Report Report Report 2: Atheists

My eyebrows went up when I saw this

report from the Minnesota Daily:

Atheists are America’s least trusted group, according to a national

survey conducted by University sociology researchers.

Based on a telephone survey of more than 2,000 households and in-depth interviews

with more than 140 people, researchers found that Americans rate atheists

below Muslims, recent immigrants, homosexuals and other groups as “sharing

their vision of American society.” Americans are also least willing

to let their children marry atheists.

“It tells us about how Americans view religion,” said Penny Edgell,

an associate sociology professor and the study’s lead researcher. “Many

Americans seem to believe some kind of religious faith is central to being

a good American and a good person.”

On the one hand: really? I’ve been an "out" atheist in America for

the past nine years; I’ve even married the daughter of Americans, and I’ve never

encountered anything like this. On the other hand, the article quotes the author

of the study, and she doesn’t seem to have any doubts about its conclusions.

Of course, I’m not going to extrapolate from anecdote. And besides, I live

in liberal-secular NYC. So I emailed Penny

Edgell and asked her for the study, which she immediately supplied. (It

will be published in the April issue of the American Sociological Review.)

And does the study say what the Minnesota Daily says it says? In a word, yes:

The Minnesota Daily gets an A– for its article. Here’s

the paper’s conclusion:

Atheists are at the top of the list of groups that Americans find problematic

in both public and private life, and the gap between acceptance of atheists

and acceptance of other racial and religious minorities is large and persistent.

The author of the article, Jeannine Aquino, has done a very good job both of

reporting what the study says and of going out and seeing whether and how those

attitudes are reflected in the Minnesota population. The reason she doesn’t

get the highest A and A+ grades is purely because she displays no skepticism

regardig the study, and doesn’t stop to ask whether there might be some flaws

in it.

As in any survey, everything hinges on the exact way in which the questions

are worded. In this survey, the key question was the following:

Now I want to read you a list of different groups of people who live in

this country. For each one, please tell me how much you think people in this

group agree with YOUR vision of American society—almost completely,

mostly, somewhat, or not at all?

The results showed that 39.6% of respondents said "not at all" with

regard to atheists. Second was Muslims, at 26.3%, third came homosexuals, at

22.6%, and fourth was conservative Christians, with 13.5% of people saying that

they did not agree at all with their vision of American society. Fifth was recent

immigrants, at 12.5%. Hispanics, Jews, Asian Americans and African Americans

followed; white Americans came at the bottom of the list with 2.2%.

There was a second question:

People can feel differently about their children marrying people from various

backgrounds. Suppose your son or daughter wanted to marry [a person in given

category]. Would you approve of this choice, disapprove of it, or wouldn’t

it make any difference at all one way or the other?

One might think that the vast majority of people would choose the latter choice

for every category: how can you know if you’d approve or disapprove of a future

son- or daughter-in-law without even meeting them? But in fact the results were

startling: 47.6% of respondents said that they would disapprove if their child

wanted to marry an atheist. Again, Muslims were a distant second, on 33.5%;

homosexuals, of course, weren’t included in this question.

But there are problems with the way the questions were worded.

The first question is based on the assumption that I have a known vision of

American society, and that the groups in question can share that vision on a

scale essentially from 0% to 100%. If a group shared between 75% and 100% of

my vision, I’d choose "almost completely"; if it shared between 50%

and 75% I’d chosse "mostly"; if it shared between 25% and 50% I’d

choose "somewhat"; and if it shared between 0% and 25% I’d choose

"not at all". (Obviously no one was asked to quantify these things,

but that seems to be the general idea behind the way the question was structured.)

My problem is with the word "agree" in the question. When you ask

one person whether they agree with another person or group, they immediately

think in terms of whether they agree or whether they disagree. In other words,

they don’t think on a scale of 0 to 100, they think on a scale of –1 to

+1, where –1 is completely disagree and +1 is completely agree.

If someone disagrees mildly with a different group, what are they going to

say? They might be torn between the "somewhat agree" answer and the

"not at all" answer. But I think many if not most such people will

end up choosing "not at all", because they don’t want to give the

impression that they agree, even if only "somewhat", with a group

of people that they actually disagree with. Someone who feels very strongly

that homosexuality is evil and disordered and who thinks that atheists are sadly

missing out on an important part of life will therefore end up giving the same

response to both categories. And in general a negative opinion which is weakly

held by a large minority will be overstressed by the answers to this question,

while a negative opinion which is strongly held by a smaller minority will be


Similarly, a religious person, when asked, is going to feel uncomfortable saying

that "it wouldn’t make any difference at all one way or the other"

if their child married an atheist. So they’ll plump for the "disapprove"

option, even if they’re not a judgmental kind of person at all.

There’s also some conflict in the report’s conclusions. On the one hand, we’re

told that

while rejection of Muslims may have spiked in post-9/11 America, rejection

of atheists was higher… In our survey, concerns about atheists were stronger

than concerns about homosexuals.

On the other hand, we find this:

We believe that in answering our questions about atheists, our survey respondents

were not, on the whole, referring to actual atheists they had encountered,

but were responding to “the atheist” as a boundary-marking cultural


The survey is very unclear about whether Americans are rejecting actual atheists,

or whether they’re simply rejecting "atheists" qua "cultural

category". Homosexuals, we all know, are explicitly and vehemently rejected

on a regular basis around the country, even (especially) by their own families.

