Why Atheists Are Feared

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.

"I've seen many trolls trying to distract from Moore by saying what about Franken"

How to Think Critically About the ..."
"I have seen zero (serious) people who claim Franken and Moore are both equally as ..."

How to Think Critically About the ..."
"Pretty much every word of this sounds like a verbatim defense from a Roy Moore ..."

How to Think Critically About the ..."
"If that's the kind of story he has to tell his wife to get in ..."

Warning: Alex Jones is Going to ..."

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!


What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • http://atheist-faq.com Jasper of Maine

    Oddly, they list “skeptical” as a negative… or at least alongside negatives.

  • Melvosh

    I don’t think of being “cynical, skeptical, and non-conformist” as negatives. Applied judiciously, all three attributes have served me well throughout my life. It definitely seems that the religious mindset drives people towards “these attributes are bad, and everyone says atheists have these attributes, so atheists must be bad”. As Ed pointed out, it’s so inherent in the belief system, most probably aren’t even aware that they’re drawing their conclusions that way.

  • Kevin Kehres

    The power of accurate observation is often called cynicism by those who do not have it

    — GB Shaw.

  • http://denkeensechtna.blogspot.com Deen

    Wait, wasn’t individualism supposed to be a “traditional American Value”?

  • raven

    Specifically, they are seen as posing a danger to the value systems that unite us.

    FFS, there is no such thing as a “value systems that unite us”. And never has been!!!

    I have nothing but contempt for the fundie value system of hate, fear, lies, and hyocrisy. I don’t even support slavery much less racism. I don’t hate scientists. In fact, I am one. Even when I was a xian, I didn’t have anything in common with them.

  • D. C. Sessions

    Wait, wasn’t individualism supposed to be a “traditional American Value”?

    Only if you do it like everyone else. A True Individualist never gets out of line.

  • karmacat

    I don’t think people want to admit that existence of atheism challenges their religious beliefs. People may not be even conscious of it. The only way to hold on to religious is through belief, which is a tenuous way to hold on to one’s religion

  • Pierce R. Butler

    … atheists as a minority group do not have the political power or raw numbers to institute cultural changes in value systems.

    Except for our infamous black-robed tyrant puppets who sometimes enforce Article VI and Amendment 1 of that godless founding document written by unelected elitist usurpers!

  • raven

    “Although acceptance and egalitarianism are endorsed as traditional American values,” they add,

    I don’t get this one.

    The fundies are racist, misogynistic, anti-gay haters of anything not white, male, and not them. It’s the exact opposite of accepting. They also support economic inequality which is increasing rapidly and the 1% oligarchy that increasingly runs our country.

  • Michael Heath

    Ed’s conclusion on why Christians misrepresent atheists:

    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.

    My own personal experience interacting with conservative Christians overwhelms this explanation. It’s the fact that conservative Christian leaders continually defame atheists. The antics used in such exercises were also very animated. When I was raised to be fundie (didn’t take), this defamation was both pervasive and unrelenting. Rick Warren’s recent defamation of atheists is on the mild end of the scale in spite of his claims that atheism leads to genocide (worthy of a Bryan Fischer award for psychological projection).

    By the time I was a teen-ager, I had developed enough critical thinking skills to realize that a major motivation in defaming atheists and “secular humanists” was that Christian authority figures took on the responsibility for informing their flocks what was objectively true and maintaing the flocks gullibility to the absurd claims of Christianity. That where scrutiny of their truth claims versus those promoted by non-theists provided nowhere for Christians to hide, thus avoidance is big in the playbook. So we observe relentless energy spent on hymns, other rituals, rhetoric repeateded ad nauseam through the years, and avoidance of seeking objective truth supplanted by regurgitation of what is asserted as true – as if the two behaviors are identical. All of these antics are incredibly boring to somebody who is both curious and cares to discover that which is true.

  • http://en.uncyclopedia.co/wiki/User:Modusoperandi Modusoperandi

    Of course us Real Americans fear and don’t trust You People. You keep on insisting that you have rights, too! Look, beside Our Ten Commandments monument outside the courthouse feel free to put up a blank monument of your nonbeliefs. I mean, don’t actually do it, and if you try to do it we’ll raise a stink and stop you, but those minor caveats aside, feel free to do it.

  • raven

    Pew Research Poll July, 2014

    Evangelical Christians score 79 with people who called themselves “born-again” or evangelical, but only 52 with others. Americans rated a series of religious groups on a “feeling thermometer” from 0 to 100 in a new Pew Research Center study.

