“The Atheist” As Symbol And Boundary-Marking Cultural Category In America

The hostility to atheism is so incredibly illogical, but there it is, from this paper out of the University of Minnesota, published in American Sociological Review in April 2006:

The core point of this article can be stated concisely. Atheists are at the top of the list of groups that Americans find problematic in both public and private life, and the gap between acceptance of atheists and acceptance of other racial and religious minorities is large and persistent. It is striking that the rejection of atheists is so much more common than rejection of other stigmatized groups. For example, while rejection of Muslims may have spiked in post-9/11 America, rejection of atheists was higher. The possibility of same-sex marriage has widely been seen as a threat to a biblical definition of marriage, as Massachusetts, Hawaii, and California have tested the idea, and the debate over the ordination of openly gay clergy has become a central point of controversy within many churches. In our survey, however, concerns about atheists were stronger than concerns about homosexuals. Across subgroups in our sample, negative views of atheists are strong, the differences being largely a matter of degree.

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.

Unlike members of some other marginalized groups, atheists can “pass”: people are unlikely to ask about a person’s religious beliefs in most circumstances, and even outward behavioral signs of religiosity (like going to church) do not correlate perfectly with belief in God. Moreover, acceptance or rejection of atheists is related not only to personal religiosity but also to one’s exposure to diversity and to one’s social and political value orientations. So while our study does shed light on questions of tolerance, we are more interested in what this symbolic boundary tells us about moral solidarity and cultural membership. We believe that attitudes toward atheists tell us more about American society and culture than about atheists themselves, and that our analysis sheds light on broader issues regarding the historic place of religion in underpinning moral order in the
United States.

If we are correct, then the boundary between the religious and the nonreligious is not about religious affiliation per se. It is about the historic place of religion in American civic culture and the understanding that religion provides the “habits of the heart” that form the basis of the good society (Bellah et al. 1991, 1985; Tocqueville [1992] 2000). It is about an understanding that Americans share something more than rules and procedures, but rather that our understandings of right and wrong and good citizenship are also shared (Hartmann and Gerteis 2005). To be an atheist in such an environment is not to be one more religious minority among many in a strongly pluralist society. Rather, Americans construct the atheist as the symbolic representation of one who rejects the basis for moral solidarity and cultural membership in American society altogether. Over our history, other groups have, perhaps, been subject to similar moral concerns. Catholics, Jews, and communists all have been figures against which the moral contours of American culture and citizenship have been imagined. We suggest that today, the figure of the atheist plays this role—although we emphasize that this is for contingent historical and institutional reasons, and we also emphasize that this is the case regardless of the morality and patriotism of actual atheists.


I think a lot of these findings are quite consonant with what I wrote in Disambiguating Faith: The Threatening Abomination Of The Faithless and put the abstractions I laid out in that post into more concrete, sociologically specific, American molds.

Your Thoughts?

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • jrq

    “Rather, Americans construct the atheist as the symbolic representation of one who rejects the basis for moral solidarity and cultural membership in American society altogether.”

    Might this suggest a need for more widespread education in basic moral philosophy, high school level and earlier?

    • Daniel Fincke

      from your lips to the non-existent God’s ears.

      It drives me nuts that people are offended by the “you can be good without God” slogan on buses. I’m always like, haven’t you read the freaking EUTHYPHRO??? It’s only one of the treasures of western civilization!! HOW can so many still be ignorant of concepts worked out in the west 2,300 years ago and taught from generation to generation ever since??