By Frank Stabile
There is no doubt religion has a powerful grip on American politics and society. Nearly every high-level politician is ostensibly a member of some religious organization. The President ends every speech with the words “God bless America,” and the official motto of the United States has been “In God We Trust” since 1956. The prevalence of religion in American life makes it easy to forget that many people do not subscribe to any faith. In fact, atheism is the most rapidly growing group in America.
Despite this increase, atheists have a surprisingly poor reputation. In this article, I describe some recent data on religion and public opinion and consider the implications for atheism in America.
Before I begin, let me be clear about my views. I am an atheist and an anti-theist, which are two distinct categories. As an atheist, I do not believe in any god. As an anti-theist, I am opposed to the influence of religion in society, particularly the monotheistic faiths that predominate in America. It is important that I spell out my position here because it colors this discussion.
First, the good news: atheism appears to be on the rise in the United States. In 2012, the Gallup International Association (GIA) repeated a series of polls it conducted in 2005 and published the results in a report called the Global Index of Religion and Atheism. In interviews, the GIA asked participants if they were a religious person, not a religious person or a convinced atheist. Between 2005 and 2012, the number of Americans who identified as religious dropped from 73 percent to 60 percent and the number that identified as convinced atheists rose from 1 percent to 5 percent.
Although the United States still ranked as one of the most religious countries in the world, it experienced one of the largest drops in religiosity. As the number of nonbelievers increases, my hope is that atheists can garner political strength and a better reputation.
And (if you will allow the phrase) God knows atheists need a better reputation. Gallup, Inc., conducted a telephone poll in 2012, asking participants if they would vote for a qualified presidential candidate who happened to fall into one of several different categories. For most groups, the numbers were strongly positive, over 90 percent yes. The bottom three groups were homosexuals at 68 percent, Muslims at 58 percent and atheists at 54 percent. A little more than half of the participants would consider voting for an atheist candidate. Thankfully, this number has been continually increasing (from 18 percent in 1958), but it is still dishearteningly low and makes one wonder why an atheist candidate is so unappealing.
In 2011, researchers from the Universities of British Columbia and Oregon examined this issue in a paper titled “Do You Believe in Atheists? Distrust is Central to Anti-Atheist Prejudice.” As the title says, the main reason behind atheism’s sour reputation is distrust. This conclusion is best illustrated in the second part of the study, involving a scenario in which a man gives false insurance information after a car accident and then steals the money from a wallet he finds on the street. Participants were split into four groups and asked if it was more likely that this man was a teacher or a teacher and something else. Each group was given a different second category: Christian, Muslim, rapist or atheist. In each of the first two groups, less than 20 percent of participants chose Christian or Muslim. In each of the last two groups, around 40 to 50 percent of participants chose rapist or atheist. No significant difference occurred between the number that chose rapist and those that chose atheist.
This seems to indicate that, in the eyes of the participants, the moral compasses of a rapist and an atheist are comparable. If atheists do as well as rapists when it comes to trust, then it is fair to say that atheists have an image problem.
Obviously, data like these are discouraging for a grumpy atheist such as myself. Nonetheless, I am optimistic about the future of atheism in America. As the number of atheists grows, their influence will also increase. Simultaneously, people will begin to realize that their distrust is unfounded. If more people are open about their atheism, others will see that atheists have been lurking around them all along without causing harm. For these reasons, I encourage atheists interested in a secular society to be vocal about their ideas. After all, being a heathen is not so bad — we have one less meeting during the weekend.