    “People are somewhat polarized about evangelicals,” Smith said. The survey finds “roughly as many people give evangelicals a cold rating (27 percent) as give them a warm rating (30 percent).” –

    See more at: http: //webcache. googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:AoHXtB8Y-iIJ:www.religionnews.com/2014/07/16/atheist-muslims-evangelicals-jews-pew/+Americans+don’t+like+Evangelical+Christians&cd=4&hl=en&ct=clnk#sthash.X59sLXpE.dpuf

    Well, the news isn’t all bad.

    A lot of Americans don’t like the fundies either. In this Pew poll atheists get a 41% cold rating, near the bottom for sure. Evangelicals get a 27% though.

    Fundies like themselves with a 79% rating. Non-fundies don’t feel the same with a 52% rating.

  • abb3w

    @-1, (doi:10.1037/rel0000013)

    Atheists are stereotyped to be (among other things) cynical, skeptical, and nonconformist

    …much as Republicans are stereotyped as supporting laws to restrict abortion?

    But that facepalm aside, this lines up with the findings that the Dissident are the objects of prejudice from both high-RWA and high-SDO types (in contrast to groups that are considered Dangerous by the high-RWA, or Derogated by the high-SDO.) It seems a pity the experiment didn’t also measure those.

    @4, Deen

    Wait, wasn’t individualism supposed to be a “traditional American Value”?

    Well, you can’t be an American individualist unless you conform to its traditions….

  • bushrat

    People should fear me, for I shall bring down a terrible vengeance upon thee! That’s right a terrible vengeance.

  • Uncle Ebeneezer

    @10- My own personal experience interacting with conservative Christians overwhelms this explanation. It’s the fact that conservative Christian leaders continually defame atheists.

    That was my first thought as well. As much as any in/out group divide will probably generate a lack of trust aimed at the out group, I would think the fact that preachers have been casting atheists as the most reprehensible people ever, every Sunday for centuries (with support from the Bible itself) would be a pretty big factor.

  • raven

    Well, really this isn’t the least bit unexpected. It’s just tribalism again.

    1. We are their competition.

    2. And they are losing. US xianity is dying out slowly and dropping by 1% a year, 2-3 million people leave the religion every year.

    3. US xianity is on trend to drop below 50% in a few decades. According to the latest Harris poll they were at 68%, down from ca. 90% a few decades ago. And we know from polling data that a lot of that 68% are just box checkers.

    We seem to be following Europe in de-Christianizing, lagging by a generation or two. Predicting the future is always risky but right now, nothing says we won’t end up like them.

  • newenlightenment

    @1 “Oddly, they list “skeptical” as a negative… or at least alongside negatives.” Was thinking that myself, also why is ‘nonconformist’ bad?

  • suttkus

    One trait I often see in highly religious types is the belief that only with God can you be happy. Back when I was debating creationists regularly, we used to get questions like, “Why don’t you atheists kill yourselves since you have nothing to live for?” or “I can’t imagine how you get out of bed in the morning without faith.” There’s an underlying view that the world is a miserable, terrible place and only faith can get you through it.

    People of other religions make sense to this mindset. They get “lesser” validation and drive from their false beliefs, obviously not as good as True Faith™ in the One True God™, but at least they’re playing the game by the same rules. Atheists, by being able to get through a day without any “invisible means of support” are cutting at the core assumption. How can you maintain that belief in something is necessary when those dratted atheists are out there getting through the day just fine? This also feeds the stereotype that atheists must be miserable, because they don’t have God so they can’t be happy.

  • Alverant

    Where do they get the “cynical” claim from? Is it the lack of an afterlife or that there isn’t anyone watching over us?

  • http://en.uncyclopedia.co/wiki/User:Modusoperandi Modusoperandi

    suttkus “There’s an underlying view that the world is a miserable, terrible place and only faith can get you through it.”

    They’re right. The only thing that gets me out of bed in the morning is the faith that I can outlive the bastards. Well, that and I have to pee.

  • busterggi

    Heck, its not really us that believers fear, its their sky-fairy who they believe has repeatedly killed off most of the population of the world. They’re afraid he’ll get pissed at us and take them out too.

  • http://thorgolucky.com/ ThorGoLucky

    If immorality is measured by religious norms of what I do with my genitals and consenting adults, then yes I am proudly immoral.

  • wsierichs

    One question that I have not seen asked in any “are atheists bad people” polls over the years – and I might have missed this question in some cases – is asking Christians to define “atheism.” That’s because the traditional, historical definition was “denying the divinity of Jesus.” Denial could be simply saying “Jesus was not a god,” but it was also often applied to a refusal to convert, because if you believed Jesus was “the” god, then you would obviously become a Christian as a result.

    So historically, Jews and pagans were frequently denounced as “godless” for not becoming Christians. As far as I can tell, all hostility toward and consequent repression of Jews and pagans stems from this underlying assumption, which was usually combined with the idea that all non-Christians were servants of Satan and therefore intrinsically immoral. The enslavement and killing of dark-skinned pagans comes from this combined set of beliefs.

