean to those surveyed? I'm not sure I have a "favorable" impression of any of these groups (although I'm not sure I have an "unfavorable" impression either). I believe large numbers of people admit they wouldn't vote for an atheist, though, which is bothersome.
12.12.2005 2:44pm
Steve:
When George H.W. Bush was running for President in 1987, he said, "I don't know that atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered patriots." That's a pretty clear statement of hostility. I wonder how many other religious, racial or ethnic groups a presidential candidate could make that statement about and still be seen as a serious candidate.

There are plenty of Jews who do nutty things and file frivolous lawsuits and all that, but I really doubt anyone would attempt to excuse anti-semitism on the basis that a few Jews do bad things.
12.12.2005 2:46pm
Andrew:
Does the poll break down into what particular subscribers to a faith (rather than the aggregate sample population) said about other faiths?

That is to say: I suspect that the percentage of "atheists" who consider "evangelical Christians" to be "unfavorable" or "very unfavorable" is at least as large as, if not greater than, the percentage of "evangelical Christians" who feel the same way about "atheists."
12.12.2005 2:46pm
Tam:

...an unfavorable view of people whose great sin, as best I can tell, is that they refuse to take on faith what others are willing to take on faith.


I kinda doubt that is the basis for the unfavorable rating. Just a guess, but maybe a leading objection to atheists is not their personal beliefs but rather the way that atheism has become politically correct.
12.12.2005 2:47pm
jmwfan (mail):
I don't think militant atheists are on a mission to exterminate religion, but rather seek to enforce the constitutional guarantee of separation of church and state. The main problem that many atheists have with religion is its presence outside of the confines of a church, not its mere existence.

As to cdow's comment: "How come they didn't poll non-Evangelical Christian main-line religious affiliation like Episcipalians, Presbeyterians, Methodist, Luteran etc? Sure, we're declining in numbers, but why do we have to be lumped in with 'Atheists?'"

I wouldn't lump members of those sects with Atheists for a minute -- they are far closer to Evangelicals than they are to Atheists.
12.12.2005 2:48pm
anonymous coward:
"Atheists are percieved not as a neutral group content to live and let live, but as being on a mission to exterminate religion."

Yikes! Well, a number of religions see it as their mission to save souls, not merely "live and let live." I suppose some atheists must feel that atheism has made their lives really swell, too.

Oddly I've never actually met one of those rabid village atheist types outside the intarnets. But I'm asked to pledge my soul to Jesus or Vishnu or L. Ron or LaRouche on a regular basis. (Recently by a Jesus-freak cab driver. Ugh.)
12.12.2005 2:50pm
Daniel Chapman (mail):
An unfavorable view does not mean hostility. As a man in his 20s, most of my friends are atheist, agnostic, or uncommitted, and I have favorable opinions of each of them. If I were to answer this question, however, I'd have to say "mostly unfavorable" just because I think atheists are wrong. Hostility doesn't even enter into it.

Now if they asked for my opinion of Michael Newdow...
12.12.2005 2:50pm
Brian F:
cdow is right, but for the wrong reason.

This is by no means meant to be an exclusive list, so the failure to include every Christian denomination does not mean that all non-evangelical non-Catholic Christians were "lumped in" with atheists.

That said, notice that of all these options, only atheists were explained to the respondent; granted it was probably an accurate description, but it certainly served to focus the response in a way that none of the others were.

Suppose, for example, the poll had read (disclaimer: I'm no expert on religion and these are not meant to disparage or offend), "Catholics, that is, people who belive the Pope is God's vicar on earth; Jews, that is, people who do not believe Jesus Christ is the son of God; evangelical Christians, that is, people who believe ____ [I'm honestly not sure what makes one an "evangelical" Christan as opposed to a non-evangelical]; Muslim Americans, that is, people who believe in Allah and the Koran," along with the atheist line as written, the results are likely to be quite, quite different.

But to compare the current atheist question with the other non-suggestive choices is terribly misleading.

On the other hand, the fact that the other choices included no suggestion means that, for example, the evangelical Christian political agenda probably affected the respondents' "overall opinion" of the group, so I'm not sure it's troubling that their negative numbers were a little high. It's not clear that the question was asking respondents to evaluate these groups as individual human beings; they were more likely being asked (or understood the question to be asking) for their opinions about the groups as groups.
12.12.2005 2:51pm
B. B.:
"I'd guess the hostility stems from defensiveness. Atheists are percieved not as a neutral group content to live and let live, but as being on a mission to exterminate religion."

I'd guess the hostility toward Evangelical Christians stems from something similar -- the militant part of the group as being on a mission to force their beliefs on everyone else rather than being content to live and let live.

There are obnoxious people in every group, and the most visible these days tend to be atheists and Evangelicals. I'm not surprised that they rate lower than Catholics and Jews, who are not in the news on a regular basis squawking about something or other.
12.12.2005 2:51pm
Paul Sand (mail) (www):
Leave alone the slight distinction that can be made between (a) hostility to atheism and (b) not having a high opinion of atheists. Aren't the poll results simply explained by the impression that atheists act like jerks all the time?
(Note: if you click the link, the relevant part is about halfway through the page. Also note that this assertion is being made by someone who is not a believer himself.)
12.12.2005 2:51pm
lucia (mail) (www):
I knit a flying spaghetti monster. ( http://www.thedietdiary.com/blog/lucia/523 )

The purpose of the FSM is not to mock the religious but to help illustate why ID is not science.

I'll admit some may not understand the difference between mocking or belittliing religion and saying religion isn't science. That's why they don't understand that ID isn't science.