Concerns about homosexuals in general manifest themselves in intolerant behaviour

towards individual gay men and women on a daily basis.

If the study is true that concerns about atheists in general are even stronger

than concerns about homosexuals, wouldn’t we expect individual atheists to be

shunned by their co-workers, their communities, even their families? Wouldn’t

we expect "atheist", "heathen" and the like to be common

terms of abuse? But that’s not something one hears. Maybe it happens but isn’t

reported; my feeling, however, is that it’s genuinely rare.

There’s evidence in the survey to support the theory that when people think

about atheists, they’re not thinking of real people. Atheists, remember, are

surely the least self-loathing of all minorities. Being an atheist, unlike being

gay or being a Jew, is entirely a matter of choice. And yet

about 17 percent of the nonreligious say that atheists do not at all share

their vision of America, while about one in ten indicate that they would not

approve of their child marrying an atheist.

The only way to explain this is to understand "atheist" as a somewhat

inchoate marker of alterity rather than as a well-defined grouping of individuals.

Indeed, the study makes this quite explicit:

We assess the degree to which atheists represent a symbolic “other”

against which some Americans define themselves as good people and worthy citizens.

In other words, many Americans understand by "atheist" something

akin to "a person who doesn’t share my vision of American society".

Maybe the word "communist" has similar connotations. Which essentially

turns the survey question into:

Please tell me how much you think people who don’t share your vision of American

society agree with your vision of American society

And it becomes easier to see how even the nonreligious might react in such

a seemingly bizarre manner.

A look at some of the interviews in the study tends to reinforce this belief.

Look at KW, a Republican in her 60s, who told her interviewer:

It’s that same arrogance again. I’m an American, I can do anything

I want, and to heck with the rest of the world. These people aren’t

very religious, you’ll notice that. There’s a real, “I’m

an atheist” attitude among people with major money. If you’re

going all through life, “I’m an atheist, I don’t believe

in anything except the almighty dollar,” this is definitely a destructive

attitude and the rest of the world sees it.

Of course, if "the wealthy" had been added as a category to the survey,

I’m sure they would have come out quite well. But this woman doesn’t like the

wealthy, and so she decides that being wealthy and being an atheist are more

or less interchangeable, since it’s socially acceptable for a Republican to

dislike atheists even as it’s much less socially acceptable for a Republican

to start talking in a nasty fashion about "people with major money".

Another interviewee said that

the prisons aren’t filled with conservative Republican Christians.

The prisons are probably filled with people who don’t have any kind

of a spiritual or religious core.

It’s not worth arguing the substance here: the point is that this person simply

took a group of people he didn’t like – prisoners – and threw them,

willy-nilly, into the "atheist" bucket.

I think, then, that it’s wrong to conclude from the survey that Americans are

particularly harsh on atheists. Everybody defines himself at least in part in

opposition to someone or something else, and "atheist" seems to have

become a catch-all term for whatever that something else might be. Actual individual

atheists, I think, still have little to fear from coming out.

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4 Responses to Report Report Report 2: Atheists

  1. Stefan says:


  2. Stefan Geens says:

    “Atheists, remember, are surely the least self-loathing of all minorities. Being an atheist, unlike being gay or being a Jew, is entirely a matter of choice.”

    I think you rush over that. Being gay or Jewish is indeed decided at birth, and is not a choice (and compatible with atheism or religious belief).

    When it comes to atheism, Christianity and Islam, however, the idea of choice is a matter of debate. Evangelica Christians need to believe they are Christian by choice, as they need to accept Christ personally. But all the facts belie this. Instead, cultural factors have a much higher correlation with your beliefs. Live in Ireland, you’ll be Catholic. Iran? Shia. The great majority do not make a choice. (And if you’re in Afghanistan and do choose Christ, good luck.)

    So I’d say that religious belief is very much culturally determined, even though its practicants need to deny it. But what about atheism? Is that culturally determined?

    I happen to think atheism is “rationally determined”. If you are subjected to modern science and have a rational mind, then the atheist position, if not inevitable, must at least present itself as a viable position to hold – a default view until evidence points to the existence of something more.

    And thus it is not a coincidence that atheism has the highest preponderance among scientists and PhDs. And those people didn’t “choose” to be smart.

  3. Sterling says:

    And thus it is not a coincidence that atheism has the highest preponderance among scientists and PhDs. And those people didn’t “choose” to be smart.

    And oftentimes they’re not particularly. You’re observing a group of people predisposed to engage in materialist thinking as validation of materialist thinking.

    Besides, the truly rational person would go to church. It’s the smart bet.

  4. marko says:

    No atheists that I know arrived at their lack of belief in deities as a matter of choice. Do an experiment and try this: google for ߪatheist choice chooseߴ. You will find that this topic has been sufficiently dealt with. We are atheists when we are born: with lack of belief. And some people stay that way. With the current prejudice against atheist, who would ߪchooseߴ to be one?

    A for going to church being the ߪsmart betß´ — you don’t think of your god as particularly smart if you think you can trick yourself into paradise with Pascal’s wager, do you? If there was a god, I hope he/she/it would have higher standards of admission than for its flock only pretending to be devotional.

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