Ten years ago, a study by University of Minnesota sociologists found that atheists were the most disliked of a long list of racial and religious minority groups in the United States. A recent study by the same researchers found that attitudes haven’t budged. The reason? It’s complicated.
“I think this research shows that many people in the United States still think of religion as an indicator of being a good citizen, neighbor, and person, and that is increasingly placing nonreligious people in a bind,” says Professor Penny Edgell of the Department of Sociology, who coauthored the recent study with Professors Douglas Hartmann and Joseph Gerteis and graduate student Evan Stewart.
At the same time, other studies have documented that the number of people who identify as nonreligious—including atheists, agnostics, and those who call themselves “spiritual but not religious”—is growing. Interestingly, even some of those who call themselves nonreligious can be conflicted about embracing that identity. Case in point: The U researchers found that 40 percent of Americans disapprove of the nonreligious, but 33 percent of survey participants identified themselves as being just that.
Edgell believes the contradiction can largely be attributed to a distrust of atheists, who are perceived as rejecting accepted cultural values and practices.
“Some people in that 33 percent might not necessarily be disapproving of any nonreligious group, but those who are usually distrust atheists over the other two groups,” she says, explaining that the issue is about more than morality. “We think it also has to do with atheists often politicizing their nonreligious beliefs and that makes people uncomfortable with religion being a part, or not a part of public life. Religion may be a private choice in the U.S., but it is also used as a yardstick for moral character so it does have public implications.”
Researchers also found an uptick in anti-Muslim sentiment; participants indicated that they view Muslims as a threat to Judeo Christian culture. The team’s paper on that work will be published in the next several months.