I’m male. I’m white. I’m straight. I’m wealthy. Would you guess that I’m a member of the most-despised group in the United States? Apparently, it’s true. A study from the University of Minnesota has found that atheists are America’s most mistrusted minority.

From the press release:

American’s increasing acceptance of religious diversity doesn’t extend to those who don’t believe in a god, according to a national survey by researchers in the University of Minnesota’s department of sociology.

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 three 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 believes a fear of moral decline and resulting social disorder is behind the findings. “Americans believe they share more than rules and procedures with their fellow citizens—they share an understanding of right and wrong,” she said. “Our findings seem to rest on a view of atheists as self-interested individuals who are not concerned with the common good.”

The researchers also found acceptance or rejection of atheists is related not only to personal religiosity, but also to one’s exposure to diversity, education and political orientation—with more educated, East and West Coast Americans more accepting of atheists than their Midwestern counterparts.

A long (and frequently pointless) discussion of the study can be found in this Metafilter thread.

My response? A deep, resigned sigh.

Why is it that people equate atheism with evil? Why do they believe atheists cannot possibly have morals, that they’re unable to differentiate between right and wrong, that they are purely selfish and unable to consider the greater good? Is this based purely on fear and speculation? I find it unlikely that it could possibly be based on actual observational evidence; every atheist I know (and have known) is deeply concerned with the greater good, and is always striving to perfect a personal moral code. What about the atheists you know? Are they evil? Or are they just like everybody else?

I don’t condemn others for adhering to religious faith. Though I’m disappointed with religion as a whole, most of the religious people I know are wonderful people, and I do not begrudge them their choice in beliefs. Why should they begrudge me mine?

I come from a strong religious background, and understand what it means to believe, what it means to have faith. I understand how a person can derive their values, their morality, their code from an outside authority. But you know what? My belief system now is remarkably similar to the belief system I had as a child and young adult. A god is not required to have a sense of right and wrong.

People are people, regardless of color, class, or creed. We spend far too much time worried about how other people think and feel and behave, and not enough time worried about how to improve ourselves.

12 Replies to “People Are People”

  1. Courtney says:

    Amen, brother!

  2. Colleen says:

    Beautifully written, JD. Couldn’t agree more.


  3. Josh says:

    “Atheists, who account for about three percent of the U.S. population, offer a glaring exception to the rule of increasing social tolerance over the last 30 years”

    This just fries me. I would posit, based on my admittedly anecdotal but wide-ranging experience, that atheists have actually been a positive factor in increasing social tolerance. The atheists and agnostics that I know — myself included — are among the most broadly tolerant people you will ever meet. I have no patience for folks of any religion or creed who are reaping the benefits of the climate of tolerance that folks like me help to create, who then turn around and flatly refuse to offer us the same consideration.

    As to issues of ethics and morality, I refer the interested reader to Michael Shermer’s The Science of Good and Evil, which is a fascinating treatise on the evolution of moral and ethical systems.

    Atheists do not act out of expectation of heavenly reward, nor fear of divine retribution. The moral among us (for there are immoral and amoral atheists, just as there are immoral and amoral people who are nominally members of the various religions) try to do right for its own sake. We are the purest example of the golden rule, in that we treat others as we wish to be treated solely because of the moral rightness and the overall positive result of such an action, not because of any higher authority enjoining us to do so.

    Ultimately, morality derives not from authority — divine or otherwise — but from empathy and compassion. You’ll find that those who are compassionate act morally, regardless of the source of their compassion, and those without compassion feel no moral qualms acting in a way which is sure to harm others, regardless of their religiosity or lack thereof.

    I make no personal claim to be more or less moral or ethical than any other person of any creed…or none. But I expect — and demand — to be judged on the basis of my actions and their consequences, not on the basis of the beliefs from which said actions might stem.

    The late, great Douglas Adams is said to have proclaimed himself a “radical atheist.” When questioned about this rather extreme statement, he admitted that he only used the word “radical” to dissuade people who would invariably ask, “Don’t you mean agnostic?” No, he didn’t. Neither do I.

