June 15, 2011

Why Do They Hate Atheists?

Why do atheists hate America?Poll after poll has revealed that atheists are the most distrusted minority in the United States. Why do so many (although certainly not all) American theists seem to despise us so much? Why are they less likely to vote for us than any other group? Why would they prefer for their son or daughter to marry a Muslim than an atheist? Why are atheists, as University of Minnesota sociologist Penny Edgell put it, "a glaring exception to the rule of increasing tolerance over the last 30 years?" That we are hated is quite clear; why we are hated is open for debate.

A Similar Question After 9/11

In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, a window opened for a brief time before the national media discourse became dominated with terms like "Islamofascism" and "Islamophobia." During this brief window of time, the American media had but one question: "Why do they hate us?"

HateIt was a valid question. We had just been attacked, and most Americans wanted answers. Why had this happened? Why did these Muslim extremists hate us?

Unfortunately, the window during which this question was entertained closed far too quickly. Our president at the time appeared to be satisfied with the nonsensical answer on which he attempted to sell us: "They hate us for our freedoms." But I suppose he couldn't very well encourage us to question the possible impact of our imperialistic foreign policy on how we were perceived.

I mention this to suggest that the process of exploring why American atheists are hated today not be rushed. There is unlikely to be one single factor that explains the entire phenomenon.

Reasons American Theists Hate Atheists

Here are some of the more common explanations I've heard and what I think of them:
  1. Atheists are viewed as immoral. While this is undeniably true, it really doesn't answer the question of why we are hated as much as it does shift the question to one of why we are mistakenly perceived as immoral. Moreover, I suspect that the main reason we are viewed as immoral is that we are hated.
  2. Our government has spent decades demonizing atheism by associating it with Communism. This one is also true. Once our leaders decided that they were threatened by Communism, they embarked on a massively successful propaganda campaign to turn the American people against Communists. Demonizing atheism was - and to some degree still is - an important part of that. Thus, one of the reasons many American theists hate atheists is that they continue to associate us with what they were taught to fear.
  3. Atheists may lead religious people to question their faith. I have long suspected that this may be one of the most important factors in maintaining hatred of atheists. Our very presence seems to make many religious believers (especially fundamentalist Christians) deeply uncomfortable, and I suspect this is because we are living reminders that they may be wrong.
  4. Atheists are perceived by many American Christians as trying to ruin tradition (i.e., the privileged status Christianity enjoys in the U.S.). I suspect this is another big one. We are often perceived as spoilers. If it was only a matter of us spoiling cherished traditions, the reaction might be one of annoyance. But it is manifest as hatred because "tradition" is really just a stand in for Christian privilege.

I'm sure I've missed some. Can you think of any that should be added to the list?

H/T to Austin Cline

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