Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Atheists in America: the new pariahs

The US blog Secular Left refers to a recent poll indicating 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."
Atheists are viewed as outsiders, "others," who do not share a common community vision. "What matters for public acceptance of atheists -- and figures strongly into private acceptance as well -- are beliefs about the appropriate relationship between church and state and about religion's role in underpinning society's moral order, as measured by our item on whether society's standards of right and wrong should be based on God's laws." The study found that conservative Protestants especially rejected the "possibility of a secular basis for a good society." This, more than anything else, may be the driving factor placing Atheists outside the cultural mainstream in the minds of nearly a majority of Americans.
Some dislike atheists because they associate atheism with illegality and immorality--according to the fallacy that people will see no reason to behave ethically if they don't believe in God. Others view atheists as "cultural elites who think they know better than everyone else."This, I gather, stems from the popular association of atheism with the natural sciences or with the possession of a certain level of education--not exactly an asset in these increasingly anti-intellectual times.

Leaving aside the mind-boggling proposition that most Americans are willing to dictate to their children who they can and cannot marry, I wonder--being an atheist myself--if the low esteem in which atheists are held in the US is replicated to the same degree in Australia. I also wonder if this antipathy towards atheism bespeaks something deeper than the reasons offered above. A lingering doubt, perhaps, about one's own religious convictions that the atheist is able to prick more easily than any other theist or believer--simply by virtue of the fact that the atheist's very existence negates one's belief in God in a way that a follower of a different theistic religion never could.

They hate us, in other words, because they take our atheism personally.