Atheists identified as America’s most distrusted minority, according
to new U of M study
What: U of M study reveals America’s distrust of atheism
Who: Penny Edgell, associate professor of sociology
Contact: Nina Shepherd, sociology media relations, (612) 599-1148
Mark Cassutt University News Service, (612) 624-8038
MINNEAPOLIS / ST. PAUL (3/28/2006) — American’s increasing acceptance
of religious diversity doesn’t extend to those who don’t believe in a
god, according to a national survey by researchers in the University
of Minnesota’s department of sociology.
From a telephone sampling of more than 2,000 households, university
researchers found that Americans rate atheists below Muslims, recent
immigrants, gays and lesbians and other minority groups in “sharing
their vision of American society.” Atheists are also the minority
group most Americans are least willing to allow their children to
Even though atheists are few in number, not formally organized and
relatively hard to publicly identify, they are seen as a threat to the
American way of life by a large portion of the American public.
“Atheists, who account for about 3 percent of the U.S. population,
offer a glaring exception to the rule of increasing social tolerance
over the last 30 years,” says Penny Edgell, associate sociology
professor and the study’s lead researcher.
Edgell also argues that today’s atheists play the role that Catholics,
Jews and communists have played in the past—they offer a symbolic
moral boundary to membership in American society. “It seems most
Americans believe that diversity is fine, as long as every one shares
a common ‘core’ of values that make them trustworthy—and in America,
that ‘core’ has historically been religious,” says Edgell. Many of the
study’s respondents associated atheism with an array of moral
indiscretions ranging from criminal behavior to rampant materialism
and cultural elitism.
Edgell believes a fear of moral decline and resulting social disorder
is behind the findings. “Americans believe they share more than rules
and procedures with their fellow citizens—they share an understanding
of right and wrong,” she said. “Our findings seem to rest on a view of
atheists as self-interested individuals who are not concerned with the
The researchers also found acceptance or rejection of atheists is
related not only to personal religiosity, but also to one’s exposure
to diversity, education and political orientation—with more educated,
East and West Coast Americans more accepting of atheists than their
The study is co-authored by assistant professor Joseph Gerteis and
associate professor Doug Hartmann. It’s the first in a series of
national studies conducted the American Mosaic Project, a three-year
project funded by the Minneapolis-based David Edelstein Family
Foundation that looks at race, religion and cultural diversity in the
contemporary United States. The study will appear in the April issue
of the American Sociological Review.
April 2, 2006 — Given the increasing religiosity of American culture,
it’s perhaps not too surprising that a new study out this month finds
that Americans are not fond of atheists and trust them less than they
do other groups. The depth of this distrust is a bit astonishing
More than 2,000 randomly selected people were interviewed by
researchers from the University of Minnesota.
Asked whether they would disapprove of a child’s wish to marry an
atheist, 47.6 percent of those interviewed said yes. Asked the same
question about Muslims and African-Americans, the yes responses fell
to 33.5 percent and 27.2 percent, respectively. The yes responses for
Asian-Americans, Hispanics, Jews and conservative Christians were 18.5
percent, 18.5 percent, 11.8 percent and 6.9 percent, respectively.
When asked which groups did not share their vision of American
society, 39.5 percent of those interviewed mentioned atheists. Asked
the same question about Muslims and homosexuals, the figures dropped
to a slightly less depressing 26.3 percent and 22.6 percent,
respectively. For Hispanics, Jews, Asian-Americans and
African-Americans, they fell further to 7.6 percent, 7.4 percent, 7.0
percent and 4.6 percent, respectively.
The study contains other results, but these are sufficient to
underline its gist: Atheists are seen by many Americans (especially
conservative Christians) as alien and are, in the words of sociologist
Penny Edgell, the study’s lead researcher, “a glaring exception to the
rule of increasing tolerance over the last 30 years.”
Edgell also maintains that atheists seem to be outside the limits of
American morality, which has largely been defined by religion.
Many of those interviewed saw atheists as cultural elitists, amoral
materialists, or given to criminal behavior or drugs. She states, “Our
findings seem to rest on a view of atheists as self-interested
individuals who are not concerned with the common good.”
Of course, it should go without saying, but won’t, that belief in God
isn’t at all necessary to have a keen ethical concern for others.
The study will appear in the April issue of the American Sociological
Review and is co-written by assistant professor Joseph Gerteis and
associate professor Doug Hartmann.
Possible Partial Remedies
The results of this study suggest a couple of partial remedies. One is
a movie analogy of “Brokeback Mountain,” which dealt with manly
cowboys coming to grips with their homosexuality.
A dramatic rendition of a devoutly religious person (or couple) coming
to grips with the realization of his (their) disbelief may be
eye-opening for many.
A movie version of the science writer Martin Gardner’s novel “The
Flight of Peter Fromm” may do the trick. In the book, Gardner tells
the story of a young fundamentalist and his somewhat torturous journey
to free-thinking skepticism.
