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Atheists have become the ultimate scapegoats in our culture ... but the news isn't all bad!

Web Posted: March 25, 2006

A new study by the University of Minnesota Department of Sociology has found that Americans perceive Atheists as the group least likely to embrace common values and a shared vision of society.

   Worse yet, Atheists are identified as the cohort other Americans do not want to see their offspring marrying!

   These are just some of the result from a forthcoming article slated for publication in the American Sociological Review by Penny Edgell, Joseph Gerties and Douglas Hartmann. The research is part of the American Mosaic Project which monitors attitudes of the population in respect to minority groups. AANEWS obtained an advanced copy of the study that was based on a telephone survey of more than 2,000 households.

   Researchers concluded: "Americans rate atheists below Muslims, recent immigrants, gays and lesbians and other minority groups in 'sharing their vision of American society.' Atheists are also the minority group most Americans are least willing to allow their children to marry."

monthly special    Disturbingly, Atheists are "seen as a threat to the American way of life by a large portion of the American public," despite being only 3% of the U.S. population according to Dr. Edgell, associate sociology professor and the lead researcher in the project.

   Edgell said that Atheists "play the role that Catholics, Jews and communists have played in the past" in that we provide "a symbolic moral boundary to membership in American society."

   In addition, says the study, "The reaction to atheists has long been used as an index of political and social tolerance."

   The U. of M. team acknowledged that general levels of tolerance and acceptance have been on the rise. Indeed, they cited studies like the Gallup polling organization that indicated growing willingness by voters to support Catholic, Jewish, Gay and other candidates identified with groups once considered out of the mainstream. Atheists, however, linger at the very bottom of this list, although there has been limited progress in this category since the mid-to-late 1950s.

   Statistically, the picture is much the same regarding the perception of Atheists sharing a common vision with the rest of the American polity. When asked to identify the group that "does not at all agree with my vision of American society," 39.6% of respondents listed Atheists, well ahead of Muslims (26.3%); Homosexuals (22.6%); and Jews (7.6%). Conservative Christians drew a negative response from 13.5% of those surveyed, slightly ahead of recent immigrants at 12.5%.

   Other results found by the researchers illuminated the status of Atheists in respect to various groups.

    ¶       "Church attenders, conservative Protestants, and those reporting high religious saliency are less likely to approve of intermarriage with an atheist and more likely to say that atheists do not share their vision of American society..." In respect to the former, the survey presented respondents with the following statement: "I would disapprove if my child wanted to marry a member of this group."

   Once again, Atheists were at the apex of this negative-image cohort at 47.6%, followed by Muslims (33.5%); African Americans (27.2%); Asian Americans (18.5%); Hispanics (18.5%); Jews (11.8%); conservative Christians (6.9%) and Whites at 2.3%.

    ¶       "Attitudes toward atheists are related to social location," observed the team. "White Americans, males, and those with a college degree are somewhat more accepting of atheists than are nonwhite Americans, females, or those with less formal education."

   Respondents from the South and Midwest were less accepting of Atheists than those living on either coast. Curiously, this seems to reflect the political divide of "Red versus Blue" states from the last presidential election.

    ¶       Researchers also tried to discover any correlations between negative attitudes toward Atheists and similar views of homosexuals and Muslims. "None of these correlations is large," reported the researchers. "We believe this indicates that the boundary being draw vis-a-vis atheists is symbolic, a way of defining cultural membership in American life, and not the result of a simple irrational unwillingness to tolerate small out-groups."

    A significant finding of the new study is that despite growing acceptance and tolerance of different groups within the religious community, Atheists are viewed as outsiders, "others," who do not share a common community vision. "What matters for public acceptance of atheists -- and figures strongly into private acceptance as well -- are beliefs about the appropriate relationship between church and state and about religion's role in underpinning society's moral order, as measured by our item on whether society's standards of right and wrong should be based on God's laws." The study found that conservative Protestants especially rejected the "possibility of a secular basis for a good society." This, more than anything else, may be the driving factor placing Atheists outside the cultural mainstream in the minds of nearly a majority of Americans.

    The University of Minnesota study drew upon other research measuring the prevalence of explicit Atheism and nonbelief throughout American society. Fully 14% of Americans claim "no religious identity," and 7% told the General Social Survey that they do not believe in a God or are not sure.

   "Respondents had various interpretations of what atheists are like and what the label means," investigators found in discussions following the initial interviews. Perceptions fell into two categories.