  4. Mom says:

    I admit that I haven’t known that many avowed atheists in my life, but I do know you quite well, J.D., and I know that you live a principled and ethical life. Your example has helped me to realize that it’s not just avowedly-religious people who do so (and I am aware that there are religious people who do not do so).

    I saw the results of a thought-provoking study on TV quite a few years ago, where the subjects were both religious and non-religious. The conclusions were that religious people weren’t any better than the non-religious people; they just thought they were. Steve recommended taking these results with a grain of salt and I do think perhaps they were a bit harsh (besides, I am a bit skeptical any more about “studies”).

    Perhaps because of these things, I tend to chafe very strongly at judgmentalism. I try to be accepting of all people and I will leave judgment to God. I believe He has a greater understanding of what goes to make us up as individuals than any human will ever have, and that there will be some very surprised religious folks on Judgment Day.

  5. Tiffany says:

    Yet another thing that you are I have in common.

  6. Bill Brown says:

    This is news? I can’t say that I’ve ever met a fundie who heard I was an atheist and didn’t immediately give me a look of “May God have mercy on your soul.” (Okay, maybe the part about being below Muslims was a little surprising.)

  7. John says:

    Living in one of the most conservative areas of the country as I do (southwest Missouri, where the Assemblies Of God Baptist Church has its headquarters), I repeatedly dumbfound people with my non-belief. To them, it’s like a fish saying that it doesn’t believe in water because Christian religion is such a huge part everyday life here.

    As a guess, I’d say that about two-thirds of the people are left speechless by my lack of faith. The remaining folks are equally divided between trying to “save me for my own good” and accepting me anyway.

    One priceless moment: my Jewish ex-wife opening a wedding present – a lovely serving platter with a “MERRY CHRISTMAS” theme. I thought she was going to choke on surpressed laughter! 🙂

  8. kristi says:

    I did not respond to this post when I read it for two reasons: 1. I do not possess the ability to articulate thoughts in a grandly profound manner and 2. I was hoping others would speak on my behalf. I would imagine you have readers of all faiths and backgrounds who read your posts, but for the most part (save “mom”), only those who align with your thoughts added to this conversation.

    The generalizations spoken of in the post and comments do not reflect the reality that I know as a follower of Jesus. I (or my peers) don’t hate atheists; I don’t judge atheists; and I certainly do not equate atheists with immorality, by any means. Am I sad for what I know you to be missing out on? Definitely. Can I be friends with an atheist, free from paranoia? I can – I can’t speak for the other.

    This is not the format for me to attempt to pursuade anyone to great change. I believe a relationship needs to be in place for that. But I would love for those who do not actively (or remotely) live their life in reponse to Jesus to give the rest of us a break as well. No matter our belief system, we each want to be heard and understood as the unique, creative individuals that we are.

  9. B says:

    Why is it always about what atheists don’t believe?

    To be fair any other group of people defined similarly wouldn’t poll well. Dinosaur disbelievers, anti-government zealots, paranoid anti-medicine weirdos.

  10. Mr. Viddy says:

    Amen brother, I’m glad you said it because I was thinking it but would not have been as eloquent and concise as you were. It is alarming that most people do not see the similarities here, even though most of us have first hand experience with this subject. It can be difficult exposing people to the truth of the matter but I think you have done an outstanding job in bringing people of various backgrounds together.

    The cohesiveness of your arguments are what impressed me the most. Good job!

  11. Jim Osmer says:

    as an atheist, I have been called evil many times. my wife has had to explain why she married a heathen.
    I have found that morality and faith are two entirely independent qualities.

  12. jenefer says:

    Where did you get despised? I went to the article you sited and found no mention of despised. I also don’t know who wrote the “headline” because there was also no mention in the blurb from the article about mistrust. I believe the headline called it distrust. Is it the same? No Christian would despise someone else. A person who says they are a Christian but doesn’t work real hard at being a Christian might fall prey to temptation and lack of education and mistrust anyone who is different from themselves. This seems to be a rather common human failing, not specific to any group, religious or otherwise.

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