The Secular Life

Thriving Without Gods or Gurus

Why Americans Hate Atheists

Understanding secularphobia

Last week, the Pew Research Center released the results of a new survey concerning who Americans would want – or rather, wouldn’t want – for an in-law. While about 10 percent of Americans said they’d be unhappy if a family member married someone of a different political persuasion, and about 30 percent of Americans said they’d be unhappy if a family member married a gun owner, nearly 50 percent of Americans said that they’d be unhappy if a family member married an atheist.

This finding comes as no surprise. Social science has long revealed high rates of secularphobia – the irrational dislike, distrust, fear, or hatred of nonreligious people – within American society. For example, a study by Penny Edgell of the University of Minnesota, from back in 2006, found that atheists come in last place when Americans are asked to rank members of certain racial, ethnic, or religious groups as potential spouses for their kids. And a Gallup poll from 2012 found that 43 pecent of Americans said that they would not vote for an atheist for president, putting atheists in last/worst place, behind Muslims (40 percent of Americans said they wouldn’t vote for a Muslim for president), homosexuals (30 percent wouldn’t), Mormons (18 percent wouldn’t), Latinos (7 percent wouldn’t), Jews (6 percent wouldn’t), Catholics (5 percent wouldn’t), women (5 percent wouldn’t) and African Americans (4 percent wouldn’t).

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Additionally, psychology professor Adrian Furnham found that people give lower priority to patients with atheist or agnostic views than to Christian patients when asked to rank them on a waiting list to receive a kidney, and legal scholar Eugene Volokh has documented the degree to which atheist parents have been denied custody rights in the wake of a divorce.

Consider further evidence of secularphobia in America: It is illegal for an atheist to hold public office in seven states; atheists aren’t allowed in the Boy Scouts, the American Legion, or the Veterans of Foreign Wars; Humanist chaplains are barred from serving in our nation’s military; charities regularly reject donations that are offered by secularist organizations. And while secular Americans have never faced the kind of prejudice, hostility, and violence experienced by Native Americans, African Americans, Latino/a Americans, Asian Americans, Jews, Catholics, Mormons, Muslims, or homosexuals, there is still no question that atheists, agnostics, secularists, and others who eschew religion are widely disliked.

 What gives?

There is no single, universal cause of secularphobia, and the dislike of non-religious people has varying sources in different societies and at different times in history; what caused people to hate the secular in Jerusalem in 300 B.C.E. or in Tegucigalpa in 1799 is certainly different from what causes people to dislike the secular in Rhode Island today.

That said, we can account for the current level of secularphobia in the US by considering these four factors:

1. Americans equate a lack of religiosity in general – or atheism specifically – with immorality.

2. Americans equate a lack of religiosity in general – or atheism specifically – with being un-American and/or unpatriotic.

3. There is no stigma concerning the expressed dislike of the non-religious. While there is a stigma (to varying degrees, depending on one’s social milieu) attached to being racist, or anti-Semitic, or Islamophobic, or homophobic – there has never existed a social or cultural backlash against people who openly express disdain for secular folks. So people simply feel much more comfortable expressing their dislike for atheists than, say, Latinas/os or women.

4. Insecurity on the part of the religious. Faith – believing claims without sufficient evidence, or claiming to know things that you don’t or can’t know – is an increasingly shaky endeavor. And in order for religious faith to survive, it requires a lot of social support: the more people who share it, the easier it is to maintain and reproduce. Thus, anyone who rejects the tenets of your faith, or calls them in to question, is a threat. Atheists lack a faith in God, and thus theists are particularly threatened by the growing presence of such humans, as they call into question the very thing that is ever so shaky to begin with: religious faith.

How can secular folk counter or contend with the four points above?

More on that front, anon.

 

 

 

 

Phil Zuckerman Ph.D., is a professor of sociology and secular studies at Pitzer College and the author of several books.

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