   "Some people view atheists as problematic because they associate them with illegality, such as drug use and prostitution -- that is, with immoral people who threaten respectable community from the lower end of the social hierarchy." Presumably, this might be rooted in the claim that only religion can provide an authentic moral compass, and that without a deity (and the presumed punishment in an afterlife), people have little to lose by engaging in certain immoral, sinful behaviors.

   "Others saw atheists as rampant materialists and cultural elitists that threaten common values from above -- the ostentatiously wealthy who make a lifestyle out of consumption or the cultural elites who think they know better than everyone else." In both cases, atheists are perceived as "self interested individuals who are not concerned with a common good."

    ¶       The issue of elitism surfaces in the study findings, with respondents using the Atheist "as a symbolic figure to represent their fears about ... trends in American life." These included crime, rampant self-interest, and an "unaccountable elite."

   "The atheist is invoked rhetorically to discuss the links, or tensions, among religion, morality, civic responsibility and patriotism."

   As for elitism, Atheists appear to have replaced groups that in the past have been identified as constituting an over-influential clique subverting American values.

   The researchers note that in the public imagination, Atheists are linked "with a kind of unaccountable elitism," a phenomenon that has purportedly surfaced in public debates. Indeed, Charlotte Allen, author of the 2004 book "The Twilight of Atheism," expressed fears that Atheism "may yet be experiencing a new dawn: a terrifying new alliance of money and power, of a kind even Marx could not have foreseen."

    ¶       The debate over Atheists, Atheists and the issue of religion in civil society has been fueled by the terrorist attacks of 9/11. The Minnesota team devoted a section of their report to quotes from leading officials such as former Attorney General John Ashcroft, who in public statements invoked religion as a guarantor of freedom and human dignity. The 2004 presidential campaign witnessed similar rhetoric.

    The study underscored the role of Atheists as "symbolic" of angst permeating American culture. "Negative views about atheists are strong," noted the researchers, although "survey respondents were not, on the whole, referring to actual atheists they had encountered." Instead, the Atheist is a sort of boundary marker distinguishing members of a wider policy from "others," outsiders, those not sharing assumptions about morality and the role of religion. Religion is widely perceived as providing "habits of the heart," and a disposition which includes one in membership within a larger community. Americans "construct the atheist as the symbolic representation of one who rejects the basis for moral solidarity and cultural membership in American society altogether."

   Other groups have suffered a similar fate over the year, including "Catholics, Jews, and Communists." Today, say the researchers, the Atheist plays this role.

   There may be a crucial difference, however. "Our analysis shows that attitudes about atheists have not followed the same historical pattern as that for previously marginalized religious groups. It is possible that the increasing tolerance for religious diversity may have heightened awareness of religion itself as the basis for solidarity in American life and sharpened the boundary between believers and nonbelievers in our collective imagination."

    Finally, in all of this, there is a flicker of hope for Atheists. The Minnesota survey references an earlier Gallup Organization poll (listed as "Figure 1") measuring "Willingness to vote for Presidential candidates." Voter attitudes toward Catholics, Jews, African Americans, Atheists and Homosexuals were tabulated with displayed results from 1958 through 1999. Gallup conducted the survey as then-vice presidential candidate Joseph Lieberman was running on the Democratic Party ticket with Al Gore. Willingness to consider voting for a Jewish candidate had climbed from about 61% in 1958 to over 90% in 1999. There was similar progress for candidates of other religious or ethnic groups. Voters looked favorably on possible Mormon candidates (79%) as well as Roman Catholics and women.

   Atheists were at the bottom of the cohort, however. Gallup research indicated that "close to half of Americans, 48%, (were) unwilling to support an atheist for president while 49% say they would."

   The bad news may not be THAT bad, though. About 19% of respondents in 1958 expressed willingness to vote for a qualified Atheist candidate seeking public office. By 1978, that figure had climbed to 40%, rising approximately another 10% in the next 11 years. The only group making comparable dramatic headway in terms of public acceptance was African Americans. That cohort lingered below the 30% mark in 1958, but skyrocketed to over 90% in 1999.

   American Atheists President Ellen Johnson said that while Atheists are the "others" in the current cultural and political milieu, the figures demonstrate the need for this segment to become more engaged. "We need to keep speaking out, organizing, running for public office," said Johnson. "Some might see this as an omen to retreat; it's really a call for action."

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