How tolerant are you? A new study conducted by the University of Minnesota illuminated some disturbing trends in the way Americans perceive atheists. As part of the American Mosaic Project, Penny Edgell, Joseph Gerties and Douglas Hartmann conducted more than 2,000 telephone interviews and concluded, "Americans draw symbolic boundaries that clearly and sharply exclude atheists in both private and public life," adding, "From a list of groups that also includes Muslims, recent immigrants, and homosexuals, Americans name atheists as those least likely to share their vision of American society."
According to the study, public sentiment toward atheists acts as a useful barometer for social and political tolerance in a society, because while tolerance for religious sects has increased dramatically in the past four decades, the salient prejudices toward atheists "have not followed the same historical patterns." Edgell also stated that "it is possible that the increasing tolerance for religious diversity may have heightened awareness of religion itself as a basis for solidarity in American life and sharpened the boundary between believers and nonbelievers in our collective imagination."
Strangely enough, the authors of this study strongly believe atheists now have assumed the role that the Catholics, Jews and communists once played in American society - the outsider. According to the data, we are "the minority group most Americans are least willing to allow their children to marry," and it is well known in sociological circles that questions regarding nuptial consent often are the best way of leaching out an underlying prejudice in a person.
The very fact that atheists are distrusted by the masses is not very surprising, but I never fully recognized how feared and hated we truly are. For instance, the authors found that rejection of atheists is even higher than anti-Muslim sentiment in the post-9/11 era, and "Americans construct the atheist as the symbolic representation of one who rejects the basis for moral solidarity and cultural membership in American society altogether."
In my opinion, it is likely that a lot of this hatred can be attributed to the specious link between morality and religion. Many religious people believe that atheism and immorality are synonymous, and a scientific world view often is associated with criminality, as demonstrated by the favorite religious assertion that atheism served as the foundation for Nazi dehumanization. (As if the age-old blood libel had nothing to do with the caustic discrimination toward the Jewish people.)
So what does this study tell us about the underlying nature of American culture? Equality is supposed to be a staple of the modern era, but it seems that American prejudices don't ever diminish; instead, they merely drift from one marginalized clique to another, following the capricious tides of mob-sanctioned intolerance. As of now, slandering atheists has not yet been labeled politically incorrect, and many people, including priests and rabbis, have taken full advantage of this impunity.
As a member of the most distrusted minority group in America, I am deeply worried about these findings, and I hope that more atheists will start speaking out.
- Damian Sowers can be reached at Damian.Sowers@gmail.com.