The Social Cost of Atheism

The results of an online survey published in the latest issue of Skeptic Magazine show that atheists in America fear paying a high social price in coming out as a non-believer. “The Stigma of Being an Atheist: An Empirical Study on the New Atheist Movement and its Consequences,” written by Tom Arcaro, was based on the results of 8,200 people who identify as atheists or non-believers in God.

The survey, “Coming Out as an Atheist,” was posted live on the Atheist Nexus Web site for four months from September to December 2008. Respondents were asked various questions such as “In general, how stigmatized do you feel atheists are in your culture?” and “Do you feel that there would be any social repercussions if people in your [workplace/family/local community] found out the you were an atheist?”

By a wide margin, atheists in the U.S. were more likely to feel a sense of stigma, highest among those living in the south. For instance, 57 percent of U.S. respondents said they felt they would suffer at least minor social repercussions in the workplace if they came out as an atheist, compared to only 35 percent of respondents in Canada, 24 percent of Australians, 15 percent of residents of United Kingdom, and 12 percent of Western Europeans.

More than two-thirds of Americans said they would suffer stigma in their community and 61 percent said they would suffer stigma from their family.

When broken down in by region in the U.S., those who live in Southern states of Oklahoma, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, South Carolina and Tennessee (and North Dakota) reported the highest fear of social stigma. States such as California, Washington, New York, and New England states reported the least.

(Unfortunately, the article is not available online.)

I can’t say I’m really all that surprised at the results. If anyone needs anecdotal confirmation, remember NFL linebacker Pat Tillman, who walked away from his successful football career to join the Army after Sept. 11 and was killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan?

Remember how the Army and the government treated his family for trying to get to the truth of his death rather than accept the official false war hero narrative spun by the Bush administration?

In an interview with ESPN.com, Lt. Col. Ralph Kauzlarich, who led the second investigation into Tillman’s death, said the reason for the family’s dogged pursuit of the truth of his death was because they didn’t believe in God.

“When you die, I mean, there is supposedly a better life, right? Well, if you are an atheist and you don’t believe in anything, if you die, what is there to go to? Nothing. You are worm dirt. So for their son to die for nothing, and now he is no more—that is pretty hard to get your head around that. So I don’t know how an atheist thinks. I can only imagine that that would be pretty tough.”

Actually, that’s not only insulting to atheists. It’s insulting to all people of faith. By that logic, Christian parents are just hunky dory with their children dying for nothing?

By the way, I couldn’t resist, what does Conservapedia have to say about Tillman being an atheist? Simply, it was impossible for him to have been one (even though Tillman wrote in his journal, “I’m an atheist”) because he cared about people and his country and he had strong moral convictions and atheists only care about one thing, “the daily fight to remove God from their lives and the lives of others.”

(You must read the entire entry. It’s a hoot.)

By the way, the survey addressed this notion about morality. Respondents were also asked to provide an example of a social situation where they experienced stigma for being an atheist. A typical answer was being told that they can not be good people without belief in God. I’ve always found this idea absurd, as if people can’t love and care for others and make ethical decisions without an instruction manual.

Additionally, one of the most interesting differences among American atheists and those in other countries was in response to the question, “How often did you attend religious services when you were growing up?” Only 33 percent of Western European respondents reported going to church several times a month; 52 percent of Canadians; 43 percent of British and 45 percent of Australians.

For Americans, however, the number was 64 percent. So for almost 2/3 of American non-believers, religion was once a regular part of their lives. I’m not sure what to make of that. Perhaps readers have some thoughts?

laurilebo@gmail.com'

Lauri Lebo is the author of The Devil in Dover: Dogma v. Darwin in Small-Town America, a book about the 2005 First Amendment trial of Kitzmiller v. Dover in which intelligent design was ruled creationism.