Some very religious people do understand the difference. My mother is Roman Catholic, attends mass daily and used to teach chemistry. She covets my Flying Spaghetti Monster. (I told her to knit her own.)
12.12.2005 2:52pm
Tbag (mail) (www):
As an agnostic, I certainly identify more readily with atheists than I do with "people of faith." And though I sometimes think atheist activists could use a chill pill or two, I agree with most of their actions at least in principle.

The truth of the matter is, in the battle to keep religion out of government, most people in my position feel we're constantly on the defensive. I'm sure that's at least 1 part perception for every 1 part substance, but with the steady rise of government funding of "faith based" initiatives, etc., it's not make believe.

This perception is related to the fact that we're a minority in this country, and not even a particularly substantial one. And as this poll suggests, religious people's views toward us are not particularly friendly. Now whether that's backlash, as buzz suggests, or just latent hostility, I can't be sure. I've certainly never worried about my safety because of my views, and I don't see any such worry arising in the future, even if a poll question like that starts to look worse for us.
12.12.2005 2:52pm
Apollo (mail):
I'd like to read an explanation of why the high disapproval rating for atheists is so bad. Most of what people know comes from seeing the actions of militant atheists, who are a wholly unlikeable lot. Of the people I've met and known to be atheists, I found nearly all of them to be unlikeable. True, that's not many people, and I'm sure there are lots of nice atheists out there, but that's my experiences and I see no reason I should be frowned upon for drawing larger conclusions (such as, "all other things appearing equal, I'd rather associate with a fellow Christian than an atheist") from my experiences, so long as I don't go around breaking the headlights of cars with Darwin fish, or some such nonsense. It's not wholly my fault that atheists generally seem unlikeable, nor is it wholly an atheist's fault if he finds Christians unlikeable. If regligion is a matter of values and beliefs, why should it be bad if I have unfavorable views of values and beliefs that clash with mine?

And if this just gets reduced to the, "How can you presume something negative about such a large, diverse group of people?" argument, then why shouldn't you also be upset that some people have favorable views of atheists? Unless it's allowable to just to be happy that others have beliefs, regardless of specifics?
12.12.2005 2:55pm
Mike Jenkins (mail):
Eugene,
That might not be their "great sin"; it would not be at all surprising for people to create their opinions of a group based on the actions of a few prominent members. We are generally only aware that people are atheists in connection with prominent court cases that are genuinely unpopular with much of the public. "Atheists are the people who don't want my kids to pray in school" or ".. the people who want to get rid of manger scenes" are possibly at the root of much of those striking unfavorable numbers. My guess is that a category titled "non-believers" would see much more favorable numbers.
12.12.2005 2:56pm
Buck Turgidson (mail):
one's disagreement with most American Jews' liberalism is no reason for viewing them unfavorably

Eugene, you really seem to live in a bubble. Not the Bush-like bubble--he's on another planet, as far as I am concerned. No, your bubble is of an intellectual sort--the kind you get when a kid gets so preoccupied with intellectual activities, he ignores other forms of development.

Your statement here is really crass. If you were not Jewish yourself, it would be suspect. It's the kind of argument that you could hear alongside, "Jews are people too," and "You are a very nice person, for a Jew." What next? "Some of my best friends are Jews"?

Speaking of Jews--the poll is troubling for another reason. In the poll, Jews are the only category that can be interpreted as both religious and ethnic. By explicitly stating that this is a poll on religion, one can hide his anti-Semitic animus by disparaging "atheists", since, in the view of many, there is a larger proportion of ethnic Jews amongh atheists than any other ethnic group. Compare it to the usual anti-Semitic assumption, for example, that Communism and Socialism are associated with Jews.

I suspect that much hostility to atheism comes from the annoying militant sect therof...

I suspect that if that were the case, there would be more hostility toward evangelicals. I would look for the reasons in other places, such as prevalent anti-intellectualism of the general population in the US (to the degree that is unheard of in other nations).

There is another reason for the poll numbers. We have reached the point in this country where expression of specific bigotry is viewed as a negative trait. This puts the brakes on anyone's impulse to "dislike" Catholics, Jews, Muslims, etc. However, there is no such tempering component attached to "atheists". So the entire "atheist" category may well be viewed as "not us", whereas the "other religions" are less popular now as targets of such disparagement. I don't know how the poll was conducted, but I would suspect that if other non-Christian religions were included, most of them would be viewed more disfavorably than the major ones without any particular reason behind it.

Also, if one were to include less representative religiouns in the poll, it would be interesting, for research purposes, to list at least one fake religion.
12.12.2005 2:57pm
Moshe (mail):
I think that there has to be a distinction made between different types of non-favorable opinions. The variety of non-favorable opinions that one can have about others can vary widely from quite intense hatred to mild disapproval. I suspect that the anti-Muslim sentiment is bound up in fears having to do with terrorism and fundamentalism and has a substantially different flavor than negative views of atheists. I suspect that the non-favorable views that people hold regarding atheists are not of a type that would be all that troubling.
12.12.2005 2:57pm
Julian Morrison (mail):
They're fighting over control of the state and it's vast child-indoctrination apparatus.

