I’m male. I’m white. I’m straight. I’m wealthy. Would you guess that I’m a member of the most-despised group in the United States? Apparently, it’s true. A study from the University of Minnesota has found that atheists are America’s most mistrusted minority.
From the press release:
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 marry.
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 three 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 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 common good.”
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 Midwestern counterparts.
A long (and frequently pointless) discussion of the study can be found in this Metafilter thread.
My response? A deep, resigned sigh.
Why is it that people equate atheism with evil? Why do they believe atheists cannot possibly have morals, that they’re unable to differentiate between right and wrong, that they are purely selfish and unable to consider the greater good? Is this based purely on fear and speculation? I find it unlikely that it could possibly be based on actual observational evidence; every atheist I know (and have known) is deeply concerned with the greater good, and is always striving to perfect a personal moral code. What about the atheists you know? Are they evil? Or are they just like everybody else?
I don’t condemn others for adhering to religious faith. Though I’m disappointed with religion as a whole, most of the religious people I know are wonderful people, and I do not begrudge them their choice in beliefs. Why should they begrudge me mine?
I come from a strong religious background, and understand what it means to believe, what it means to have faith. I understand how a person can derive their values, their morality, their code from an outside authority. But you know what? My belief system now is remarkably similar to the belief system I had as a child and young adult. A god is not required to have a sense of right and wrong.
People are people, regardless of color, class, or creed. We spend far too much time worried about how other people think and feel and behave, and not enough time worried about how to improve ourselves.