Closet Atheists due to Religious Persecution

The headline of a recent article in 538 by Daniel Cox, the research director of PRRI, reads, “Way More Americans May Be Atheists Than We Thought.” The claim is largely based on an unreplicated study we previously discussed (Atheism is Underreported). While atheism is clearly underreported in standard surveys, the degree of underreporting is unclear.

The article discusses sources of prejudice against atheists. First, it notes that nearly 70% of Americans say “a belief in God is an important part of being American.” Atheists are outcasts, and strongly stigmatized. The author cites a 2016 study that found 30% of atheists even hide their identity from friends and family due to this.

Atheists as “Other”

The article also cites a study (PDF) by Penny Edgell, Joseph Gerteis, and Douglas Hartmann, sociologists at the University of Minnesota, that measured attitudes towards atheists and other disliked groups. Their summary: “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. They are also more likely to disapprove of their children marrying atheists.” Moreover, this dislike or repulsion is remarkably widespread, though it is greatest in the Bible Belt and the Midwest.

Although the survey was conducted a few years after 9/11 - near the height of anti-Muslim sentiments - atheists were consistently rated as worse than Muslims. Furthermore, this was a relatively big difference. For example, 39.6% of respondents said of atheists, “This Group Does Not At All Agree with My Vision of American Society,” versus only 26.3% for Muslims and 22.6% for homosexuals.

People seem to assume that there is no morality apart from God and his commandments. The authors say, “We believe that in answering our questions about atheists, our survey respondents were not, on the whole, referring to actual atheists they had encountered, but were responding to ‘the atheist’ as a boundary-marking cultural category.” In other words, it was a reflexive prejudice. But in fact, atheists are generally among the best and brightest. Many leading scientists and intellectuals are atheists, and virtually no serious criminals. In terms of education and income, they are far exceed any religious denomination. While various atheist groups pursue their rights via litigation, and some through debate, I know of none that tried public relations. It’s worth a shot.