A new study by University of Minnesota sociologists Penny Edgell, Joseph Gerties and Douglas Hartmann confirms the longstanding research finding that public hostility towards atheists is considerably more widespread than that towards any other ethnic or religious minority group. Edgell, et al. conducted a survey of American public opinion on attitudes towards different groups and found that prejudice against atheists topped the scale. For example, almost 40% of respondents characterized atheists as a group that "does not at all agree with my vision of American society." Note that the question did not ask whether the respondent disagrees with atheists on some issues (which would be a perfectly understandable and noninvidious view), but asks if they are a group that does not at all share his views.
The figures for other groups on this question (with rounding to whole numbers):
Conservative Christians: 14
Recent immigrants: 13
Scholars have long recognized that a key indication of tolerance for a group is willingness to accept intermarriage with its members. Here too, intolerance for atheists leads the pack. Below are the percentages of respondents stating, with respect to particular groups, that "I would disapprove if my child wanted to marry a member of this group" (rounded to whole numbers):
Conservative Christians: 7
Obviously, some people simply oppose intermarriage with any religious group other than their own. However, this cannot explain the high opposition to intermarriage with atheists, as it is clear from the results that numerous non-Jewish and non-Muslim respondents are willing to accept intermarriage with Jews and in some cases with Muslims, but unwilling to do so in the case of atheists. A particularly interesting point is that hostility towards Muslims on both this question and the previous one lags well behind hostility to atheists - even despite 9/11.
The Minnesota results are consistent with other survey evidence going back for years. For example, atheists consistently score at the bottom when respondents are asked whether they would be willing support a "qualified" presidential candidate nominated by their party who was a member of a particular group (even homosexual candidates, the next most unpopular, are less widely rejected).
Other, more qualitative, indicators of prejudice also point to widespread hostility towards atheists, even as compared to other relatively unpopular groups. For example, despite considerable antagonism towards homosexuals in many quarters, there have been quite a few openly gay members of Congress, including even some conservative Republican ones such as Rep. Jim Kolbe and Rep. Steve Gunderson. By contrast, there has never been, to my knowledge, even one openly unbelieving congressman or senator, despite the fact that atheists and agnostics are roughly 3% of the population (about the same as the percentage of gays, and a bit larger than the percentage of Jews). Nor has there ever been an openly atheist president, vice-president, governor, Supreme Court Justice, or member of the Cabinet. While I certainly would not argue that justice requires proportional representation of atheists in these bodies, the absence of even one open atheist in high political office is still striking.
Similarly, organizations such as the Boy Scouts have taken considerable flak for their refusal to accept gays. But the Scouts have gotten far less criticism for their equally categorical rejection of atheists. As in the case of intermarriage, I have no principled objection to groups limited to people who share their particular religion (e.g. - an all-Catholic or all-Jewish group). The Scouts however, accept members of any and all religions - no matter how odious their beliefs on various issues may be - but reject all avowed atheists and agnostics. I am not arguing that the government should force the Boy Scouts and other similar groups to accept atheists. In my view, it shouldn't. However, that should not stop us from criticizing their bigotry.
A common argument for various forms of discrimination against atheists is the claim that atheism is a belief system, not an involuntary identity like race or homosexuality. It is indeed sometimes appropriate to show hostility towards people because of their reprehensible beliefs (e.g. - in the case of KKK members). But we generally reject such categorical hostility towards members of most religious groups such as Jews or Catholics. The same principle should apply to atheists - especially since atheism, unlike some religions, is actually compatible with a very wide range of views on moral and political issues. For example, there have been prominent socialist atheists (e.g. - Marx), prominent libertarian ones (e.g. - Ayn Rand), and even notable conservative atheists such as Whittaker Chambers. The only common belief that all atheists share is denial of the existence of God, and that should not be a sufficient reason to hate them or discriminate against them as a group.
To avoid misunderstanding, I am NOT suggesting that the position of atheists in the United States is worse than that of homosexuals or African-Americans. In fact, I believe the opposite is actually closer to the truth. However, the data do strongly suggest that hostility towards atheists is more widespread (even if perhaps less intensely felt) and considered more socially acceptable than racism and homophobia. Even if the survey results are biased by the unwillingness of some respondents to admit racist views, it is still noteworthy that fewer people seem to have such inhibitions about admitting hostility towards atheists.
NOTE: the link to the Minnesota data above is to a summary on an atheist website because this is the most thorough description I was able to find on the internet. However, the study itself was not conducted or funded by any atheist organization.
CORRECTION: After checking, it turns out that I was wrong to say that Whittaker Chambers was an atheist even after becoming a conservative. However, I stand by the broader point that atheism is compatible with a wide range of moral and political views, including conservatism. Thus, hostility towards atheism on the grounds of its alleged political and/or moral implications is unjustified.
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