New Study Explores Anti-Atheist Discrimination

Atheists generally believe we have a good sense of the degree to which our group is subject to discrimination based on our rejection of supernaturalism, but that understanding is primarily anecdotal. We hear each other’s stories, we see how we’re spoken about in the culture, and we form an idea of just how low that stained-glass ceiling really is for us (wow, that metaphor sounds familiar).

A new study just published in Secularism & Nonreligion (no, I didn’t know such a journal existed either) attempts to put hard numbers to the experiences of atheists enduring such discrimination.

Which piece is the atheist…?

Titled “Forms, Frequency, and Correlates of Perceived Anti-Atheist Discrimination,” the study uses answers from 761 self-identified atheists in the U.S. who voluntarily responded to a web questionnaire (read: not scientific). The authors point out that, importantly, they were not able to collect answers from, for example, atheists without computers or Internet access, or those folks who do not believe in any gods yet don’t self-identify specifically as “atheists.” A series of scenarios was presented to respondents who would then indicate the number of times they had experienced that scenario.

Some of the most pronounced findings will ring true for many of us.

From the study:

The five forms [of discrimination] most frequently reported were: witnessing anti-atheist comments in newspapers or on television (94.7%), being expected to participate in religious prayers against one’s will (79.1%), being told one’s atheism is sinful, wrong, or immoral (75.2%), being asked to attend religious services or participate in religious activities against one’s will (74.4%), and being treated differently because of one’s atheism (67.5%).

Just personally, it’s almost upsetting to know that almost 80% of us might find ourselves “forced” to take part in religious prayers and the like against our will, but I know I’ve been there myself in my less-militant years. I’m frankly surprised that only 67.5% report being “treated differently,” and I’d very much like to know what kind of neighborhood those other 32.5% live in.

In all, 96.7% reported experiencing some form of what the study deems “slander,” and 92.5% reported experiencing “coercion.” A little more than half reported “social ostracism.”

Eye-opening to me was a frequently-cited reason for a lot of the stress associated with being an atheist: the lack of social structures that mirror those of religions. (Calling James Croft!)

From the authors:

Despite the documented recent growth in secular and atheist groups at both the local and national levels… many respondents reported experiencing stress at the perceived lack of social, group, and community support for their atheist identities and viewpoint. The relative preponderance of religion, and the lack of an alternative atheist counterpart, in volunteer opportunities, charitable work, and community support was a source of frustration for many respondents. Though the social and symbolic boundaries between theism and atheism are important for atheist identification… the marginalizing aspects of being an atheist in the United States, including the perceived absence of some of the important social, cultural, and organizational resources which their religious counterparts enjoy, is a clear source of stress for some atheists. The lack of secular/nonreligious, in comparison to religious, holidays was a frequent example… Interestingly, a few participants even remarked on the additional stress they experienced while trying to “not make trouble” for others during religious holidays or other events. In the words of one respondent “… it seems like my atheism makes OTHERS feel stressed around the religious holidays that I don’t share. It’s as though they feel like I’m snubbing them because I won’t go through the motions on their holidays.”

The authors conclude that atheists seem to experience stresses and discriminatory situations that closely match those of other maligned minorities, but that this particular study should be seen primarily as a starting point for further work. Particularly, the authors were concerned with the overall implications for health and well-being that the stress of discrimination may cause this growing American demographic — it’s not a good thing is a sizable chunk of the population is figuratively and literally sick over how they’re being treated.

There’s a lot more interesting data in this study, so read it for yourself here.

(image via Shutterstock)

About Paul Fidalgo

Paul is communications director for the Center for Inquiry, as well as an actor and musician. His blog is iMortal, and he tweets as @paulfidalgo, and the blog tweets as @iMortal_blog.
The opinions expressed on this blog are personal to Paul and do not necessarily represent the views of the Center for Inquiry.


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