Survey: Discrimination, depression bedevil American nonbelievers

Survey: Discrimination, depression bedevil American nonbelievers May 8, 2020

The American Atheists (AA) organization on May 5 released a comprehensive report, “Reality Check: Being Nonreligious in America,” based on its groundbreaking U.S. Secular Survey — and this respondent’s quote below starkly illustrates why the survey was conducted in the first place.

“I was nervous about filling out this survey because I’m afraid the information can be used to out me. I know this is an irrational fear, but the religious pressures are so strong around me that I have to constantly watch what I say and do so that I can maintain my current quality of life and support my family,” the unidentified man said, according to AA’s survey report.

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Undated, unlocated photo of an American Ku Klux Klan gathering with a burning Christian cross in background. (Greg Goebel, Flikr, Public Domain)

AA’s abiding concerns about widespread fear-mongering and discrimination against nonreligious Americans, including atheists and agnostics, never comprehensively investigated in formal studies, were strongly confirmed by the results of the U.S. Secular Survey.

Anticipating up to 10,000 nonreligious Americans would participate in the study conducted by a research team from Strength in Numbers Consulting Group, AA was surprised when 34,000 respondents ultimately took part. AA reported that the survey is “the largest data collection project on secular Americans and their experiences.”

More than half (57.1 percent) of respondents “most strongly identified as atheists,” the report notes, and the overwhelming majority (94.8 percent) identified as atheists at least to a certain extent.

“At 75 million people, religiously unaffiliated Americans are as large a demographic as either Evangelical Christians or Catholics, and explicitly nonreligious people comprise a growing share of the population, yet before the U.S. Secular Survey there had been a lack of focused research on our community,” said Alison Gill, AA’s Vice President for Legal and Policy, who helped lead the project. “What we found shocked us. Discrimination and stigma against nonreligious Americans is widespread and extremely harmful.”

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Graphic from American Atheist study shows (in dark purple) the states with the most religious communities. They are mostly clustered in the Deep South. (American Atheists/U.S. Secular Survey)

Data shows that more than half (54 percent) of nonreligious Americans — specifically because of their unbelief — experienced negative repercussions from family members. A third of them (29.4 percent) were similarly affected in educational environments and more than one in five (21.7 percent) at work.

These negative consequences caused secretive behavior among nonreligious people. Nearly a third (31.4 percent) of survey respondents “mostly or always concealed their religious identity from members of their own families, and about half (44.3 percent) did the same with co-workers and managers, and 42.8 percent with fellow students and staff at school.

More worrisome, the survey revealed that those who had endured familial blowback for their irreligious beliefs suffered a 73.3 percent higher rate of “likely depression” than fellow nonbelievers whose families were accepting. Survey data shows that one in six respondents (17.2 percent) are “likely to be depressed” at any given time, and about a quarter (25.6 percent) “often experience one or more indicators of loneliness and social isolation.”

Anti-atheism bias radiates outward from families and circles of friends throughout American society, with certain faith-heavy communities exhibiting their own collective prejudices against nonbelievers.

“This report shows that the more religious the community, the more likely nonreligious people are to face discrimination and stigma,” Gill said in the “Reality Check” report. “Nonreligious Americans living in very religious communities, concentrated in rural areas and the South, are particularly at risk.”

A Secular Survey map shows states with the nation’s most religious communities in deep purple — and they spotlight a dark swathe across the Deep South (Oklahoma, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky, West Virginia, Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina (excluding Texas and Florida), plus the Western states of Christian Right-stronghold Idaho and Mormon Utah.

A quote in the report by an unnamed Texas woman explained a common reality some nonreligious rural Americans.

“In the small city I am from, religion is a way of life, and anyone who comes along who doesn’t toe the line is scary, and when people fear you unjustly, they can justify doing horrible things to you. It’s scary to be an atheist in a small town.”

Survey leaders emphasized that nonreligious people continue to be “an important, but too often invisible segment of American society,” as they have been since the nation’s founding. “Reality Check” is the first report on the survey on its new data set, directors said, intended to give an overview of what the survey uncovered about irreligious Americans and to illustrate regional and community differences.

One bright spot: the survey found that a significant number of nonreligious Americans (22.1 percent) participated in Secular Movement organizations and activities, and especially secular parents expressed interest in providing more nonreligious resources for secularists with children.

Another promising possibility, though it was becoming evident before the survey, is the potential for the Secular Movement to develop exponentially expanding political clout in society.

In an article released with the “Reality Check” report — it’s titled “Tell Lawmakers: We’re Here, We’re Atheist, and We Demand Representation!” — AA asserts that “lawmakers can no longer ignore our community.”

The article notes that religiously unaffiliated people comprise nearly 25 percent of the electorate (a group larger than Catholics or any Protestant sect), and “explicitly nonreligious” people make up a growing share of the overall population. This represents potential major political influence.

“Moreover, the report shows that 94.7% of the [survey] participants were registered to vote, and 86.5% always or nearly always vote, which is a significantly higher voting rate than the general population.”

Still, nonreligious Americans have their political work cut out for them. Two in five citizens (40 percent) still say they wouldn’t vote for an atheist candidate for president. And nearly half of Americans (42 percent) still believe that “it is necessary to believe in God to be moral and have good values.”

To which, nonbelievers say, “Nonsense.” But we heathens don’t have to convince ourselves.

This survey provides a lot of reasons we need to be a lot more energetic — and effective — in convincing others that nonbelievers can’t fly unaided … or on broomsticks.

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