    Although liberal Christians today try to extend the protective covering of “we all worship the same god, just in different ways,” I wonder how conservative Christians would answer if asked if Jews and dark-skinned non-Christians are atheists and if so, does that makes them immoral? I suspect honest answers would sound like Mel Gibson or Kevin Sorbo.

  • http://motherwell.livejournal.com/ Raging Bee

    It’s not just Christian hegemony at stake here — it’s every religion’s ability to perpetuate their scams and con-games. That’s why they hate atheists, and it’s also why no church ever undertakes any kind of concerted campaign against the dishonesty of any other church, no matter how vile or harmful it may be. They all know that fighting each other’s scams requires reason, and once reason gets unleashed, it’s hard to keep it from turning against one’s own irrationality. So their only recourse is to form a solid unified front against everyone who is likely to question their irrationality, from inside or outside.

  • https://www.facebook.com/kalli.procopio Kalli Procopio

    I think a big chunk of the heart of this is in fact fascism. Religion is inherently fascist. If you don’t believe what I believe then you are bad, going to hell, etc.

  • fookie

    Atheists are stereotyped to be (among other things) cynical, skeptical, and nonconformist,” they write. “

    hmm, that does kind of describe me ;P

  • http://timgueguen.blogspot.com timgueguen

    Perhaps the cynical part comes from the all too common idea that atheists believe in God, but pretend not to so that can do all sorts of ungodly stuff.

  • suttkus

    23: wsierichs says

    One question that I have not seen asked in any “are atheists bad people” polls over the years – and I might have missed this question in some cases – is asking Christians to define “atheism.” That’s because the traditional, historical definition was “denying the divinity of Jesus.”

    “The pope is, effectively, an atheist.”

    – Laurie Appleton, creationist, idiot.

  • Scientismist

    Life of Brian:

    Brian: Look, you’ve got it all wrong! You don’t NEED to follow ME, You don’t NEED to follow ANYBODY! You’ve got to think for your selves! You’re ALL individuals!

    The Crowd: Yes! We’re all individuals!

    Brian: You’re all different!

    The Crowd: Yes, we ARE all different!

    Man in crowd: I’m not…

    The Crowd: Sch!

  • hexidecima

    “Specifically, they are seen as posing a danger to the value systems that unite us”

    I think it’s more “atheists are seen as posing a danger to our desire to see ourselves as special snowflakes who are bestest friends with some magical omnipotent being.”

  • abear

    I’ve heard that most atheists are privileged white cis-hetero males and are sexist and racist.

    The Xtians are right, decent people should be afraid of them.

  • dingojack

    Kevin (#3) – “A cynic is a man who knows the price of everything, and the value of nothing”.

    — Oscar Wilde.

    😉 Dingo

  • Akira MacKenzie

    Where do they get the “cynical” claim from?

    Because, along with atheism, among the greatest sin in this feel-good, undeservingly optimisitic culture is to be a cynic. Just like faith in a god, you are supposed to have faith in people. People are essentiallygood. The have only the best of intentions. Just as it is wrong to doubt that there is a cosmic tyrant runnig the universe, you are not supposed to point out what human beings actually are: dirty fucking animals who will lie, plunder, rape and murder to get what they want.

    They don’t trust us because we don’t trust them. (Nor, if history is any guide, should we.)

  • dingojack

    Akira: It’s an extension of the whole ‘my country right or wrong’ shtick (they just conveniently forget the end….)

    Dingo

  • anubisprime

    Seems sure that there are many reasons all intertwined and connected but the source…that is just plain old bowels turned to water …fear.

    Atheists existing tends to fly in the face of the claims by their erstwhile leaders that god will smite the unbeliever dead etc etc, and variations on the theme, but that does nor seem to be so, atheists walk and talk and seem immune to gods laws…how can that be?…unless, no that can’t be it surely?

    So if they cannot depend on a gods bile, they must conjure up their own, hence the reams of made up, invented or cobbled together trash, and therefore frankly extremely ludicrous claims, that paints atheism and atheist in the darkest hue their stunted psychological pallet can brew…

    But it is just fear, because atheist causes a momentary doubt in their own delusion, that threatens to become more then momentary, just for a few seconds maybe until the brain washing, the myriad threats, the oft cited consequences parroted over and over from the pulpit on countless Sunday’s come pouring back into the consciousness , but above all mainly the very real fear of ostracism, for their family certainly, but mainly for themselves, kicks in, it is more then enough to scare the fucking bejebus out of their very carcass.

    Atheism simply means that no god can exist, simple like so, and they have no argument to counter so their fear turns to just bitterness, rage and revenge.

    That they can do, and so they do!