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.