Atheists in America

atheist homeSome people say this country is one White House Bible study away from a Christian theocracy, but President-elect Dwight Eisenhower may have summed up the religious sentiment of the nation best when he said, in 1952, “Our form of government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is.”

A new University of Minnesota study, which has received precisely no coverage yet, found that people rank atheists below gays, lesbians, recent immigrants and Muslims in “sharing their vision of American society.” A press release from the University of Minnesota expounds:

Even though atheists are few in number, not formally organized and relatively hard to publicly identify, they are seen as a threat to the American way of life by a large portion of the American public. “Atheists, who account for about 3 percent of the U.S. population, offer a glaring exception to the rule of increasing social tolerance over the last 30 years,” says Penny Edgell, associate sociology professor and the study’s lead researcher.

Melissa Fletcher Stoeltje of the San Antonio Express-News looks at a few local atheists and finds out they don’t like the negative coverage they often receive:

Atheists, they lament, are the last minority in this nation that is fair game for bigotry. Experts who study religion in public life concur.

“Atheists are not very well-thought-of in America,” says John Green, a senior fellow with the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. “It’s still acceptable to criticize atheists in a way that’s not polite. People may harbor negative views about Jews, Catholics, Muslims and evangelicals, but they know they’re not supposed to voice those views, so they don’t. But it’s still OK to say anything bad you want about atheists.”

Stoeltje’s piece, which came out a few days before the University of Minnesota study was released, describes the difference between atheism and agnosticism and talks about the difficulties of being irreligious in a religious society:

The overwhelming majority of U.S. citizens profess some religious faith, although far fewer attend worship services on a regular basis. The public square has become increasingly dominated by religious (specifically, Christian) rhetoric, from the “values voters” of the 2004 presidential election to hot-button cultural issues that carry a religious edge — abortion, gay rights, stem-cell research, intelligent design, the right to die.

And that which I excerpted is precisely how much she substantiated her statement. What about the religious rhetoric of Presidents Clinton, Bush I, Reagan and Carter — to name, well, the last four presidents? Does it make sense that religious rhetoric is more prevalent in the public square than it was when, say, St. Abraham Lincoln was president? Almost every president has used civil religion to advance his political goals, and the current president is no exception. Apart from her claim’s questionable veracity, Stoeltje should have substantiated it.

And regarding her parenthetical about Christianity . . . What, exactly, is specifically Christian about the civil religious rhetoric of today? Civil holiday celebrations, funerals and memorials are all interfaith. President Bush goes out of his way to praise Islam in his speeches. And the name of Jesus just got banned from the Indiana legislature. I’m sure we can find any number of politicians who still use Jesus or specifically Christian tenets to advance their political goals, but they are not doing it any more than was done years ago.

Stoeltje missed an opportunity to highlight how civil religion — which tries so hard to be inclusive and bind the electorate together for the goals of patriotism and nationalism — still manages to alienate those who don’t like the God-talk. We all believe in the same God, worshiped by different names, civil religion tells us. But what if you belong to a religion that has no god or if you are not religious at all? Or what if you don’t agree that all people worship the same God under different names? Where do we fit in civil religion?

Print Friendly

  • Avram

    She also reinforces the myth that “values voters” had an unusually large effect on the 2004 presidential election. (The percentage of voters who listed “moral values” as their top concern was only 22% in the 2004 election. It was 35% in 2000, and 40% in 1996, according to The Economist.)

  • Mollie


    I totally agree with you bringing up the values voter thing. What I also find funny is the amnesia EACH election cycle when pundits and reporters “discover” the heretofore unknown “values voter.”

  • Michael Rew

    Civil religion is a farce.

  • TK

    In reading the original press release, I was also struck by the blanket acceptance of the interfaith movement. A press release from 2004 seems to indicate that they went looking for interfaith groups:

    The second phase of the project will include extensive fieldwork that will bring the team to four cities: Minneapolis, Boston, Los Angeles and Atlanta.“To better understand the makeup of our religious culture, we will observe and interview people involved with interfaith religious organizations and cultural festivals across the country,” (Doug) Hartmann said. “Culture often influences one’s religion, so by studying all of these interweaving elements of our society we hope to gather a truer picture of America’s diversity.

  • Tim J.

    First Things recently also had a bit to say about the lack of historical memory regarding the rise of religion in politics:

  • Rhampton

    It’s The Last Christian Generation according to Josh McDowell & George Barna. Teenagers are only mirroring adult attitudes, 96% of whom do not reflect the attitudes or actions of Jesus. We are not living the faith we profess. Involved parents are the answer.

  • c.tower

    Here’s where I get into trouble. The statistics may say there’s only a handful of atheists in America…but that’s only listing people who publically DECLARE themselves Atheist. I think there are a lot more people out there who will identify themselves as “Protestant”, or “Christian”…but, if you push them on the question, will admit that, although they were raised in that faith, they do not personally believe. Call it the religous equivilent of gays being “closeted”- and for the exact same reason. The idea that, if you don’t “believe”, you must be morally degenerate, has been used as a smear against atheists from day one… and not just by hard-core fanatics.