Perhaps they might become more willing to get along if education were privatized?
12.12.2005 2:58pm
Tbag (mail) (www):
I think Andrew has a point. I would probably answer "very unfavorable" in response to evangelicals even though much of my family and friends (whom I love and admire) would fit into that category. It's the religious right I have a problem with, not evangelicals. But I'm guilty of conflating the two, as I'm sure many conflate "atheist" with "godless communist" (or perhaps that's too dated, but you get the idea).
12.12.2005 2:58pm
CEB:
All together now: the Constitution does not guarantee a separation between church and state. I am an atheist (agnostic is such a weasel word; you either believe in God or you don't) but I would rather live in a country where the government is influenced by the religious beliefs of the citizens than in one where religious belief and influence is supressed.
12.12.2005 2:58pm
Daniel Chapman (mail):
Wrong, CEB. You either believe in god, or you believe in no god, or you don't believe in either. Big difference.
12.12.2005 3:02pm
Joel B. (mail):
Jane Galt probably said it best when she was discussing why she was herself not a big fan of Militant Atheism, James Taranto, also discussed this in his Best of the Web feature not too long ago.

People have an unfavorable view of athiests because certain athiests do really annoying things. Now granted, so do evangelicals, but as Jane Galt said it, the evangelical is trying to save your soul...from hell... the militant athiest on the other hand is trying to save you from 3 hours on Sunday Morning.

Also, as "annoying" as it may be for evangelicals to "force" their opinions everywhere, at least they tend to only do so when they're in the majority, like through democratic processes, which mean Catholics and Mainline denominations have to kind of go along too. That's a lot of broad based agreement. Athiests on the other hand seem to run to the court to enforce their vision of the establishment clause on everyone else. And ruin the civic life and religious values say 90%+ of Americans share. And we're not supposed to have an unfavorable view of such behavior? Taking much of the oomph out of shared holidays.

Sorry Prof. Volokh, but I fear on this issue we won't agree, because of the actions of a number of athiests, athiests have largely earned their reputation.
12.12.2005 3:02pm
Ken Alfano (mail):
It's often a matter of who is perceived as imposing their view on others. It used to be those of the more devoutly religious worldviews who were feared to be doing this, but lately it has been evident that secularists have sought to stifle religion more than any theists have sought to mandate it (hence all the religious-liberty suits springing up as government entities try to pass off secular-default as more "neutral" than divine-default. That said, it's sad to see anyone taking such disagreements so personally as to have "unfavorable" views of each other.

As we discussed in the intelligent design debate, there is a subjective value judgment that one makes in taking an exclusively "ground-up" view of epistomology (e.g. the scientific method) centered on the human vantage point, as opposed to the alternative "top-down" philosophy that is more dismissive of man's perspective. Both sides would probably get along better if they could simply agree on the "value" of noncoercion with respect to their deeply-held beliefs, no matter how convinced either side is that it's right.
12.12.2005 3:03pm
David Matthews (mail):
jmwfan:
"its presence outside of the confines of a church"

Wooah. I can't find anywhere in the Constitution or the First Amendment anything that would imply that religion must be confined to a church. So religion should be banned from other private property? Bumper stickers — out. Lawn displays — no way. Religious stores — forbidden. T-shirts — how dare they! Wearing a cross to work — we can't have that form of free expression.

So, yes, I agree, atheists who object to the presence of religion "outside the confines of a church" are precisely the type that give atheism a bad rep.
12.12.2005 3:04pm
Buck Turgidson (mail):
I should also add that although not an atheist, I do not view organized religion favorably. In fact, I would compare it to smoking--if you like, it's your problem, as long as you don't blow it in my face. Once could also see both, in large quantities, contributing to causing cancer--one physiologically, the other socially. In this sense, organized atheism can also be considered a religion. The trouble is, most atheists are not organized.
12.12.2005 3:06pm
Hank:
Here's how I view the difference between an atheist and an agnostic. An agnostic is undecided about the existence of God. (It's not true that you either believe in God or you don't.) An atheist believes that there is no God, but there are two very different bases that he might have this belief. Some atheists disbelieve because they perceive no evidence of the existence of God, but have an open mind -- should evidence appear, they would consider it. In other words, they acknowledge that one cannot prove a negative. Other atheists disbelieve in a more affirmative sense; they have made a leap of faith that God does not exist.
12.12.2005 3:07pm
Mr Diablo:
Eug,

The problem with your comparison between the "not liking American Jews because of their liberalism" and the "not liking American evangelical Christians becuase of their conservatism" is that the liberalism of the American Jews necessarily states the social ethic of leaving people alone to live and make decisions and partake outside of the mainstream. It is not a hotbed of condemnation of morality (like sexual orientation) or evangelism (or trying to take public funds to pay for poorly masked evangelism).

As an agnostic gay male, I'm feeling pretty damn proud to view with suspicion and think unfavorably on those who have worked to convert me in a couple of different ways and condemn me for not doing so. It is not unbiased discrimination of a group for many of us who have problems with evangelicals and view them uniformly unfavorably. It is targeted at people who refuse to let others live and let live on some of the most basic levels.

I've long thought that propagating the tolerance of total intolerance was a waste of time, and giving in to acceptance of the faux-troubles that evangelicals claim to live day-to-day with (i.e. the "assault on Christmas" myth that comes up every holiday season). The only thing that has evangelicals angry is that not everyone is converting -- and I'm supposed to have a favorable view of these people, why?

That said, that agnostics/atheists are held in such high disregard is no surprise. The press covers the vocal agnostics as though they are wild-eyed heretics ranting against the country (rather than against the encroachment of private faith on the public square).

I want to be associated with Michael Newdow as much as I do Jerry Falwell -- but the press and most of the public seem to not worry so much about the encroachment on the private life by private individuals. They get a pass for offering that old time religion, no matter how backwards and unfair their suggestions may be.
12.12.2005 3:10pm
Tam:

I would look for the reasons in other places, such as prevalent anti-intellectualism of the general population in the US (to the degree that is unheard of in other nations).


I haven't encountered a prevailing anti-intellectualism anywhere. I have an encountered a widespread distrust of the current crop of intellectuals---which in my opinion is well deserved.

As an agnostic, I haven't encountered any hostility from religious people. Maybe that's because I'm not hostile to them.
12.12.2005 3:14pm
dk35 (mail):
I would be interested in a geographic breakdown of the responses too.

It does seem in a way that the religion conflict in this country has largely come to a stalemate through the red-state/blue-state distinction (Red-states being ostentatiously Christian because they can, and while (usually) not driving dissenters out of town, making it clear that they are not respected, and Blue-staters basically letting people do whatever the hell they want in the privacy of their own property, and trying to keep the public space neutral in an attempt not to unnecessarily offend anyone).
12.12.2005 3:17pm
Julian Morrison (mail):
Joel B.

as Jane Galt said it, the evangelical is trying to save your soul...from hell... the militant athiest on the other hand is trying to save you from 3 hours on Sunday Morning.

Well, no, they're trying to save you from the sort of biblical inerrantist who can grimly stare proven facts in the face and say "la la la, I'm not listening". Human progress does rather depend upon the ability to react to facts, rather than fables.
12.12.2005 3:18pm
Matt Barr (mail) (www):
32 comments in and I'm the only one puzzled by the appellation "Americans" to only one of the groups? I'm not puzzled because I think the "unfavorables" for Muslims should be higher, but I think they probably would be without limiting it to Muslim Americans. I also frankly think there would be even higher favorables and lower unfavorables for a category called "Jewish Americans." Just a puzzlement, is all.

My take on the perception of atheists is: I think everyone prefers to be thought of as wrong instead of stupid. Believers think members of other denominations are wrong; believers think atheists are wrong; atheists think believers are stupid. (Or crazy.) Very generally speaking.
12.12.2005 3:20pm
Apollo (mail):
I'm a little distressed by the view that liberals give so much freedom. It wasn't the conservative bloc of the court that struck down medical marijuana or decided Kelo; it was the justices supported by blue-staters, and whose numbers on the court would be increased if the Blue states had had their way last November. Nor are red-staters as eager to ban smoking on private property (restaurants and bars). Blue state representatives passed McCain-Feingold's restrictions on speech. And liberals in the academy are at least as unwelcoming to dissenters as any red-state Jesusville.

This is a two-way street, and it's silly to pretend like modern Democrats are the party of freedom. Neither is.
12.12.2005 3:24pm
Clayton E. Cramer (mail) (www):
Mr. Diablo writes:


The problem with your comparison between the "not liking American Jews because of their liberalism" and the "not liking American evangelical Christians becuase of their conservatism" is that the liberalism of the American Jews necessarily states the social ethic of leaving people alone to live and make decisions and partake outside of the mainstream.
If only liberals were prepared to leave "people alone to live and make decisions and partake outside of the mainstream." Shall we make a list of areas where liberals insist on using the government to tell minorities what to do?

1. Gun control.

2. Bans on smoking on private property (admittedly, open to people who choose to go there).

3. Requiring everyone to fund public education systems that, at best, are ineffective and often downright propagandistic.

4. Telling employers that must hire people regardless of race, religion, or national origin.

You can make strong pragmatic arguments for these governmental actions. But don't pretend that liberalism is different from conservatism in being prepared to leave people alone. The argument is about what areas are properly within the governmental sphere of influence, and how much force to use to accomplish those ends.
12.12.2005 3:28pm
Anderson (mail) (www):
I think the defensiveness against atheists is a little different than I see described above.

Few of us have faith so strong that we're not affected by our community's happening to agree or disagree with our faith. It's hard to be the only one in town who believes in the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

People who are insecure in their faith are irrationally hostile to anyone who disagrees with their faith, and tend to take that disagreement as a personal attack.

(Muslims, on my theory, are viewed by Christians much as Jews are: mistaken, but believers nonetheless. Our political issues with the Arab world doubtless have affected the numbers. Also recall how recent it is for Jews to have such *favorable* numbers.)
12.12.2005 3:32pm
sbw (mail) (www):
This is overblown. What is an athiest, so far as the survey was concerned? Someone who simply doesn't believe or one trying to stamp out belief?

It's a non-question really. The more important work to be done is to frame basic ethical decision-making independent of religion so that people with religion don't feel obliged to impose their beliefs on others in order to assure a civil society. That way we could keep both believers AND athiests off my back.
12.12.2005 3:35pm
Bruce Hayden (mail) (www):
I can't speak for anyone else, but the one group that I would have answered negatively would have been athiests. And that would have been because of what I perceive to be political correctness gone wild in their favor.

I appreciate that many athiests feel under assault. But any more today than in earlier times? My understanding of this country is that it was a lot more Christian in the past.

Maybe things are worse right now because this is the Holiday season, and I constantly get the feeling that there is a movement to strip Jesus out of it - despite the fact that probably a majority of the people in this country look at this season as the Christmas Season.
12.12.2005 3:37pm
PersonFromPorlock:
jmwfan,

I don't think militant atheists are on a mission to exterminate religion, but rather seek to enforce the constitutional guarantee of separation of church and state.

The notion if separation of church and state is extra-constitutional: all the First Amendment does is prohibit the establishment of a federal church and, interestingly, prohibit federal interference with the state-established churches which existed at the time (there were two, IIRC).

The main problem that many atheists have with religion is its presence outside of the confines of a church, not its mere existence.

Oddly enough, that's exactly what some people say about Blacks, Foreigners and Gays: "I have no problem with them, but why can't they stay in their own places!"
12.12.2005 3:39pm
Mark B (mail) (www):
I'd need to take a look at what the actual questions were and how the poll was conducted in detail, but there is one fairly major problem with this as presented.

