The encouraging trend is that Americans are increasingly tolerant toward atheists and the expression of atheist perspectives in public discourse. But the bigger picture must include a recognition that this greater tolerance does not translate into proportionately greater respect for atheist arguments or for atheists themselves. Atheists still lag far behind all comparable groups in gaining meaningful acceptance of their expressed views let alone meaningful acceptance as persons of good moral character.
In a 2006 study from the University of Minnesota, Edgell, Gerteis, and Hartmann examined the “Moral Boundaries and Cultural Membership in American Society.” Their conclusion opens with the following summation:
“The core point of this article can be stated concisely. Atheists are at the top of the list of groups that Americans find problematic in both public and private life, and the gap between acceptance of atheists and acceptance of other racial and religious minorities is large and persistent. It is striking that the rejection of atheists is so much more common than rejection of other stigmatized groups.”
In support of this stark conclusion, their study found that 38.6% of respondents agreed that “atheism does not at all agree with my vision of American society.” This is dramatically worse than the next least accepted minority, Muslims at 26.3%. The study also found that while “only” 33.5% of Americans would disapprove if their child married a Muslim, a whopping 47.6% of Americans would disapprove if their child married an atheist.
Even more disturbing is the prognosis for the long-term. A Hemant poll found that 52% of millennials would be uncomfortable with an Atheist President. The same poll found that 61% of millennials would be comfortable with an Evangelical President. This is a disturbingly low level of acceptance given the far greater strides by homosexuals and other groups within this particular demographic. These statistics reflect the strong persistence of anti-atheist sentiments.
So, while tolerance for atheist views and for atheists personally is improving, acceptance is still abysmally low. According to Farkas and co-authors in their book “For Goodness Sake: Why So Many Want Religion to Play a Greater Role in American Life:”
“widespread political rejection of atheists and others who profess no religion provides a “glaring exception” to the general rule of increasing social tolerance over the last thirty years of the twentieth century.”
These studies look at the big picture, the end result. But we must probe deeper and ask, what are the low-level attitudes and interpersonal dynamics at work here that drive these statistics? Although there are many factors at work, one of the most basic drivers must be the widespread but erroneous comparison between atheism and agnosticism. Here is what one blog-commenter posted about atheists:
“I consider agnostics to be the most rational minded people. Open minded enough to question religious ideology, while leaving the concept of a higher intelligence as an unanswered unknown. Atheists, on the other hand, tend to be angry, cynical and rude. They believe themselves to be correct and everyone else deluded or gullible. This is an arrogant position to take – and one that scientists should never take – as science always moves on.”
This person very concisely and insightfully summarized the view of perhaps the vast majority of persuadable Americans regarding Atheism. These views likely form much of the basis for the statistics we observe regarding the acceptance of atheists and atheist views. But it also contains invalid assumptions and fallacious or unreasonable arguments that must be addressed.
Firstly is the emotional perception that atheists tend to be angry, cynical, and rude. Even allowing that some Atheists may in fact be as angry, cynical, and rude as anyone, this is extremely overstated. Portraying those that must fight for rights and recognition as “angry” is a tactic that has been selectively applied to homosexuals, African-Americans, and women as well. Even less credible is the charge of cynicism. This is the last thing that could apply to most science-oriented Atheists who fight for real solutions to solve real problems. And as to rudeness, attacking or even questioning unfounded beliefs is always portrayed as rude and out-of-bounds no matter how delicate and sensitive one tries to be.
Next is this notion that Atheists think everyone else is deluded or gullible. Scientists of any faith are also commonly viewed as arrogant and “thinking they have all the answers.” But that’s true of everyone who believes in their beliefs. Believers of any faith largely think that everyone outside their faith is deluded or gullible. At least in the case of Atheists and scientists, we strive to base our conclusions on logic, reason, and evidence.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, is this popular view that Agnosticism is somehow a more logical and defensible position than Atheism. But it is not close-minded to eliminate impossible theories. Nor is it open-minded to withhold judgment of every possible assertion that has not been explicitly proven to be untrue. Indeed, if scientists or anyone else were to remain “agnostic” regarding every unproveable idea, they could never reach any conclusion about anything. For scientists, “open-mindedness” does not mean remaining agnostic to everything, but being willing to accept new evidence about anything.
Agnosticism, in science or non-scientific matters, is not the hallmark of a good scientist let alone a good thinker. The benefit of doubt need only be extended to plausible hypotheses. A good scientist does not need to remain “agnostic” with regard to any totally unfounded theory including a belief in gods or other supernatural forces. Agnosticism regarding such implausible beliefs is not open-minded, is not rational, and only undermines sound scientific inquiry. It is a symptom of intellectual timidity, not a measure of intellectual integrity. A good scientist has to be willing to let go of even deeply held theories that are unsupported and defer to the evidence or lack thereof in all things.
All of these negative views regarding atheism and atheists are widespread, and are likely to persist for the foreseeable future. As long as they do, we atheists will continue to struggle to gain not only tolerance, but more importantly acceptance. Even though the Vatican advised deferring to science on scientific matters, we are very far from the day where our society applies this advice to the fundamental religious beliefs that infuse and drive much of our important secular decision-making.