Why Is It Socially Acceptable to Hate Atheists?

In the United States, maligning atheists is widely accepted. Studies have shown that many Americans consider atheists to be immoral and untrustworthy. This secularphobia seems to come down to the flawed, yet persistent, idea that "religion is good, non-religion is bad."

Back in 2011, a study involving both Americans and Canadians showed that participants distrusted atheists as much as they distrusted rapists. In 2014, Pew Research Center found that 53 percent of Americans were unlikely to vote for an atheist.

Last summer, a Pew Research study again made headlines when it included a question about whether respondents would be upset if an immediate family member married an atheist or a born-again Christian. Overall, only 9 percent said they would be unhappy with a born-again in-law, while a whopping 49 percent would not want to be related to an atheist.

Marriage to an Atheist Upsetting to Most Conservatives These numbers are discouraging, yet there has been some slow progress when it comes to the acceptance of atheists. While 53 percent of Americans were unlikely to vote for an atheist in 2014, that number has come down from the 63 percent who would not vote for an atheist 2007.

Still, it is clear that atheists have an image problem in the United States. A 2014 article in Psychology Today explored The Secular Life, attempting to explain why Americans hate atheists. They cited four basic reasons:
  1. Americans equate atheism with immorality
  2. Americans equate atheism with being un-American
  3. There is no social stigma associated with not liking atheists
  4. Atheism brings up feelings of insecurity in those who are religious 
Most of this boils down to an underlying point: Americans don't understand atheists.

Atheists are defined by stereotypes and by what they are not. Yet, atheists are not the mirror opposite of those who believe in god(s). Atheists are simply people who do not see evidence for a supernatural deity. All of their other life philosophies, their morality, their interests and their viewpoints are as varied as they are in any religious individual.

But let's go back to that third reason. There is a general stigma associated with insulting people based on their race, gender, age or sexual orientation. It is not politically correct to use derogatory terms for anyone who fits into these groups, yet very few people bat an eye at using offensive language about atheists.

Take the word godless. On the surface, this word simply means "without a god." It could be used interchangeably with the word atheist. Yet it also has a secondary definition of being wicked or profane. This should be unacceptable. It is offensive to atheists to equate godlessness with immoral or wicked behavior.

Yet people often use the phrase "godless act" to describe horrific events such as the Boston Marathon bombing or the murders at Sandy Hook Elementary. (Despite the fact that neither the Tsarnaev brothers nor Adam Lanza were atheists.)

On the flip side, the word Christian has a secondary definition of being "decent or generous." These are traits which certainly belong to some followers of Jesus, but not all of them. Furthermore, there are plenty of decent and generous people who follow other religions or none at all.

If attitudes are going to improve toward atheists, we must continue to work toward breaking down negative stereotypes and speaking out against discrimination in our society.

We can do this by openly identifying as atheists so others can see examples of non-believers who are decent and generous people. Yet, this can be a difficult thing to do when coming out as an atheist may mean being ostracized by friends or family members.


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