The poll results as stated represent "forced" choices. That is, the questions appear to have forced the respondents to make a judgement about people based solely on their religion, EVEN IF THE RESPOND HAS NO SUCH PREJUDICE. Specifically, there is no "neutral" choice.

I know that personally, if you asked me how I feel about Catholics qua Catholics, or Jews qua Jews, with no other parameters, my honest answer would be "neutral". I feel neither positive nor negative about those groups. Each probably on average has as many wackos - and as many upright folks - as the next.

Yes, I know that this is how these favorability-rating polls are designed. However, consider taht those type of polls are usually aimed at a single person - say, the President - or at a relatively small group that has a specific function - say, Congress. But a favorability-rating poll for tens to hundreds of millions of people all at once is really just a way of forcing you to make a prejudiced choice. Any result that is found there is bound to exaggerate (amplify) whatever prejudices may exist.

That's not to say that atheists may not be seen relatively unfavorably, but probably not to the mathematical extent claimed by this poll. The tendencies may be valid, but the numbers are probably useless, even at that large a sample size.
12.12.2005 3:42pm
David Chesler (mail) (www):
I don't view Lucia unfavorably for believing in the Flying Spaghetti Monster, but her knitting of an image thereof is a clear violation of Exodus 20:4. Sinner!

Seriously, what Anderson just said is on point. Some believers are more favorable to other believers who don't quote get it right.

And if an agnostic merely doesn't know, what's the word for someone who believes Man cannot know?
12.12.2005 3:43pm
DK:
I agree with the comments about militant atheists provoking hostility. I have had a number of really bad personal experiences with militant, proselytizing people who refused to drop the subject. The majority of those bad experiences have been with atheists. The second most were with extremely radical environmentalists. Third were right-wing/ Vatican-II-hating Catholics. Fourth were orthodox Marxists. Evangelical Christians came in a distant fifth, and they were less likely than the 1st four to use ridicule. _all_ of the bad experiences, BTW, were in college, which is really good at bringing out the worst in people who haven't yet learned to tolerate other points of view.

IMHO, the problem with this poll is that it encourages respondents to blame groups for unpleasant experiences with individual group members. For each of the above groups, I have known more nice, friendly, normal people than I have known militant, hostile proselytizers. But the militants tend to hurt the public's perception of the group.
12.12.2005 3:46pm
Christopher M (mail):
I don't know why on earth we're not supposed to have "favorable" or "unfavorable" views of various religious groups. Would Prof. Volokh agree with his own statement if the words "Evangelical Christians" were replaced by "Communists":

that one may disagree with some [Communists'] political agenda, for instance, is surely no reason to view them unfavorably as people

I doubt it -- of course someone's "political agenda" is one reason among many to view them (un)favorably as a person. Religions are belief systems that quite obviously have real effects on the way people act, vote, think, etc., and I don't see why I am required to view them all favorably when it seems to me that some are far more beneficial, harmful, appealing, intelligent, whatever, than others.

Now, two caveats. First, as Prof. Volokh has pointed out in the past, it often turns out that even people with bizarre or offensive religious views turn out to be decent people in personal interactions most of the time. Then again, so do lots of people who do and think some pretty bad things. And second, the categories described in this poll are very broad -- even of evangelical Christians, only 56% identify as Republican (17% independent, 27% Democrat). (Source [pdf], see p.9.) So yeah, you can't tell a lot about a person's political or moral views merely from the fact that they identify as Catholic or Evangelical.

But none of this means that I or anyone else has to have a "favorable impression" of any specific religion (or religion or atheism in general, for that matter).
12.12.2005 3:53pm
Marcus1:
All these excuses for anti-atheist bigotry are ridiculous. They would never be accepted for any other group.

Many polls have shown that some 50% of Americans report that they would not vote for an atheist for public office under any circumstances.
This is not based on the behavior of atheists. Many if not most religious establishment cases are brought by religious minorities. Hate of atheists long predates Michael Newdow. His case had no effect whatsoever.

The idea that atheists try to force their views on others is equally ridiculous. How on earth do they do that? By objecting to the government establishment of religion? By teaching evolution in schools? Consider what would happen if every morning children in schools across America got up and recited "One nation, rejecting gods and other primitive mythology, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all." Now, that would be forcing atheism on others.

The bigotry against atheists is simply so strong that atheists don't even dare to stand up in public and defend themselves. That is why the negativity remains so high. The misconceptions are extraordinary.
12.12.2005 3:53pm
dk35 (mail):
Very well said, Marcus1!!
12.12.2005 3:57pm
Clayton E. Cramer (mail) (www):
Why the strong negatives on atheists? I would guess that much of this is related to the actions of the militant atheists using the court system in ways that are both offensive and at the same time, trivial in their actual results (for example, trying to get that cross removed from the County of Los Angeles seal). That's the mark of a fanatic--and antireligious fanatics aren't any more attractive than religious fanatics.

There's another component to this. There is a widely held belief that the only thing that keeps people in line is fear of punishment--either right here and now, or in the hereafter. In my experience, I have not seen that atheists are any noticeably worse behaved than believers, but I think a fair number of Americans believe that it is likely to be the case that fear of fire and brimstone improves morals.

Remember that unless you are currently attending a university, or you are a lawyer, the chances of knowing more than a few atheists in America is pretty small. Most Americans are making what seems like a logical assumption based on their very small sample size.
12.12.2005 4:00pm
Julian Morrison (mail):
The whole "fear of fire and brimstone improves morals" thing strikes me as odd. I mean, serious belief in hell as punishment is a very minority idea. Some but not all variants of christianity have it, Islam does, so far as I know Judaism doesn't, and most of the rest of religions believe in reincarnation or in neutral afterlives. Probably the majority of people on earth don't believe in hell. If fear of punishment were all that was leashing the savage beast, half the planet would be in chaos.
12.12.2005 4:11pm
AppSocRes (mail):
I posted this late to an earlier thread on this topic. I think it bears hearing, so I'm going to re-post it here.