  • Jeff the Baptist

    I think a large part of the opposition to athiesm comes from their stance against civil expressions of religion. Athiesm has been trying to market itself as the safe compromise towards alienating minorities with public use of religion.

    The problem is that, in a country where 97% of people are religious, even watered-down generic religion almost always beats none at all.

  • Tom Breen

    Just as an aside, I wonder what a Nexis search would turn up for groups claiming bigotry against them is “the last acceptable prejudice.” I’ve heard Catholics, Muslims, Mormons, Scientologists, gays, Indians, Latinos, the trans-gendered, fat people, and now atheists all make this claim.

  • Markus

    Religous prejudice must be stopped at any cost.
    Slander lawsuits against those who keep equating atheism is immorality such as murder.

  • Jeff Sharlet

    of religious rhetoric and that of those who came before him, even presidents such as Lincoln, who wrote explicitly religious speeches. David Domke documents it in great detail through an analysis of 70 years of presidential speeches in his book God Willing. Here’s a summary he wrote for The Revealer:

  • Avram

    Tom, I’ve been wondering the same thing. Add lawyers and thin people to that list.

  • Jeff Sharlet

    oops. I see that the beginning of my comment got cut off. I said simply that there IS a measurable difference between Bush’s religious speech and … see above comment.

  • NW

    There are people with no religion, no spirituality, and in many cases no god belief that do not call themselves atheists. I wonder if this study includes people who go by names such as agnostic, freethinker, skeptic, humanist, etc. in order to avoid the prejudices associated with being known as an atheist. If so, then we could have a large number of atheists (people with no god belief) that are hiding in the closet under different names, and the 3% ratio would be off.

  • Mollie

    The article mentions that the 3 percent figure is for both atheists and agnostics while an additional 13 percent are unaffiliated and secularists.

  • Michael

    I find that the perception an agnostic or an atheist takes on is very self centered and almost obsessive individualism or “me”ism.

    In contempation of the ultimate question “who am I?” the atheist answers – I am a man who is seperate from That which you talk about. His entire identity is dependent on God or rather his seperation, opposition or philsophical relationship to God.

    However, in most people there is an evolution in consciousness as we get older. The answers to the question “who am I?” change and broaden over our lifetimes. No matter what one believes usually a trasformation takes place whereby the person will start to value the breath and depth of his /her fellow human beings more and more. This appreciation is a spiritual force that inspires and gives power to wiser more selfless pursuits. So, perhaps the atheist/ agnostic is not so much hated, but rather thought of as the local fool with the PhD.

    So, are there disconnects in spirit? Seemless spirit. The monitor you are working on and the keypad your typing on and the hands your using to type with are 99.9% empty space. There is no disconnect between the empty space in your fingers and the empty space on your keypad. If you are 99.9% empty space and there is no disconnect between you and all the empty space in the room, what is stopping your identity from becoming the whole room? Perhaps, ideology, conditioning or philosophy? But what is the Truth, the reality? Did Jesus ever really leave? Or is His “return” dependent on you waking up to the reality that He never left?

    Get Deeper Into Jesus.

  • Phil

    Michael… a correction for you.

    In contemplation of the ultimate question “Who am I?”, I, as an atheist, answer simply, “I am a man.” My definition of self has nothing to do with your God (or my hypothetical separation from Him), however much you wish it did.

    Look, atheism is such a meaningless categorization. All it says is “I don’t believe in god(s).” Nothing more than that. If you want ethics, philosophy, the ultimate meaning of life, the universe and everything, you have to go beyond atheism. And atheists do.

    Try on for size sometime, if you want to learn about those you seem to know so very little about.

  • Michael

    Indeed, you believe yourself to be a man. Thank you for validating my post.

    Hare Rama.

    Deepen Understanding and Love of Christ.

    Who are you?

  • Michael

    There is only one.

  • ZoZ

    Michael, make sure to wear a condom, as you get deeper into Him…

  • Michael

    ZoZ, are you implying, with your response, that your perception of my comments was viewed with a homosexual tinge?

    Why have you responded in such a manner? It is a very strange response to my post above I think – as most people don’t think of Christ in a sexual context – I know I certainly do not.

  • Joe

    Michael, I wholeheartedly agree with this statement:
    “in most people there is an evolution in consciousness as we get older. The answers to the question ‘who am I?’ change and broaden over our lifetimes. No matter what one believes usually a trasformation takes place whereby the person will start to value the breath and depth of his /her fellow human beings more and more.”

    However, I strongly disagree with this statement:
    “This appreciation is a spiritual force that inspires and gives power to wiser more selfless pursuits.”

    I disagree that the force is spiritual. I think that it is nothing more than growing up. I don’t need to believe in supernatural creatures like ghosts, angels, goblins, gods, leprechans, or devils to know that it is right to treat others fairly.

    3500 years ago, Confucius said to treat others the way you would like to be treated. I don’t need to see the virgin Mary on a tortilla to know that Confucius’ idea was a good one.

    Michael wrote: perhaps the atheist/ agnostic is … the local fool with the PhD.

    Matthew 5:22 …whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire.