Are Atheists Worse Than Rapists?

Polls find that godless Americans are (still) wildly unpopular.


"We're here! We're godless! Get used to it!" chanted the crowd of about 20,000 atheists at the March 24 Rally for Reason in Washington, D.C. As the chant suggests, the protesters styled their National Mall event (which was not affiliated with reason magazine in any way) as a "coming out" party for atheists. One participant even carried a sign ripped off from the heyday of gay rights demonstrations: "Hi Mom. I'm an Atheist!"

The rally was advertised as the largest ever gathering of atheists, agnostics, freethinkers, and other assorted faithless. The relatively young crowd was treated to talks, rants, and routines by such luminaries as biologist Richard Dawkins, American Atheists President David Silverman, professional skeptics Michael Shermer and James Randi, myth buster Adam Savage, profane musician Tim Minchin, and (via video) comedian-magician Penn Jillette. Off to the side was a small collection of Christian counterprotesters, including members of the notorious Westboro Baptist Church, who assured the nonbelievers that Christianity's loving God would consign them all to everlasting fiery damnation unless they changed their wicked ways.

But it is not just Westboro Baptists who dislike atheists. Polls show most Americans are uneasy (to say the least) about unbelievers. In a June 2011 Pew Research poll, 33 percent of respondents said they would be less likely to vote for a candidate who was gay. For atheist candidates, that number jumped to 61 percent. A Gallup Poll the same month found that only 49 percent of voters would back a "well qualified" presidential candidate who was an atheist. The next lowest vote percentage went to a gay candidate, for whom 67 percent would consider voting. 

The good news for atheists is that the trends are moving in the right direction. In a 1958 Gallup poll, only 18 percent of respondents said they'd vote for an atheist. But a side-by-side comparison of polling data finds that tolerance for theological deviance is evolving more slowly than acceptance of what used to be called sexual deviance. In a 1977 Harris poll, 55 percent of respondents thought gays should not be allowed to be teachers, but 80 percent said they could work in factories; now 69 percent of Americans say it's OK for them to be teachers, and a 2007 survey found that 89 percent believe gays should have equal job opportunities. Atheists are not doing nearly as well in gaining acceptance. A study reported in the December 2011 Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that only 33 percent of respondents would hire atheists as day care workers, but 65 percent would hire them as waitresses. 

(Article continues below video.)

It's no wonder that atheists poll so badly; according to the same survey, religious folks believe the godless are about as trustworthy as rapists. "While atheists may see their disbelief as a private matter on a metaphysical issue," explained University of British Columbia psychologist Ara Norenzayan, one of the researchers, "believers may consider atheists' absence of belief as a public threat to cooperation and honesty." A study published in the April 2006 American Sociological Review found that 48 percent of Americans would disapprove if their children married an atheist, the highest disapproval rating of any named group.

Distrust of atheists has a long intellectual pedigree. Athenian philosopher Socrates was convicted for, among other crimes, preaching atheism (which he artfully denied). Eighteenth-century British philosopher John Locke is thought to have jump-started the notion of the separation of church and state in A Letter Concerning Toleration. But even Locke believed that atheists were beyond the pale. "Promises, covenants, and oaths, which are the bonds of human society, can have no hold upon an atheist," he wrote. In addition, Locke asserted, "Those that by their atheism undermine and destroy all religion, can have no pretense of religion whereupon to challenge the privilege of a toleration." In other words, only believers have the standing to demand that their beliefs be tolerated by the state.

"God and government are a dangerous mix," warned Freedom from Religion Foundation Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor at the Rally for Reason. Believers especially would do well to keep this fact in mind. Locke's proposal for the separation of church and state was an idea devised to prevent the legal domination of one sect over other dissenting sects. As Locke well appreciated, mixing government and God has proven to be a sure recipe for civil strife and often war. The government should be secular, reserving civil society as the noncoercive arena for religious practice and contention.

Unfortunately, some politicians, including this season's flock of would-be Republican presidential candidates, want to inject more God into government. Their loud professions of faith may be provoking a backlash among voters. A March poll by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found that the percentage of Americans who say that there is too much public expression of religious faith by politicians has risen from 12 percent in 2001 to 38 percent today. Sadly, 30 percent still think there is too little faith mongering by politicians. Still, 54 percent now say churches should keep out of politics, whereas only 40 percent think they should express views on social and political questions. Back in 1996, 54 percent thought churches should meddle in politics and only 43 percent wanted them to butt out. 

In its March 12 issue, Time magazine listed "The Rise of the Nones" as one of the biggest trends in the United States. It turns out that the fastest-growing religious group in the U.S. is Americans who list their religious affiliation as "none." A 2007 survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found that 16 percent of Americans are unaffiliated with any religious group; about half of them could be described as secular unaffiliated. Twenty-five percent of Americans ages 18 to 29 are unaffiliated with any particular religion. If this trend toward nonbelief continues, it's going to be harder and harder for believers to continue to practice bigotry against atheists. Nonbelievers are their children, their relatives, friends, neighbors, and co-workers. Hi Mom!

Science Correspondent Ronald Bailey is the author of Liberation Biology (Prometheus).