Maybe one reason atheists are so unpopular is that they are so shrill in their denunciations of others. If I am a Christian/Jew/Hindu/Muslim... (and most Americans self-identify with one or another organiized religion) and someone is taking gratuitous swipes at me, why should I like them? The atheists I know seem to go out of their way to say hateful things about religious believers (sometimes with/sometimes without the "Of course I didn't mean you..." apology). I tolerate this because I am friends with them for other reasons, just as a Jew might have tolerated the off-hand anti-semitiism of, e.g., T. S. Elliott, in a social setting. That the majority of Americans say they do not like atheists is no more surprising than would be a finding that the majority of American Jews do not like anti-semites.
12.12.2005 4:12pm
mariner (mail):
I'm disturbed that someone who usually thinks so clearly as Professor Volokh equates unwillingness to vote for someone with hostility (and finds it disturbing).
12.12.2005 4:13pm
Thorley Winston (mail) (www):
As an agnostic, I haven't encountered any hostility from religious people. Maybe that's because I'm not hostile to them.


Agreed, I've had pretty much the same experience as an atheist. Funny how when you don't go out of your way to pick a fight with the beliefs of the majority, they pretty much leave you alone.
12.12.2005 4:25pm
Marcus1:
Thorley,

>Funny how when you don't go out of your way to pick a fight with the beliefs of the majority, they pretty much leave you alone.<

Well I, for one, am glad that folks like Galileo and Darwin didn't think that way.
12.12.2005 4:44pm
NickM (mail) (www):
Based on those poll numbers, it appears that hostility by atheists toward religious people and by religious people toward atheists may be equally prevalent among those groups. However, being in a minority group when majority and minority groups dislike each other will mean there are many more people hostile toward you than if you are in the majority group. As far as the unwillingness to vote for an atheist goes, I would be willing to bet that a high percentage of atheists would not vote for a religious person if they had an atheist candidate available to vote for.

Nick
12.12.2005 5:08pm
CEB:
David Chesler-
The proper meaning of agnosticism is the position that humans cannot know the truth or falsity of certain metaphysical propositions, including the existence of god. Therefore it is possible, according to this proper definition, to be an agnostic and believe that you cannot KNOW whether God exists, and also a theist and BELIEVE that God exists even though you don't KNOW it, just as noe may believe that aliens exist even though they don't know that they do. "Agnostic" is often used incorrectly to mean "I don't know what I believe": an incoherent and dishonest proposition in my opinion
12.12.2005 5:23pm
Cal Lanier (mail) (www):
"I'd like to read an explanation of why the high disapproval rating for atheists is so bad. Most of what people know comes from seeing the actions of militant atheists, who are a wholly unlikeable lot. Of the people I've met and known to be atheists, I found nearly all of them to be unlikeable."

Okay, let's plug in a different belief:

"I'd like to read an explanation of why the high disapproval rating for Jews is so bad. Most of what people know comes from seeing the actions of militant Jews, who are a wholly unlikeable lot. Of the people I've met and known to be Jews, I found nearly all of them to be unlikeable."

Out of curiosity, Eugene, would you have allowed the second post to stay up? Or would you have deleted it as over the top hostility?

Last I checked, both Jerry Falwell and Jesse Jackson were Christian ministers. Has anyone ever held one of them responsible for the other on those grounds? If not, why does everyone think it's okay to judge all nonbelievers based on the public statements of a few?
12.12.2005 5:52pm
Traveler:
Good point, Mariner!
12.12.2005 6:00pm
Buck Turgidson (mail):
Some atheists disbelieve because they perceive no evidence of the existence of God, but have an open mind -- should evidence appear, they would consider it.

Jeez! Learn your categories, damn it! You're not describing atheists. Apparently, atheist, agnostic, secularist or secular, liberal, godless, satanist, pagan, communist, socialist are all the same thing to a whole bunch of people. Some of these people also thing that "Jews" is just another term to the describe the same group. That's OK, though--they'll burn in hell of their own creation. ;-)
12.12.2005 6:01pm
Cal Lanier (mail) (www):
There's an enormous amount of debate about the semantics for nonbelievers. I know a lot of agnostics who gave up and call themselves atheists. I've seen some people described as "weak atheists" if they don't take a position on the existence of god.

Belief statements:

There is no god: atheist
I don't believe in god and I think it likely there is no god: agnostic
I don't feel any particular belief in god, but I think it likely there is a god: agnostic
I believe in God, but God is unknowable: deist? Theist? I always get those two confused.
I'm looking for God: whiny frootloop who should be smacked. Also, deist/theist.

I've also noticed--observation, not definition--that most agnostics have never believed in god. Most atheists once believed in god and then decided that god didn't exist.
12.12.2005 6:05pm
Tam:

Well I, for one, am glad that folks like Galileo and Darwin didn't think that way.


Well I, for one, don't think Micheal Newdow is either a Galileo or a Darwin.

