Various polls and surveys, as well as a cursory look at our public discourse, continue to bear out the fact that the average American (especially on the Right) is deeply distrustful of non-Christians, especially atheists and Muslims. Granted, this is information is hardly shocking or new, but it is nonetheless disheartening to see the trend continue and well-supported by actual data. The latest study by the Public Religion Research Institute arrived at the following conclusion:
This is only the most recent research on the subject, and it focuses specifically on the presidency. Previous studies have reached similar conclusions. A comprehensive one done by the University of Minnesota widened the demographic options to include Jews, Homosexuals, Hispanics, and other minorities, and it dealt with general attitudes towards these and other groups. The results were as follows:
This group does not at all agree with my vision of American society:
Conservative Christians: 13.5%
Recent Immigrants: 12.5%
I would disapprove if my child wanted to marry a member of this group:
Conservative Christians: 6.9%
An article by Austin Cline in About.com compiles more evidence of this prejudice from studies beginning in the late 1990s. No matter what it pertains to or how it is phrased, the responses are the same: atheists are disliked, distrusted, and outright despised. From a 1999 Gallup Poll:
Here are the percentages of people saying they would refuse to vote for “a generally well-qualified person for president” on the basis of some characteristic; in parenthesis are the figures for earlier years:
Catholic: 4% (1937: 30%)
Black: 5% (1958: 63%, 1987: 21%)
Jewish: 6% (1937: 47%)
Gay: 37% (1978: 74%)
And here is a Newsweek finding, also cited by Cline:
A March, 2007 survey done by Newsweek shows that 62% of people would refuse to vote for any candidate admitting to being an atheist. Republicans were, predictably, the most bigoted at 78%, followed by Democrats at 60% and independents at 45%. Among those surveyed, 47% claimed that America is more accepting of atheists than in the past. I wonder where they got that idea? The only positive results from this survey were that 68% of the people felt that atheists could be moral — but this begs the question of why people won’t vote for atheists.
Interestingly, people seem to be somewhat more forgiving of general non-religiousness compared to outright atheism, at least according to one poll (excerpted below). I was a bit surprised at this, considering that, by my experience, many religious people seem to think of non-believers as all the same – they’re equally damned, be they friendlier agnostics or more “hardline” atheists.
In 2003, the Pew Research Center conducted a poll on “religion and public life” which asked people about their attitudes towards a variety of groups, including atheists. People’s opinions of atheists break down:
Very Favorable: 7%
Mostly Favorable: 27%
Mostly Unfavorable: 19%
Very Unfavorable: 33%
So, only 34% of Americans have at least a mostly favorable attitude towards atheists; 52% have a mostly unfavorable or worse attitude. Opinions about people who are not religious are better:
Very Favorable: 9%
Mostly Favorable: 41%
Mostly Unfavorable: 19%
Very Unfavorable: 14%
So, 50% of Americans have at least a mostly favorable attitude towards the irreligious and just 33% have a mostly unfavorable (or worse) attitude towards them
I think I’ve made my case clear enough. Atheists, and to a lesser degree the irreligious as a whole, are the last minority group that someone can be publicly and acceptably bigoted against (though Muslims and Homosexuals are still up there). Even minority belief systems share in this negative disposition, and it’s hardly controversial to share it openly, as many pundits, politicians, and street preachers do.
After reading all this, one wonders from where the religious derive the audacious notion that this country is falling under the nefarious sway of anti-Christian secular elites? Where do they get off claiming to be victims of persecution and decline in light of this overwhelming negativity towards their cultural competitors? While the numbers of the non-religious have grown, atheism – at least in an avowed form – has remained small, and secular Americans are hardly as politically and socially organized as their religious counterparts.
Given historical trends, I have no doubt that this sort of prejudice will be eroded with time and public consciousness, especially since the younger generations are far more secular than their predecessors. In the meantime, more atheists and their fellow “nones” must make their voices heard and assert that they’re not morally or ethically deficient, nor are they some vile underclass to be feared and detested. As in many cases, it is only ignorance that feeds bigotry.