People Really Don’t Like Atheists. Why?

By Ryan P. Burge, Eastern Illinois University

For the last few weeks I have been considering a pretty simple question: Why aren’t there more religious nones elected to the United States Congress? I previously concluded that atheists and agnostics are surprisingly cohesive political groups and therefore one cannot say that non-believers can’t get elected because they don’t have a unified political ideology. I also put together a roadmap on what it would take it to get more nones in the U.S. Capitol. Short answer: try to persuade Democrats who live in safe, urban, and very liberal districts.

But, I have been circling a bigger concern that colors this entire line of inquiry: people just flat out don’t like atheists. You’ve probably heard some of these statistics before, but they bear repeating. Seven states prohibit atheists from holding public office (unconstitutionally – these provisions are not enforced) and half of Americans would be upset if a member of their family married an atheist. But, one thing that these statistics fail to elucidate is why so many Americans seemed biased against religious nones. That’s what i want to tackle here, but first let’s make clear just where atheists stand in relation to other groups.

The 2012 American National Election Study asked respondents to place twenty two different groups on what social science calls a feeling thermometer scale. Those work very simply: zero is extremely cold toward a group, one hundred is very warm and a fifty represents a neutral opinion. I broke the sample up into three groups based on political partisanship and tried to label the groups with the color that they are most closely associated with (e.g., unions are Democratic blue, while the military is Republican red). Some groups are not associated with a political party (e.g., the Supreme Court) and I colored them purple.

A few quick findings of interest, before I discuss atheists. Note that working class people score consistently high across all their partisan groups, with the military following close behind. The middle class and Christians also land in the top five most popular groups. Some groups are clearly partisan. For instance, unions score a 61.5 among Democrats, but just 34.2 among Republicans. The Tea Party is favored by Republican by 30 points over the Democrats’ score. The more politicized a group, the more likely we are to see dramatic differences in their scores between the Republicans and Democrats.

If you were looking for atheists, your search should start at the bottom of the graph. For Democrats, atheists are the second lowest scoring group, for Independents they are third from the bottom, and for Republicans they scored a 29.8 – which is the same score that Democrats gave the Tea Party. The overall score for the entire sample was 38.4, which is 4 points lower than Congress and twelve points down from rich people. That’s a lot of disgust.

But why do atheists see such low levels of warmth? Well, obviously the picture is a complicated one because, as the above graph indicates, it’s not an issue that is confined to just religion or just politics. Instead, with the line blurring more and more between these two groups in the last few decades it’s becoming even more difficult to try and separate the two causal factors. I took a first cut at doing that below, showing the mean thermometer score for atheists broken down by several religious groups and then subdivided by political partisanship.

Clearly, both religion and politics are at play here. On the left side of the graph, we can see that evangelicals of both political parties generally dislike atheists, giving them scores below 30. As one moves toward the right something interesting happens – while the mean thermometer score goes up for Democrats, it rises much more slowly for Republicans. This is especially evident among mainline Protestants and Roman Catholics, where the partisan gap is approximately ten points. So, for these groups, it’s important to note that politics may be doing more of the work than religion. The far right group (the religious nones) is puzzling as well. Here the partisan gap is just as large (around 10 points). Consider this: the mean score for atheists among Republican nones is just 45 out of 100. There seems to be a lot of discrimination inside the nones camp, itself. It’s key to point out here that the nones are NOT just atheists, but also include people who identify as agnostic and nothing in particular, as well. These results indicate that these two types of nones do not see atheists as playing on the same team. Interesting, Republicans nones are more likely to believe that the Bible is the literal word of God than Democrat nones (13.2% vs 5%), so it’s fair to see that all nones aren’t the same.

Let me take a bit of a deeper dive into some possible demographic and religious factors that could influence a person’s view of the atheists. Below is a coefficient plotthat represents how various independent variables predict higher or lower feelings toward atheists. The visualization can be interpreted this way: if a horizontal line intersects with the dashed vertical line, the result is statistically insignificant. That is the case for Democrats and age (the very first dot at the top) because the value could actually be positive or negative, which means we can’t be sure of the impact of age on atheism scores among Democrats. However if there is no intersection and the point is to the right of zero, then it predicts higher thermometer scores, if it’s to the left that means lower thermometer scores.

What do we have then? Well, Republicans are unmoved by most factors. Note that for race, education, gender, and church attendance there is no significant relationship. However, Republicans who are biblical literalists have 12 point lower scores for atheists than Republicans who are not literalists, and the oldest Republican has a 25 point lower score than an 18 year old Republican.

Democrats have two factors that predict higher scores: being white and having greater levels of education. A Democrat with a graduate degree scores atheists 12 points higher than a similar Democrat without a high school diploma. For Democrats, two things drive down support: biblical literalism and church attendance. So, it seems that Democrats are pulled in both directions by a number of different factors. Note, however, that age is not statistically significant for Democrats. The actual regression output can be found here.

The age variable is something that I wanted to take an even closer look at, and the graph below displays the relationship between age and atheist thermometer scores for both Republicans and Democrats. On the left side of the graph we have young people and notice that there is not a statistically significant difference between how young Democrats and young Republicans score atheists, both are between 37 and 40. However as you move to the right hand side of the graph, things start to change. For Democrats the line is completely straight: meaning that an 80 year old Democrat will score atheists at the same thermometer level as an 18 year old after controlling for education, race, gender, and religion variables. The same is not true for Republicans, however. The results here indicate that an 80 year old Republican will score an atheist a dozen points lower than their younger Republican counterpart. While age plays a role, that impact is mediated through the lens of political partisanship.

I do wonder, though, if these effects might be diminishing as times goes on. Maybe what will happen is that older Republicans who are anti-atheist will die off and be replaced by a younger generation of Republicans who are much more tolerant of atheism. We know that as the nones continue to grow they will become harder to avoid in the population, and more children will be raised without a religious affiliation. If this happens it’s likely that the sharp downward slope of the Republican line will moderate somewhat. It’s difficult to predict the future, but maybe discrimination against atheism will just die out over the next few decades. However, this does explain, to some extent, why atheists have such a hard time getting elected: their thermometer scores are low among basically everyone – including Republicans who are atheists. Robert Bellah wrote that America has a civil religion that includes a number of principles that are oriented around a general belief in God. Until this civil religion fades, atheists will be facing an uphill battle.

Ryan P. Burge teaches at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Illinois. He can be contacted via Twitter or his personal website. The syntax for the post can be found in here.

2 comments

  1. I fess up, I am an atheist, but I am also from Blighty. It’s strange that in America, a country that I was taught in school, was a country that is supposed to be secular. Here in Britain, we have an unelected head of state, that also happens to be the head of the established church. Yet, here in the UK, the majority group when it comes to religion, is the atheists/agnostics/the nons. So your blog post, seems to highlight to me, that the USA is not as secular as I was originally taught, but then I kind of knew that. Great post though, thank you.

    Like

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