I do think both Galileo and Darwin would resent being held up as posterboys for atheism.
12.12.2005 6:07pm
Bruce Hayden (mail) (www):
FYI, interesting anti-Christain bumper sticker found for awhile today on the Wash. state Democratic Party web site (note the fish on the right). It was removed after a lot of complaints. Thanks to Best of the Web today and Delta Mike Charlie.
12.12.2005 6:08pm
dweeb (mail):
This is something new! A libertarian who finds it "troubling" that people's FREELY HELD OPINIONS of atheists are negative. Consider it this way - is there some template of orthodoxy you'd rather people's views conformed to? If it's problematic that the majority frowns on a worldview, isn't that worldview, that rejects the worldview of the majority as misguided at best, equally problematic?
12.12.2005 6:21pm
jmwfan (mail):
David Matthews:

"I can't find anywhere in the Constitution or the First Amendment anything that would imply that religion must be confined to a church."

Not exactly what I was saying, apologize for the confusion. I only wanted to point out that militant atheists are uncomfortable by the public display of religion. Atheists feel no reason to recruit among the masses, why should the god-fearing feel that need?

PersonfromPorlock:

"all the First Amendment does is prohibit the establishment of a federal church and, interestingly, prohibit federal interference with the state-established churches which existed at the time."

Point taken, but then why does this and every administration seem intent on injecting religion into politics at every turn? Probably because the masses eat up religious rhetoric like Jell-o pudding.

"Oddly enough, that's exactly what some people say about Blacks, Foreigners and Gays: "I have no problem with them, but why can't they stay in their own places!""

Is this a joke? Blacks, Foreigners, and Gays are discrete and insular; Evangelical Christians do not have permanent halos around their skulls.
12.12.2005 7:31pm
akiva eisenberg (mail):
Most people base their fundamental moral structure on religious guidelines. It seems logical that they would be leery of a person who seems to have no such underpinnings for their ethics. What, precisely, motivates such a person to follow a socially-beneficial lifestyle? "Trust me," when the concept of "honesty" is arbitrary, seems to be a bit disingenuous.

Note that Nietsche pointed out that the only honest ethic outside of religion is survival of the fittest.

Obviously, not all of those claiming religious adherence follow a code of conduct most would consider just and moral. Also as obvious is that not all atheists follow a libertine, sociopathic, "me first" lifestyle. I wouldn't even hazard a guess as to the relative proportions. But which group is more associated (for reasons already presented in this discussion) with attacks on what the typical American considers to be wholesome, family-oriented, morality.
12.12.2005 7:51pm
Penta:
PersonfromPorlock:

Actually....Most of the states, at the time of the BoR and for a while afterwards (I thiiiink until the 1820s in most cases?) had established churches.

But I'm being picky.
12.12.2005 8:55pm
Brooks Lyman (mail):
I think the problem (if that's the correct word for it) is that atheists have been involved in a number of very visible cases that have changed the interpretation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment and have made general pains of themselves insofar as the public acknowledgement of God is concerned.

Most religious people, while not averse to spreading the good word, do not attempt to use the power of the state to do so. They are, in a word, tolerant. The atheists seem to have little or no tolerance for other faiths (and yes, Atheism is a faith - in the non-existence of God, and I seem to recall that the courts have defined Secular Humanism as a religion), particularly when our majoritarian society want's to acknowledge - or even celebrate - the beliefs of that majority.

So one is hardly surprised that the Atheists are not all that popular. It might be a bit unfair and inaccurate to say that it's their own fault, but I don't think it inaccurate to say that it is in large measure the fault of some of their membership....
12.12.2005 9:24pm
Eric:
Akiva pointed out some (mis)conceptions on atheism. Morality based outside religion is just as possible and strong. No forgiving god to bailout mankind from trashing the planet or not practicing the golden rule.

As a non-believer I'm disturbed by the comment that equated elections with a referendum on any religious belief, but after some more thought, I'm not terribly upset with the poll.

Belief is a valid cause for evaluating people. If someone pushes their children to creationism or holocaust denial (or denial that a passenger jet hit the pentagon a few years ago), I judge even before I know their other fine qualities. If they want to judge me on a belief, I completely understand. I may simply pity their delusion or consider them foes in some cause, but the impression is unfavorable either way.
12.12.2005 10:01pm
dk35 (mail):
But Brooks...how can something be acknowledged when there is no proof of its existence?
12.12.2005 10:01pm
dk35 (mail):
Eric,

I agree with you. The problem with forced recitations of the pledge of allegiance, particularly in the early grades, is exactly the pushing of children to believe in creationism. When someone pushes his/her own children, I just feel sorry for the children. And, admittedly, I do develop an unfavorable opinion of the parent(s). But, when they try to push other children to believe in creationism, I consider it, in public schools, to be an attempt to establish a religion. For that reason, I think Newdow has done this country a service. Someday, I think it will be recognized as such, and the blaming the victim language of many on this site today will be recognized for what it is.
12.12.2005 10:11pm
Wintermute (www):
Not much difference in atheist and agnostic as some think.

Religionists are always trying to stick evidences of their faith into government places of authority; much atheist "stridency" is defensive against these intrusions. I don't see atheists trying to get "There is no god" stuck on the back of dollar bills.
12.12.2005 11:16pm
Marcus1:
>I do think both Galileo and Darwin would resent being held up as posterboys for atheism.<

I didn't say they were atheists; I said only that they were willing to challenge conventional religious beliefs, and that the world benefited from it.

As to whether Newdow is comparable to Galileo, that is just your attempt to insult him. Your insults, however, simply reflect your hostility. What do you think would happen if every morning, American schoolchildren got up and recited together that there is no god? Do you think Christians would accept that politely? Would you passionately attack any Christian who took that case to court?

Davey v. Locke was a case in Washington state where a college student who wanted to study for the seminary sued the State for refusing to give him a scholarship for that purpose. Did America get in an uproar and go after that kid for pusuing his case? Did they accuse him of trying to force his views on the rest of society? I don't seem to remember that happening. So why is is that people hate an atheist who goes to court, but they will respect a guy who goes to court demanding state funding for his seminary degree?