One other suggestion is for politicians. When they invoke the
inclusive nature of American society and go through the litany of
welcoming Christians of all denominations, Jews, and Muslims to some
event, they should go a step further and welcome people of other
religious persuasions as well as nonbelievers.
The number of atheists and agnostics in this country is hard to
measure, especially since most of these many millions of Americans
don’t advertise, but a politician’s greater inclusiveness may pay
political dividends. It’s also the right thing to do.
Liberty University Debate Champions?
A tenuously related story also near the crossroads of religion and
politics is the No. 1 ranking of the debate team at Liberty
Founded by the Rev. Jerry Falwell, a Christian fundamentalist and
political conservative, the university has in recent years fielded a
team that has attracted much media attention.
The March 19 New York Times Magazine devoted a long story to the team,
which also received extensive recent coverage in Newsweek, on CBS, and
in various other venues.
new study by the University of Minnesota Department of Sociology has
found that Americans perceive Atheists as the group least likely to
embrace common values and a shared vision of society.
Worse yet, Atheists are identified as the cohort other Americans do
not want to see their offspring marrying!
These are just some of the result from a forthcoming article slated
for publication in the American Sociological Review by Penny Edgell,
Joseph Gerties and Douglas Hartmann. The research is part of the
American Mosaic Project which monitors attitudes of the population in
respect to minority groups. AANEWS obtained an advanced copy of the
study that was based on a telephone survey of more than 2,000
Researchers concluded: “Americans rate atheists below Muslims,
recent immigrants, gays and lesbians and other minority groups in
‘sharing their vision of American society.’ Atheists are also the
minority group most Americans are least willing to allow their
children to marry.”
monthly special Disturbingly, Atheists are “seen as a threat to the
American way of life by a large portion of the American public,”
despite being only 3% of the U.S. population according to Dr. Edgell,
associate sociology professor and the lead researcher in the project.
Edgell said that Atheists “play the role that Catholics, Jews and
communists have played in the past” in that we provide “a symbolic
moral boundary to membership in American society.”
In addition, says the study, “The reaction to atheists has long
been used as an index of political and social tolerance.”
The U. of M. team acknowledged that general levels of tolerance and
acceptance have been on the rise. Indeed, they cited studies like the
Gallup polling organization that indicated growing willingness by
voters to support Catholic, Jewish, Gay and other candidates
identified with groups once considered out of the mainstream.
Atheists, however, linger at the very bottom of this list, although
there has been limited progress in this category since the mid-to-late
Statistically, the picture is much the same regarding the
perception of Atheists sharing a common vision with the rest of the
American polity. When asked to identify the group that “does not at
all agree with my vision of American society,” 39.6% of respondents
listed Atheists, well ahead of Muslims (26.3%); Homosexuals (22.6%);
and Jews (7.6%). Conservative Christians drew a negative response from
13.5% of those surveyed, slightly ahead of recent immigrants at 12.5%.
Other results found by the researchers illuminated the status of
Atheists in respect to various groups.
¶ “Church attenders, conservative Protestants, and those
reporting high religious saliency are less likely to approve of
intermarriage with an atheist and more likely to say that atheists do
not share their vision of American society…” In respect to the
former, the survey presented respondents with the following statement:
“I would disapprove if my child wanted to marry a member of this
Once again, Atheists were at the apex of this negative-image cohort
at 47.6%, followed by Muslims (33.5%); African Americans (27.2%);
Asian Americans (18.5%); Hispanics (18.5%); Jews (11.8%); conservative
Christians (6.9%) and Whites at 2.3%.
¶ “Attitudes toward atheists are related to social
location,” observed the team. “White Americans, males, and those with
a college degree are somewhat more accepting of atheists than are
nonwhite Americans, females, or those with less formal education.”
Respondents from the South and Midwest were less accepting of
Atheists than those living on either coast. Curiously, this seems to
reflect the political divide of “Red versus Blue” states from the last
¶ Researchers also tried to discover any correlations
between negative attitudes toward Atheists and similar views of
homosexuals and Muslims. “None of these correlations is large,”
reported the researchers. “We believe this indicates that the boundary
being draw vis-a-vis atheists is symbolic, a way of defining cultural
membership in American life, and not the result of a simple irrational
unwillingness to tolerate small out-groups.”
A significant finding of the new study is that despite growing
acceptance and tolerance of different groups within the religious
community, Atheists are viewed as outsiders, “others,” who do not
share a common community vision. “What matters for public acceptance
of atheists — and figures strongly into private acceptance as well —
are beliefs about the appropriate relationship between church and
state and about religion’s role in underpinning society’s moral order,
as measured by our item on whether society’s standards of right and
wrong should be based on God’s laws.” The study found that
conservative Protestants especially rejected the “possibility of a
secular basis for a good society.” This, more than anything else, may
be the driving factor placing Atheists outside the cultural mainstream
in the minds of nearly a majority of Americans.
