Religion and Philosophy

Why do Americans still dislike atheists?

Article by Gregory Pauland and Phil Zuckerman.

As an atheist myself, I could not care less about “bigotry” against atheists. The last thing I would want to see is atheists jumping on the “poor us, we’re so oppressed” victimology bandwagon. Hence, my general dislike of the “new atheist” movement.
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Long after blacks and Jews have made great strides, and even as homosexuals gain respect, acceptance and new rights, there is still a group that lots of Americans just don’t like much: atheists. Those who don’t believe in God are widely considered to be immoral, wicked and angry. They can’t join the Boy Scouts. Atheist soldiers are rated potentially deficient when they do not score as sufficiently “spiritual” in military psychological evaluations. Surveys find that most Americans refuse or are reluctant to marry or vote for nontheists; in other words, nonbelievers are one minority still commonly denied in practical terms the right to assume office despite the constitutional ban on religious tests.

Rarely denounced by the mainstream, this stunning anti-atheist discrimination is egged on by Christian conservatives who stridently — and uncivilly — declare that the lack of godly faith is detrimental to society, rendering nonbelievers intrinsically suspect and second-class citizens.

Is this knee-jerk dislike of atheists warranted? Not even close.

A growing body of social science research reveals that atheists, and non-religious people in general, are far from the unsavory beings many assume them to be. On basic questions of morality and human decency — issues such as governmental use of torture, the death penalty, punitive hitting of children, racism, sexism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, environmental degradation or human rights — the irreligious tend to be more ethical than their religious peers, particularly compared with those who describe themselves as very religious.

Consider that at the societal level, murder rates are far lower in secularized nations such as Japan or Sweden than they are in the much more religious United States, which also has a much greater portion of its population in prison. Even within this country, those states with the highest levels of church attendance, such as Louisiana and Mississippi, have significantly higher murder rates than far less religious states such as Vermont and Oregon.

As individuals, atheists tend to score high on measures of intelligence, especially verbal ability and scientific literacy. They tend to raise their children to solve problems rationally, to make up their own minds when it comes to existential questions and to obey the golden rule. They are more likely to practice safe sex than the strongly religious are, and are less likely to be nationalistic or ethnocentric. They value freedom of thought.

13 replies »

  1. “Atheist soldiers are rated potentially deficient when they do not score as sufficiently “spiritual” in military psychological evaluations.”

    I find this disturbing, though (probably) not for the same reason as the article writer. Does the high value placed on “spirituality” here have anything to do with a certain cause-susceptibility? That is, given the moral absolutism of monotheism, does the belief in “good” and “evil” make otherwise smart folk susceptible to “righteous” causes like “spreading democracy”, “Operation Enduring Freedom” and all that other horseshit?

  2. I suspect the military might be suspicious of atheist soldiers on the grounds that they may be less deferential to authority than those with a rigid faith outlook.

  3. It ties in.

    Of course, looking at some of the (ostensibly) irreligious, I’m not sure their suspicions would carry as much weight as they think.

  4. “Of course, looking at some of the (ostensibly) irreligious, I’m not sure their suspicions would carry as much weight as they think.”

    Oh, I agree. There are plenty of non-believers or casual believers who are every bit as deferential to other types of authority as any fundamentalist is to religious or ecclesiastical authority. If indeed the military is suspicious of atheists for this reason, I think they’re going by the stereotype of atheists as free-thinking individualists, or godless commies, or hedonistic libertines, or whatever, rather than characteristics of atheists that are empirically discernible. In other words, they’re giving atheists more credit than they deserve.

  5. “Why? Because like vegetarians, I have never met one who fails to tell you they are.”

    As an atheist (ha!), I’m annoyed by the whole scarlet-A thing popular amongst the Democrat-voting nonbelievers. I’m glad I only really encounter it on Facebook!

