Atheists in America

Sometimes I think I should keep a suitcase packed at all times, ready to grab when I hear the sirens approaching.

Penny Edgell, Doug Hartmann and I published a paper in the American Sociological Review called “Atheists As ‘Other’: Moral Boundaries and Cultural Membership in American Society.” In a national survey, part of a broader project on multiculturalism and solidarity in American life that we call the American Mosaic Project, we found that one group stood out from all others in terms of the level of rejection they received from the general public. That was atheists. And not by a small margin, either.

That’s not in the least a surprise, but it’s a useful sharpening.

How does such a small group pose such a threat to a large majority? The more we explored this finding, the more we came back to a simple answer for it. Like it or not, many (possibly most) Americans see religion as a marker of morality. To many Americans, “Atheists” are people who lack any basis for moral commitment.

I’m not sure that is the main answer though – although it’s presumptuous to say that since they did the research and I didn’t. But still…I don’t think that accounts for the gut hostility as well as other reasons do. One, people who think god is real and really exists take atheism as personally wounding, hurtful, insulting, to god even more to themselves. I think – it’s a hunch, but it’s also based on conversations and what theists say – it’s a feeling rooted in loyalty, and love. An admirable feeling, actually, but unfortunate because directed at an imagined being; unfortunate because the source of hostility towards existing people for the sake of an imagined one. Two, atheism is threatening to theism, because of course theists suspect that their reasons for believing in the god they believe in are vulnerable. Three, given this threat, this suspicion and vulnerability, theists suspect that atheists think theists are deluded. This suspicion opens the door for all sorts of class, hierarchical, populist, anti-‘elitist’ tensions and worries. In short, theists think atheists think theists are stupid, and (naturally) it pisses them off. I think all those bite deeper than the idea that atheists have no reason to be moral. I don’t have the research; that’s just a sort of hermeneutic or interpretive guess. Why do I think it? I suppose because I think the morality explanation doesn’t have the kind of emotional kick that the others do. I certainly think it matters, but I don’t think it’s the kind of thing that makes the lower lip tremble or the blood boil, whereas the others are.

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