Atheists Are America’s Most Distrusted Minority, Says Study
Americans’ increasing acceptance of religious diversity doesn’t extend to those who don’t believe in God at all, says a national study conducted by researchers at the University of Minnesota.
The study, which appears in the April issue of American Sociological Review, consisted of a telephone sampling of more than 2,000 households. University researchers found that Americans rate atheists below Muslims, recent immigrants, gays and lesbians and other minority groups when it comes to “sharing their vision of American society.”
Even though atheists are few in number and not formally organized, they are seen as a threat to the American way of life by a majority of the public, concludes the study.
“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 Dr. Penny Edgell, associate sociology professor and the study’s lead researcher.
Edgell also argues that today’s atheists play the same role that Catholics, Jews and communists have played in the past — offering a symbolic moral boundary to membership in American society.
“It seems most Americans believe diversity is fine, as long as everyone shares a common ‘core’ of values that make them trustworthy, and in America, that ‘core’ has historically been religious,” says Edgell.
The researchers also found that acceptance of atheists is related not only to personal religiousness, but also to exposure to diversity, education and political orientation. According to the study, atheists were more readily accepted among educated East and West Coast respondents than respondents in the Midwest and Plains states.
Edgell believes a fear of moral and social decline is behind the findings. “Americans believe they share more than rules and procedures with their fellow citizens — they share an understanding of right and wrong,” she says. “Our findings seem to rest on a view of atheists as self-interested individuals who are not concerned with the common good.”
University of Maryland student Sanjeev Gupta, who is an atheist, says the findings are not surprising. “There is no secret club for atheists since we don’t have the need for conformity in any shape or form,” says Gupta. “And most people have a problem with that.”
— Shilpa Banerji
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