  6. Richard Dawkins’ association with the “scarlet A” campaign has not been one of his finer moments. I greatly respect him as a scientist and thinker. My own views of science and theology are a lot like his. But he and some of his fellow atheist fundamentalists like Hitchens and Harris have made themselves into a self-parody.

    For a long time, atheism in the US was publicly represented by the late Madalyn Murray O’Hair, who founded the American Atheist Association. She was also a stereotypical feminazi and a pro-Soviet communist (geez, talk about bad PR for atheists). Her organization became famous for filing frivolous lawsuits stretching “separation of church and state” to the most implausible extremes (like claiming TV and radio programs with religious themes were in violation of the First Amendment because the airwaves are ostensibly public owned or because broadcast licenses are issued by the state). She also apparently had a fondness for surrounding herself with criminals and sociopaths, including paroled murderers, one of whom eventually offed her. There are still a whole lot of American Christians who when they heard the word “atheist” they think of her.

    Fortunately, there’s newer wave of younger atheist scholars coming along who have little interest in politicized atheism and reject the comic book extremism of people like O’Hair. Bart Ehrman, John Loftus, and Robert Price are among the best of these.

  7. Well I’m not an atheist, I choose to believe something is out there and I don’t care if anyone’s atheist or not, I hate being mocked for being religious and if they don’t like being mocked for not believing, they shouldn’t mock me.

    That’s why I’m no fan of Christopher Hitchens (and certainly not that fucked-up hypocrite David Houser for that matter who made the mistake of flaming me long ago…) Of course the only religious people he’ll never mock would be Neocons, because that’s how deep his Islamophobia runs…

  8. I dunno what to call myself. I’m incredibly skeptic of religion, but I like the idea of using the church as a vessel for economic empowerment…

    Maybe the proper term is deist.

  9. “but I like the idea of using the church as a vessel for economic empowerment… ”

    That’s an entirely legitimate and reasonable idea. Churches have a pre-existing organizational infrastructure that can theoretically be directed towards any kinds of social goals.

    “Maybe the proper term is deist.”

    Whatever our individual beliefs, I don’t think religion needs to be a political issue in a society and civilization that is largely secular in day to day practice and where separation of church and state has mostly been achieved. A few years ago I did a paper on how what one researcher called “moralistic therapeutic deism” has essentially replaced any kind of Christian orthodoxy as the prevailing religious perspective in the mainstream society. It seems like most people aren’t quite ready to embrace full-on atheism, so deism might be a favorable alternative. Besides, it certainly resonates well with American history:

    http://attackthesystem.com/deism-and-the-development-of-american-civil-religion/

  10. Right, Keith. That might explain my deism. And also that I’ve been finding out that it’s atheistic governments that have killed more people than religious ones, although I certainly don’t want to let murderous religious governments off the hook either…

  11. “And also that I’ve been finding out that it’s atheistic governments that have killed more people than religious ones, although I certainly don’t want to let murderous religious governments off the hook either…”

    I think the real issue with this is when either religion or atheism is fused with political ideology. There are a lot of countries around the world that are officially or de facto secular, meaning that religion is a private matter and not an issue of political concern, that do not engage in the large scale atrocities associated with “atheist fundamentalist” states like Marxist-Leninist ones. Denmark has been statistically identified as the least religious society on Earth at present. While it has it’s problems like any other society, it’s hardly the hellhole of tyranny and chaos one would expect if the fears of religious conservatives about a secular society were true. This is true of many Asian as well as European countries where religion plays only a marginal role in social or public life. Japan, for example.

    Religion can be a force for oppression when it becomes intertwined with the state, but religions also postulate higher values beyond whatever any state decrees at the moment and breed institutional and cultural loyalties above and beyond the state itself. For these reasons, religion can also be a check on state power. So it can work both ways.

    • I did remember mnieioiarsss everywhere in Hong Kong when I was little and benefit a few goodie bags for going to Sunday school. It is quite handy for business people calling themselves Christian and going to English speaking church to mingle with upper class people whom can afford foreign travel and study.

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