Gene Expression

It’s good to be an atheist

I’ve received several emails about this study, Atheists identified as America’s most distrusted minority. This shouldn’t surprise too many people, but I think some perspective is in order. I think the results are probably accurate, but, I also think that the belief is wide but shallow.

I went to high school in an area that was about 75% Republican and half Mormon. One time during our American Government class the teacher, Mr. Nelson, was giving a talk about the First Amendment, and he stated that in the United States you could believe in any God you wanted to, or no God at all. This last assertion seemed to quiet the class, and some people asked what he meant, and he responded, “Well, you can be an atheist.” As it turned out, there were three atheists in the class, myself and two female friends of mine. We were chuckling in the corner, and Mr. Nelson knew our lack of beliefs and he smiled at us. Later, after class, he came up to me. He looked left and right, and whispered, “I go to church because my wife makes me, I don’t believe in Jesus or anything like that.” He smiled and walked off.

So there was some “in the closet” behavior, but the reality was that most people accepted my lack of belief for what it was. The survey above suggests that people distrust atheists more than they distrust homosexuals or Muslims, and I think such opinions are sincere, but they are opinions offered in a vacuum of facts or experience. Atheists are such a small and invisible minority in the United States, we only make it into the public eye via the occassional broadside from Richard Dawkins or the spectacle of Michael Newdow. We don’t exist as real human beings for most Americans. In contrast, gays have Will & Grace and Ellen and George W. Bush has been talking about how Islam is a religion of peace since a number of Muslims were instrumental in the killing of 3,000 Americans.

In my high school I would probably have been in some physical danger if I was an out of the closet homosexual. I wasn’t at all quiet as an atheist, and I think that suggests that the antipathy was not as deep against my lack of belief as it would have been against a non-heterosexual preference. If I walked around school with a skullcap and “traditional” Muslim dress I think I also would have been on the receiving end of more deep hostility than I was as a cheerful heathen who blended in. When it comes to homosexuality and Muslims people know what they should think and say. When it comes to atheists schemas kick in that are somewhat abstract and not particularly informed by reality, and so they offer you opinions about imagined evil-atheists who are godless communists or amoral Satan worshippers (some of my fundamentalist friends were genuinely surprised I wasn’t a communist who worshipped Satan).

Of course some atheists do feel persecuted, but I think often (though not always) this is a function of individual personality, and they are attributing their failings or problems interacting with other human beings to specific differences which are only shallow indicators. Perceptions of racial, religious or sexual discrimination often fall into the same category, unpleasant or socially inept individuals may often attribute their lack of success and acceptance to characteristics which others have an unfounded bias against, as opposed to being unfortunately endowed when it comes to social graces or competence. Atheists, being between 1-5% of the American population, are probably selection biased from a skewed segment of the population as a whole and so may often fit in in a strange fashion (we are likely to be male for example, and I think we are nonconformists by the nature of our beliefs being so deviant from the norm). There is probably confirmation bias when people see godless oddballs, and ignore the fact that people like the great hitter Ted Williams were atheists. Some people still perceive all atheists to be Leftists, when Ayn Rand was an atheist. Or consider, Michael Shermer, the agnostic editor of The Skeptic who is a libertarian.

So to all the godless out there, I say represent! This is the only life you have, or at least so we assume.


  1. #1 J-Dog
    March 23, 2006

    Ted Williams one of us! Very impressive dude! I still recall the essay by Stephen Gould that posited that no one will ever hit .400 again. Too bad Ted’s not around to beat Barry Bonds over the head for cheating. Oh well, if the cyroigenic thing works out, maybe we’ll see him hit again.

  2. #2 razib
    March 23, 2006

    williams was very scientific about hitting….

  3. #3 Lab Cat
    March 23, 2006

    Mostly male? Really. Another way I fail to fit with American stereotypes.

    When I first moved to the US, from Britain, when I met people for the first time, I kept being asked which church I went to. Perhaps it was just Cleveland Ohio, but one of my friends in Minnesota seemed to be very surprised when I made a joke about my irreligiousocity. In Britain, very few people go to church. I have decided that having a state religion is the best way to go. You let the state worry about the religion and you get on with your life.

    Despite growing up with religious indoctrination at school – they don’t even do that any more according to my niece and nephew – I grew up in a mixed irreligious household: Agnostic low Anglican Dad with an Atheist secular Jewish Mum, who taught in a local Catholic school and kept threatening to join them. I just say I’m confused. After all none of it really matter to me.

