May 15, 2008

America the Intolerant: Attitudes Toward Atheists Revealing

We Americans often pride ourselves in being a fairly tolerant bunch. However, the often cited University of Minnesota study of Americans' attitudes toward various religious groups casts serious doubt on the accuracy of our common self-perception. Even in 2008, being an atheist in America is no picnic. This should give every American cause to examine his or her own tolerance.

Equality gaps certainly remain, but most would agree that women and persons of color have made significant progress over the last few decades. Even the LGBT community has made great strides, much to the dismay of the Christian extremists among us. And yet, the picture is far less positive for American atheists.

Writing in The Tahoe Daily Tribune, Damian Sowers reports on the American Mosaic Project, which used telephone surveys of over 2,000 Americans to study attitudes toward religion. According to the authors, their study showed that "Americans draw symbolic boundaries that clearly and sharply exclude atheists in both private and public life." Moreover, "From a list of groups that also includes Muslims, recent immigrants, and homosexuals, Americans name atheists as those least likely to share their vision of American society."

If, as the authors suggest, public attitudes toward atheists can be used as an indicator of socio-political tolerance, the results of the study are unfortunate. While tolerance for various religions appears to have increased over the past 40 years, no such trend was observed for atheists. According to researcher Penny Edgell, "it is possible that the increasing tolerance for religious diversity may have heightened awareness of religion itself as a basis for solidarity in American life and sharpened the boundary between believers and nonbelievers in our collective imagination."

Sowers, himself an atheist, writes:
The very fact that atheists are distrusted by the masses is not very surprising, but I never fully recognized how feared and hated we truly are. For instance, the authors found that rejection of atheists is even higher than anti-Muslim sentiment in the post-9/11 era, and "Americans construct the atheist as the symbolic representation of one who rejects the basis for moral solidarity and cultural membership in American society altogether."
Sowers argues that continued prejudice against atheists in America is most likely attributable to the presumed link between religion and morality. I agree completely. To the degree that atheism is construed as synonymous with immorality (or even evil), atheists will be feared and despised. Sowers is also correct to point out that the erroneous but popular efforts to link science and secularism with the Holocaust simply strengthen anti-atheist bigotry. This is why it is important to discuss Expelled.
So what does this study tell us about the underlying nature of American culture? Equality is supposed to be a staple of the modern era, but it seems that American prejudices don't ever diminish; instead, they merely drift from one marginalized clique to another, following the capricious tides of mob-sanctioned intolerance. As of now, slandering atheists has not yet been labeled politically incorrect, and many people, including priests and rabbis, have taken full advantage of this impunity.
We atheists have a clear stake in helping to define anti-atheist bigotry as an unacceptable form of intolerance. To date, our organization and our outrage have been insufficient to make much progress toward this goal. It is up to us now. Are we serious about pursuing equality?

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