“…those are not at all to be tolerated who deny the being of a God. Promises, covenants, and oaths, which are the bonds of human society, can have no hold upon an atheist.”
So said John Locke in his otherwise commendable “Letter Concerning Toleration.” I’d have thought the intervening 300 years would have made Americans more trusting of people like me, but University of Minnesota sociology professor Penny Edgell finds there’s still a long way to go:
From a telephone sampling of more than 2,000 households, university researchers found that Americans rate atheists below Muslims, recent immigrants, gays and lesbians and other minority groups in “sharing their vision of American society.” Atheists are also the minority group most Americans are least willing to allow their children to marry.
Even though atheists are few in number, not formally organized and relatively hard to publicly identify, they are seen as a threat to the American way of life by a large portion of the American public. “Atheists, who account for about 3 percent of the U.S. population, offer a glaring exception to the rule of increasing social tolerance over the last 30 years,” says Penny Edgell, associate sociology professor and the study’s lead researcher.
Edgell also argues that today’s atheists play the role that Catholics, Jews and communists have played in the past—they offer a symbolic moral boundary to membership in American society. “It seems most Americans believe that diversity is fine, as long as every one shares a common ‘core’ of values that make them trustworthy—and in America, that ‘core’ has historically been religious,” says Edgell. Many of the study’s respondents associated atheism with an array of moral indiscretions ranging from criminal behavior to rampant materialism and cultural elitism.
Considering that the most disruptive atheist in recent memory is Michael Newdow, I’m surprised we currently rank below homosexuals and Muslims on the list of whom intolerant Americans see as part of a shared society. We’re unorganized and don’t wear our beliefs on our sleeves. We’re not pushing for changes to marriage institutions. (We can already marry your daughters, even if you don’t want us to. Nyaah, nyaah.) Radical sects of us don’t go blowing things up. Other than having a suspicious amount of free time on Sundays, we fit right in.
Then again, perhaps that’s the problem. Religious, racial, and sexual minorities have endured painful struggles to create public identities and gain acceptance. Atheists haven’t, and haven’t needed to. Like the communists in the 1950s, we could be anyone. The friend, the neighbor, the coworker. The person who always seemed so trustworthy till that Richard Dawkins book was spotted in his living room.
Respondents to the survey call atheists elitist and in one sense they are right. Academia and the sciences are wide open to us. Educated Americans on the coasts are more tolerant of atheism. Unless we’re running for public office, no ceiling blocks our ambitions. Unlike other minorities, we have the luxury of not caring what other people think. And so we don’t.
So maybe we ought to be speaking up more. I don’t mean by forming advocacy groups or adopting pretentious new words like “brights,” but by being forthright when people inquire about our religious beliefs. I’m as guilty as anyone of equivocating by saying I’m “not religious” when asked rather than matter of factly admitting to atheism. This polite ambiguity prevents some awkwardness, but keeps atheism outside the boundaries of what is publicly acceptable and, ultimately, shows a lack of respect for ourselves and the people we interact with. Enough of that. We’ve got catching up to do.
[Via Rogier van Bakel, who more succintly responds to the survey, "bite me."]
[Update 3/23/06: Evan at Coffee Grounds offers his experience as an atheist New Zealander introducing himself in Minnesota.]