  4. #4 razib
    March 23, 2006

    lab cat, re: demographics, you can find some stuff here. 39% of individuals with “no religion” in the USA are female. the only groups lower are buddhists and muslims. so go figure.

  5. #5 Brian63
    March 23, 2006

    The most comprehensive list of celebrity atheists:

    The largest and most scholarly atheist website on the planet:

    Take care,


  6. #6 razib
    March 23, 2006

    i made 4 contributions to the celeb atheist list, FYI 🙂

  7. #7 Craig Pennington
    March 23, 2006

    In my experience, many theists simply think that the one or two atheists that they know personally aren’t really atheists. Especially if those atheists don’t fit into the Madalyn Murray O’Hair/Michael Newdow/Richard Dawkins preconception. I agree that we should represent, but the fact is that we will likely be put into the exception class if our self-professed atheism is accepted at all.

  8. #8 razib
    March 23, 2006

    but the fact is that we will likely be put into the exception class if our self-professed atheism is accepted at all.

    to get to 10 examples of “good atheist” you need to start at 1. my personal experience is that the cost is not necessarily prohibitive for you to be atheist #1. exceptions that built up eventually flip to become rules…ok, most ppl will still think atheists are satanic, etc., but, you can change the opinions of those you know at least in your particular case since the opinion is (IMO) wide but shallow. that’s a start.

  9. #9 Lab Cat
    March 23, 2006

    That survey was interesting. Thanks for the link.

    I’m not sure how you would differentiate between secular or humanist. Aren’t you automatically secular if you are an agnostic or an atheist? I need to think about this. Another day.

    Perhaps the reason we, atheists, aren’t recognized is because we aren’t threatened by other people’s religious beliefs? I don’t have the need to convert other people to state of “ungodliness”. So I don’t talk about it very much. It is like not drinking (alcohol) – why does it bother everyone else that I do not drink? So much so that people have tried to make me drink. Ditto god, I don’t believe, but why do people feel threatened by this?

    I do need to get home, I’m starting to warble. And see stars on my screen. Give me sugar…

  10. #10 Colin Purrington
    March 23, 2006

    I’d love to hear your views on the low proportion of atheists in prison…

  11. #11 razib
    March 23, 2006

    colin, there was the joke that the reason constantine accepted christianity was that it was the only religion that would forgive his sins 🙂

  12. #12 Boknekht
    March 23, 2006

    “low proportion of atheists in prison”

    First, people in prison are, by & large, low IQ & uneducated. Many are probably uneducable as well. Atheism is usually/probably the product of deep philosophical pondering in a logical manner, something beyond the average prisoner. You might very well find that low IQ coincides highly with god-belief.

  13. #13 Lab Cat
    March 23, 2006

    That Constantine converted on his death bed because the Christians would forgive his sins is accepted fact in York, England, the city where he became Emperor. I recall from my medieval history lessons that he chose the Roman church over the Celtic one as they offered him more forgiveness.

    There are a couple of churches in York named after Viking saints, who converted after raping and pilaging their way through the Yorkshire countryside. (I’m having problems with place names as it wasn’t York or Yorkshire, or England or Briton for that matter, when the Vikings were there.) St Olaf was my favourite. I named a cat after him. She was pretty destructive, until a car got its revenge. St Olave’s church is very nice too.

    Early Christianity was pretty bloody.

  14. #14 razib
    March 23, 2006

    That Constantine converted on his death bed because the Christians would forgive his sins is accepted fact in York, England, the city where he became Emperor.

    well, i was joking. my understanding is that it was common practice for many christians to accept a late baptism during this period. constantine wasn’t particular coherent, he presided over the nicene council but was baptised by an arian bishop. re: roman vs. celtic church, that wouldn’t apply to the early 4th century, there was no real celtic church (yes, some celts had converted, but not many). constantine didn’t choose, he dictated choices upon others (ie., he helped centralize the church and was a precipitator in the initiation of a council of the church to formalize and regularize doctrine appropriate for an incipient church universal for a universal empire).

  15. #15 Boknekht
    March 23, 2006

    “This is the only life you have, or at least so we assume”

    When i was younger, the same idea as expressed in your quote “or at least so we assume” would haunt me endlessly. I’d just ruminate. It still does occasionally.

