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
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
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.