Are American Atheists Less Sociable Than Religious Believers?

Sociable Lapwing (Vanellus gregarius)
Sociable Lapwing (Vanellus gregarius) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What is it about atheists that makes us so difficult to organize? Sure, it might be that atheism does not give us enough common ground to come together around anything in particular. But I also wonder if sociability might have something to do with it? When we hear atheist after atheist say "I'm not a joiner," it becomes hard not to consider the possibility that atheists might be somewhat less social, on average, than religious believers.

Read the following statements and take a moment to consider the degree to which each applies to you (ranging from "not at all" to "a lot like me").

  1. I am more comfortable being alone than most people I know.
  2. I do not need a large circle of friends to be happy.
  3. I prefer smaller gatherings to large parties or social events.

I just made these questions up off the top of my head, but their content is similar to many psychological tests of sociability. We're not going to learn much of anything with only three questions, but imagine that there were several more along these lines, and you get the idea of how we might measure sociability in a survey.

My hunch, based on little more than my personal experience and interactions with other atheists, is that the average atheist would score a bit lower on such a measure than the average Christian in the United States. That is, if we administered a valid measure of sociability to 100 atheists and 100 Christians, I would expect that the average score from the atheists would be somewhat lower than the average score from the Christians. Note that this in no way implies that some atheists would not score higher than many Christians or that some Christians would not score lower than many atheists.

Who cares? Well, I think that answering questions like this might have some interesting implications. Assume I'm right and American atheists tend to score lower on sociability. What might that mean? Do less sociable people tend to gravitate toward atheism, or is there something about the experience of living as an atheist in a country that clearly favors religiosity that leads people to become less sociable? We wouldn't know this simply by finding a group difference, but we'd probably be more motivated to pursue such questions. Findings from such studies might also inform efforts at organizing atheists.

My guess is that atheists in the U.S. may be somewhat less sociable because they have had so many negative experiences with the religious majority. I think it would be very difficult not to let these negative experiences shape our attitudes toward people in general. I mean, if one is used to be treated poorly by most of the people one encounters, reduced sociability seems like a reasonable coping mechanism.

Portions of this post were originally published in 2009, and the post was revised and expanded in 2020.