    If there is an afterlife, i’m assuming i’d have my family with me, & the thought of an afterlife without my family isn’t at all a comforting thought. But this just makes the whole “afterlife idea” seem even more idiotic. Me, & my family, in an infinite/finite*afterlife*? Fiction! The idea’s just so completely absurd, yet it’s comforting, for obvious reasons. The reality that my life, & it’s purpose, is no more grand than that of a microbe is again hopelessly depressing to me. My ego’s worth nothing, & will one day terminate without a trace of ever having existed. But, with all the hopelessness & depressing reality weighing my shoulders, the belief in god/s or an afterlife is still not quite something i can rationally swallow.

  16. #16 Todd Crane
    March 23, 2006

    I don’t care what you call it (“opinions offered in a vacuum of facts and experience”) or how you rationalize it (“schemas…not particularly informed by reality”), negative stereotyping is negative stereotyping. Atheists must fight their own battle because, as the study suggests, we’re not going to get any help. Furthermore, I don’t believe for a second that atheists make up only 3% of the population. Atheists must declare themselves, but the stereotyping/discrimination keeps many in the closet which keeps our influence at a minimum which, like a feedback loop, keeps us at the bottom of the respect ladder.

  17. #17 outeast
    March 24, 2006

    This sounds so… weird. In the communities where I grew up (in England) the vast majority of people I met were ‘agnostic’ – in the fashionably vague ‘well, I don’t believe in God but you know, I think there’s some kind of, well, force‘ kind of way that denotes a generation that grew up watching Star Wars – or atheist. The idea of being in the closet about atheism (or about is seeming stange) is very peculiar.

    (Note: while those of around my own age tended to opt for the ‘agnostic’ tag, those of my parents’ generation used ‘C of E’. It generally seemed to mean much the same kind of thing – a sort of ‘misc.’ box.)

  18. #18 NuSapiens
    March 24, 2006

    Perhaps one problem with Western athiests is that nobody knows what they are all about. Religions and other “isms” are primarily political movements (even though individuals think of them in quasi-cosmological terms).

    Ideologies without a positive program don’t go so far. Just look at the US Democrats in the last election: being anti-Bush didn’t get them a president elected.

    By the same token, being a-theist is not enough. As King Charles said in The Libertine, at some point, you have to be *for* something. Atheists tend to emphasize science, which is a good start. They tend to emphasize individual liberty, which is a good thing. For some people, whether or not to go to church, or where to tell kids babies come from are among their biggest problems.

    But life isn’t so easy for *most* people in the world. Most people really do have to deal with things like social prejudices, ignorance, war, poverty, and general effects of human blindness. Individual’s don’t have the cognitive equipment to really understand other people en masse and in detail at the same time – so the image of “God” is a proxy for this. “God” in one sense, reflects the contradiction between the deep interdependence of humans and our individual ignorance/blindness of each other. Everybody *wants* to be useful to other people in the end. Why else would all those advocates of pure selfishness write books and want to be heard?

    Conversely, “faith in God” (who is always ascribed with *human* characteristics – God is an image of Man, in the end) is really about hope in other people to – evolve.

    And along these lines, until Western atheism comes up with a solution to these basic problems, it won’t catch on. So far, Communism and Confucianism are the only successful atheist ideologies.

  19. #19 CanuckRob
    March 24, 2006

    I must agree with Lab Cat and outeast, this is wierd. I live in Canada and a persons religon is no big deal. In fact I live in the so called bible belt where we have a lot of latge cuhres etc. but I still find about a third of the people I meet are atheists or agnostics and another third may be diests or thiests but don’t go to church. This intolerance of atheists (and gays and etc.) appears to be largely confined to America and Islamic countries. Actually I can understand it in the Islamic world but I thought America was founded on the concepts of equality, religous freedom and individual human rights (yeah, I know it took you a while longer than most contures to get rid of slavery but you did it)and cannot grasp why atheists are mistrusted and feared.

  20. #20 EbisuHunter
    March 24, 2006

    Once at the point of accepting that this life is the one shot, unless atheistic evangelism is taken on as a hobby, most are content to get on with living their life and letting the religious (political, and other issue fixated people) maintain their illusions and manias. It is far more profitable to focus on improving the quality and quantity of activities in your own life.

New comments have been disabled.