The University of Minnesota study drew upon other research
measuring the prevalence of explicit Atheism and nonbelief throughout
American society. Fully 14% of Americans claim “no religious
identity,” and 7% told the General Social Survey that they do not
believe in a God or are not sure.
“Respondents had various interpretations of what atheists are like
and what the label means,” investigators found in discussions
following the initial interviews. Perceptions fell into two
“Some people view atheists as problematic because they associate
them with illegality, such as drug use and prostitution — that is,
with immoral people who threaten respectable community from the lower
end of the social hierarchy.” Presumably, this might be rooted in the
claim that only religion can provide an authentic moral compass, and
that without a deity (and the presumed punishment in an afterlife),
people have little to lose by engaging in certain immoral, sinful
“Others saw atheists as rampant materialists and cultural elitists
that threaten common values from above — the ostentatiously wealthy
who make a lifestyle out of consumption or the cultural elites who
think they know better than everyone else.” In both cases, atheists
are perceived as “self interested individuals who are not concerned
with a common good.”
¶ The issue of elitism surfaces in the study findings, with
respondents using the Atheist “as a symbolic figure to represent their
fears about … trends in American life.” These included crime,
rampant self-interest, and an “unaccountable elite.”
“The atheist is invoked rhetorically to discuss the links, or
tensions, among religion, morality, civic responsibility and
As for elitism, Atheists appear to have replaced groups that in the
past have been identified as constituting an over-influential clique
subverting American values.
The researchers note that in the public imagination, Atheists are
linked “with a kind of unaccountable elitism,” a phenomenon that has
purportedly surfaced in public debates. Indeed, Charlotte Allen,
author of the 2004 book “The Twilight of Atheism,” expressed fears
that Atheism “may yet be experiencing a new dawn: a terrifying new
alliance of money and power, of a kind even Marx could not have
¶ The debate over Atheists, Atheists and the issue of
religion in civil society has been fueled by the terrorist attacks of
9/11. The Minnesota team devoted a section of their report to quotes
from leading officials such as former Attorney General John Ashcroft,
who in public statements invoked religion as a guarantor of freedom
and human dignity. The 2004 presidential campaign witnessed similar
The study underscored the role of Atheists as “symbolic” of angst
permeating American culture. “Negative views about atheists are
strong,” noted the researchers, although “survey respondents were not,
on the whole, referring to actual atheists they had encountered.”
Instead, the Atheist is a sort of boundary marker distinguishing
members of a wider policy from “others,” outsiders, those not sharing
assumptions about morality and the role of religion. Religion is
widely perceived as providing “habits of the heart,” and a disposition
which includes one in membership within a larger community. Americans
“construct the atheist as the symbolic representation of one who
rejects the basis for moral solidarity and cultural membership in
American society altogether.”
Other groups have suffered a similar fate over the year, including
“Catholics, Jews, and Communists.” Today, say the researchers, the
Atheist plays this role.
There may be a crucial difference, however. “Our analysis shows
that attitudes about atheists have not followed the same historical
pattern as that for previously marginalized religious groups. It is
possible that the increasing tolerance for religious diversity may
have heightened awareness of religion itself as the basis for
solidarity in American life and sharpened the boundary between
believers and nonbelievers in our collective imagination.”
Finally, in all of this, there is a flicker of hope for Atheists.
The Minnesota survey references an earlier Gallup Organization poll
(listed as “Figure 1”) measuring “Willingness to vote for Presidential
candidates.” Voter attitudes toward Catholics, Jews, African
Americans, Atheists and Homosexuals were tabulated with displayed
results from 1958 through 1999. Gallup conducted the survey as
then-vice presidential candidate Joseph Lieberman was running on the
Democratic Party ticket with Al Gore. Willingness to consider voting
for a Jewish candidate had climbed from about 61% in 1958 to over 90%
in 1999. There was similar progress for candidates of other religious
or ethnic groups. Voters looked favorably on possible Mormon
candidates (79%) as well as Roman Catholics and women.
Atheists were at the bottom of the cohort, however. Gallup research
indicated that “close to half of Americans, 48%, (were) unwilling to
support an atheist for president while 49% say they would.”
The bad news may not be THAT bad, though. About 19% of respondents
in 1958 expressed willingness to vote for a qualified Atheist
candidate seeking public office. By 1978, that figure had climbed to
40%, rising approximately another 10% in the next 11 years. The only
group making comparable dramatic headway in terms of public acceptance
was African Americans. That cohort lingered below the 30% mark in
1958, but skyrocketed to over 90% in 1999.
American Atheists President Ellen Johnson said that while Atheists
are the “others” in the current cultural and political milieu, the
figures demonstrate the need for this segment to become more engaged.
“We need to keep speaking out, organizing, running for public office,”
said Johnson. “Some might see this as an omen to retreat; it’s really
a call for action.”
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Atheists identified as America’s most distrusted minority, according