Atheists, incidentally, are some 5-10% of the population. Jews, by comparison, are around 2%. The idea that atheists are just a bunch of judicial activists who want to force their views on society is simply based in hostility and misconception.
12.13.2005 12:48am
Buck Turgidson (mail):
Tam,


I haven't encountered a prevailing anti-intellectualism anywhere.


You must have been home-schooled! While there is a wide disparity between different schools in the country (say, suburban public schools are less anti-intellectual overall compared to urban and rural schools, but the same does not hold for private schools), you can find anti-intelelctual attitudes at virtually all schools. One need not go as far as Revenge of the Nerds to get this point. In fact, one need not need to look much further than the current president to understand what anti-intellectualism means.

You also complained that Darwin and Galileo would not appreciate being poster boys for atheism. You seem to have missed the point of the earlier poster--they are not poster boys for atheism, but for non-conformism. Those are two quite different things, unless you happen to be an Evangelical Christian.

Speaking of which, I'd be hard pressed (but would not say never) to vote for an Evangelical for any office because to me this particular brand of faith means that the person is easily led or influenced by superficial factors or non-reasoning authorities. IN essence, I suspect an Evangelical candidate to value form over substance, and thus being unable to understand most deep issues. Note that Republicans have been mocking the liberals' angst over difficult issues precisely for the opposite reasons. On one of the other atheist threads someone commented that atheists lack a basis for moral conviction. Actually, it's just the opposite--atheist often have very well reasoned moral convictions, which is more than I can say about many people who consider themselves deeply religious (Abramoff, DeLay, Pat Robertson?). Furthermore, being a declared atheist is less likely to lead to hypocritical behavior, although the standards for such behavior may differ from one individual to another.
12.13.2005 1:47am
David Chesler (mail) (www):
Clayton Cramer writes

There is a widely held belief that the only thing that keeps people in line is fear of punishment--either right here and now, or in the hereafter. In my experience, I have not seen that atheists are any noticeably worse behaved than believers


Indeed. However, in a triple thread convergence, consider the lyrics to John Lennon's "Imagine",widely considered an anthem for peace and good will:

Imagine there's no heaven,
It's easy if you try,
No hell below us,
Above us only sky,
Imagine all the people
living for today...


Lennon concludes that if there were no countries people would live in peace, and if there were no possessions there wouldn't be greed or hunger. I've never understood this. If I didn't have any possessions I'd be very greedy for them and would go hungry until I had some that I could eat, while I was ducking the folks trying to set themselves up as warlords, and there are lots of good things I do, and disapproved things I don't do, because they will or would have consequences after today, whether on earth or in the hereafter. Never mind commendable homicide, if there were no tomorrow, why not eat the seed corn?
12.13.2005 4:59am
akiva eisenberg (mail):
Re Julian Morrison's comment on "fire and brimstone."

While I cannot comment on the recent variations on Jewish philosophy such as the Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist movements (IMHO, anything more recent than 200 years old is johnny-come-lately in a three-thousand plus year old religion), I can comfortably attest to the fact that punishment in the afterlife is a major component of Orthodox Jewish belief. Ignoring possibly ambiguous references in the scriptures, one has only to turn to both the Jerusalem and Babylonian Talmuds (circa 1500 years ago) to find extensive discussions of the topic (references available upon request).

This concept is continuously present in the religious literature to this day. However, "fire and brimstone" is generally understood metaphorically; some understand the concept as deep psychological remorse and pain. Lest this be misunderstood, Rabbinical literature emphasizes that this undamped and unrelieved psychological torment is far more severe than any possible physical pain.
12.13.2005 8:06am
John McG (mail) (www):
I think this line of inquiry is looking for on opportunity to take offenss.

Here's another phrasing that might better explain the response:

There's a group of people who think that your most deeply held beliefs are a load of bunk. How would you characterize your opinion of this group?
12.13.2005 9:47am
Tam:
Buck, well, sorry, but I wasn't home-schooled and I still don't agree about the anti-intellectualism--or about the rest of that particular paragraph, for that matter. I've lived and worked in five different states, and on the basis of your posts I see no reason to cede to you a wider knowledge. As for Galileo and Darwin, I took the writer's point and agree they are two different things. But I also took its context as a contrary response (from, presumably, an atheist) to another poster (an admitted atheist) seconding one of my posts (admitting agnosticism) about getting along with religious people. If you want to argue that non-conformism is a valid justification for atheist hostility to religious, I'd say you've left Galileo and Darwin behind. And me.
12.13.2005 10:37am
Mr Diablo:
The problem with those four criticisms of my earlier argument (which, to begin, were no where near even on point -- as i was talking about forced morality, not social policy) is that a lot of them cross-over into the area where we have the choices of one person forcing others to abide. But, you've already missed the point, so I'm not going to waste my time any further.

Mr. Alfano's argument is right in the end: We should be respectful of each other. But the problem is that for many of us, one side isn't being respectful at all, and to sit around and offer tolerance for those who are actively trying to undermind the ability of private citizens to privately express themselves, it's a fool's errand, giving into the political correctness of thinking that every idea is valid. Also, Mr. Alfano's suggestion that the agnostics/atheists are as hostile to those who are religious is patently absurd. He should know better, especially coming from a conservative hometown, where the non-religious are offered a daily slice of evangelism, like Grand Rapids, Mich.
12.13.2005 11:13am
Cornellian (mail):
Interesting that Jews have lower unfavorable numbers than either Catholics or Evangelical Christians.
12.15.2005 1:29am