Discrimination Against Atheists

A survey from Pew (Sep 2007) reported on Americans’ opinions of various religions.

Basically, most people (76%) tend to have a favorable opinion of Jews and Catholics, more than half (53-60%) like Evangelical Christians, Mormons and Muslim Americans, though non-American Muslims are viewed unfavorably by about a third of Americans.

But then we see down at the bottom that —¬†what a shock¬†— atheists are the most disliked group. Only about a third of Americans have a favorable opinion while more than half have an unfavorable opinion of atheists. They’re much more disliked than Muslims, despite all the extreme Christians and nationalists media-blitzing on the dangers of Islam lately.

It seems Americans just don’t like atheists. (Note: it doesn’t ask for their opinion of atheism, the belief, but atheists, the people). Not a surprise I guess, given:

  • a 2007 Gallop poll showed that more than half of Americans would refuse to vote for an otherwise well-qualified atheist as president (a similar Newsweek poll has the number at 62%). We’re more likely to see someone female, black, Jewish, Mormon, gay, etc.
  • a 2006 study Univ of Minnesota study found atheists to be the most mistrusted minority among Americans (even more than homosexuals, Muslims, etc., and we’ve seen how backwards people can be about those subjects).
  • a number of states’ constitutions only extend protection from religious discrimination to those who acknowledge a deity; also, many states’ constitutions still bar atheists from public office or testifying as a witness in court. (Thankfully most of these wouldn’t stand up to federal constitutional scrutiny).
  • negative popular opinion: for example, in Tampa Bay half of the city council walked out of their meeting because an atheist had been invited to give the invocation.
  • in child custody cases, religious parents are preferentially chosen over non-believer parents (under the assumption that a religious education is in the child’s best interests).
  • these has never been a known atheist representative in Congress. (The first African-American in the House was in 1870; the first woman in the House was in 1916; the first known gay Congressperson was in 1972, after coming out in 1983).
  • common claims of atheists being immoral or criminal…despite the fact that atheists make up less than 1% of the prison population (i.e. underrepresented in crime).
  • treatment by public figures: for example, the elder Pres Bush said in 1988 “I don’t know that atheists should be regarded as citizens, nor should they be regarded as patriotic.” His son has been as bad (the same guy who claimed that God told him to go to war with Iraq). Note we’ve never had a non-Christian president, certainly not an atheist.
  • media coverage is generally antagonistic: see example CNN video on Youtube)
  • countless personal anecdotes of jobs lost, students assaulted, families harassed, etc. when people find out someone is an atheist. Such harassment isn’t as well-recognized or well-published as some other discrimination because beliefs are not as overt as, say, skin color, but out-atheists can face as much or more persecution than out-homosexuals.

I could go on, but then it’s easy to find a similar list of discrimination against many groups (even majority religious groups still get discriminated against in some instances). Odd to think, though, that at the end of the day the atheists may have the hardest hill to climb, given that they’re the most disliked and mistrusted group in the U.S. right now. Thankfully we’ve come a long way in accepting peoples’ differences in this country, but we’ve got a long way to go yet.

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2 Responses to Discrimination Against Atheists

  1. Isaac says:

    I watched a YouTube video (different from the one you posted) about discrimination of Atheists. In an interview, a leader of a religious journal said that Atheists bring the negative opinion upon themselves. I found this statement rather funny, actually; the guy didn’t mention the fact that 95% of Americans associate themselves with a religion that inherently condemns Atheism (a fact that leads into the debate over the extent of the rights of religious freedom, also known as the “but it’s against my religion” debate).

    The one that you posted was interesting, too. “This is a Christian nation.” “We shouldn’t have taken prayer out of schools.” People’s disregard for the fundamental rights of others boggles me. I guess they don’t realize the fact that they owe their own right to say things like that to the founding fathers, who themselves were largely non-believers.

  2. Yeah, the media portrayal of atheists is still frighteningly one-sided. Now there’s a few vocal spokespeople (and like most spokespeople, not necessarily the most diplomatic or moderate representatives), and they get interviewed a tiny bit, then a bunch of idiot talking heads drown out any rational argument with oversimplifications, emotional pleas, and often downright false information. At least, I’m thinking of TV media here.

    Regarding your bit about the founding fathers, I might replace your wording with “largely not traditional Christians”. Some were non-Christian deists, some were Christian deists, some called themselves Christian without believing in the divinity of Christ, and some were normal Christians (but may or may not have shared a lot in common with modern fundamentalist Christians). Thankfully the most influential founders/framers were more freethinking, even if they weren’t all non-believers.

    “[T]he path of true piety is so plain as to require but little political direction.”
    -President George Washington, 1789, responding to clergy complaints that the Constitution lacked mention of Jesus Christ

    Washington, e.g., was definitely a Christian, but he argued that politics corrupts religion as much as religion corrupts politics, and thus agreed with Jefferson’s separation. Adams signed the Treaty of Tripoli declaring the US gov’t is not founded on the Christian religion. There’s plenty of more examples, but the point is, even those founders who WERE believers, and Christian believers to boot, were almost universally in favor of church-state separation, and open to people believing and saying differently than the Christian majority.

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