Atheists in America – Part 1

This is the start of a series on atheists. I am not sure how many blogs I will write on them but it is connected to a book I have coming out titled There is no God: Atheists in America (Rowman and Littlefield). It is a book I co-wrote with David Williamson. Being a Christian, I believe it to be important to understand those who do not agree with me. Furthermore, atheists have been understudied, and I love doing research on understudied topics.
A disclaimer or two is in order. Although I do not share the beliefs atheists have, this series, and my book, is not a critique of atheism. That critique has been made by smarter people than I. My work is intended to describe atheists, not atheism. It is about the community in which atheists sustain their social reality. On the other hand, whenever a researcher looks at a social community, one usually sees strengths and weaknesses. I do not intend on describing atheists in a particularly negative or positive light, but if some of the findings create those impressions then so be it. I know that many atheists see themselves as marginalized, and there is research backing their claims. I have no desire to add to that feeling, but I am not going to fake a glowing report on atheists just to be politically correct.
This entry will help to set up the rest of the series. I basically want to discuss how we did our research. The findings I will talk about in the rest of the series are based on that methodology. Actually our idea for this research emerged when we did research on cultural progressive activists. We used an online survey with open-ended questions to gather their ideas about the Christian Right. Our sample was 61.7 percent atheists, which is an incredibly high percentage for a group that is 3-5 percent of the population in the United States. We ran some preliminary tests comparing the atheists to the other cultural progressive activists and knew that we had the potential to do interesting research.
But it was research that needed to be augmented. To do this David and I decided to interview about fifty atheists. We wanted to see if atheists have a different experience when they lived in a highly religious region of the country as compared to a more secular region. As a result, we interviewed half of the atheists in an area in the Bible Belt and the other half through an atheist organization located in a less religious region of the country. The atheists we found in the city in the Bible Belt were found through networking contacts we found in a small atheist group. There was no large formal organization we could use to find respondents which is likely a feature of the lack of a non-religious presence.
Our research question focused on why individuals became atheists, how they logically justified their atheism, their perceptions on religion and the sort of society they want. We developed a questionnaire to address those issues. We asked about our respondents religious background, how they became atheists, their logical reasons why they became an atheists, what they saw as the benefits of atheism, their concerns about religion and what their ideal society looked like.
It is worth telling why we spent time trying to learn how atheists logically justify their beliefs. We had learned that rationality was a core value with cultural progressive activists (See our book What Motivates Cultural Progressives by Baylor University Press). The atheists in our previous research consistently argued that religion is illogical, and atheism is logical. So we wondered what sort of arguments atheists used to justify such confidence in their claims. Thus, we did ask them for the most powerful argument that supported their beliefs in atheism. I will provide you the answer for that in a future blog (this is my nerd version of a teaser).
Over the next few blogs I will summarize some of the findings from our work. But to understand those results, it is important to consider who atheists are. In our sample, we had a high percentage of individuals with college and post-graduate degrees. This is reflective of the reality that atheists have higher levels of education than others in our society. We also interviewed more men than women. We even made an attempt to interview more women but still interviewed almost three men for every woman we interviewed. Research has shown that men are more likely to be atheists. I wished we had interviewed more women so that we would be in a position to look at possible gender differences between the atheists and non-atheists. Our respondents were also highly likely to be white which also matches what national probability samples have indicated about the racial makeup of atheists.
The educational, racial and gender status of atheists suggests that this is a group with a relatively privileged societal position. As I pointed out earlier, many atheists feel marginalized, and there is research indicating that atheism is less accepted than other religious beliefs. In fact, I have done some of the research showing that atheism generates more relative animosity than other religious beliefs. So it is true that as it concerns religious status, atheism is a marginalized position. But in other ways, atheists are not so marginalized. Being more likely to be white, male and educated means that they have advantages in society that offset the disadvantages their beliefs about religion can bring them.
It seems to me that the term status inconsistency applies here. It is a term developed by Max Weber that describes the fact that status indicators such as wealth, power and prestige are not perfectly correlated to each other. A gangster may have a lot of wealth and power but that person does not have a lot of prestige in our society. Likewise, someone like Mother Teresa has a lot of prestige and even some power but not a lot of wealth. People living in status inconsistency are in a position to use their status advantages to compensate for their status disadvantages. So a gangster may not be able to enjoy status but the ability to enjoy wealth and power helps that gangster to feel good about him or herself even with this low status. Status inconsistency is part of what makes atheists fascinating. They generally have educational, racial and gender advantages to help compensate for their religious disadvantages. I believe that some of the findings to be presented in the next few blogs are connected to this attempt to manage status inconsistency. For example, in the next blog I will look at the values atheists place on science. Using science as a way to legitimate their beliefs is logical for some atheists to work towards a society where their education, rather than religion, becomes a source of status. Hope you come back in a couple of weeks to check out that