Study after study shows that Americans strongly distrust and fear atheists. Tom Jacobs looks at a new study that confirms this yet again, but digs down a bit to analyze why they do so. The conclusion seems rather obvious to me, but it intersects with the larger question of Christian privilege as well.
Confirming and expanding upon previous research, a newly published paper reports that, in the minds of many, atheists are deeply threatening. Specifically, they are seen as posing a danger to the value systems that unite us.
The fact that their belief systems defy the national consensus, along with “negative cultural stereotypes of atheists as cynical,” leads to the assumption that “atheists are unlikely to follow important group-based value norms” such as reciprocity and trust, according to a research team led by Skidmore College psychologist Corey Cook.
“The perception of threat alone is enough to drive intergroup enmity,” the researchers note, “even if atheists as a minority group do not have the political power or raw numbers to institute cultural changes in value systems.”…Cook and his colleagues have a pretty good idea why the anti-atheist prejudice they documented is so pervasive.
“Atheists are stereotyped to be (among other things) cynical, skeptical, and nonconformist,” they write. “Individuals perceived to endorse conflicting values, or who fail to openly endorse group values, could threaten to undermine performance and success of the group as a whole by failing to adhere to group norms.”
“Although acceptance and egalitarianism are endorsed as traditional American values,” they add, “perceptions of violations to personal and group values are often seen as justification for hostile attitudes and subsequent discrimination. Such justification is reflected in the unwillingness to accept atheists as an everyday part of American society.”
But this does not happen in a vacuum, of course. I suspect that the background basis for much of this is Christian cultural hegemony, the degree to which Christianity, and religious belief in general, is so deeply embedded in American culture. It operates as a background assumption, so thoroughly ingrained in us from birth that most people are completely unaware of it. This mirrors other forms of privilege, of course.