Need Research Help: Atheists as Outsiders January 20, 2010

Need Research Help: Atheists as Outsiders

Hey friends, Mike Clawson here again. Once more I feel like I should apologize for being such an infrequent contributor here. Graduate school keeps getting in the way of doing any extra writing. Speaking of that, however, I would like to ask for your assistance on a research paper I’m doing for a class called “The Outsiders: Alternative Religious Traditions in America.” The class has been about non-mainstream religious (e.g. Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, New Age groups, etc.) and their experiences as “outsiders” to America’s dominant civil society and religious culture. For the final paper I’ve convinced my professor that, while not strictly a “religious” group, atheists are still an “outsider” group that is often discriminated against in our society, and thus would be a worthwhile topic for study in this regards. I’m hoping that if I do a good enough job, he will include more substantial focus on the marginalization of atheists when he teaches the course in the future, thereby helping my fellow seminarians become more sensitive to these sorts of problems.

That’s where you guys come in. If you don’t mind, I’d like to ask y’all some questions in hopes of using your responses as some of my primary research material. First off, here is the assignment:

Pick one particular “outsider” group – Christian, non-Christian or indeterminate. Pick, with it, one particular expression of the tensions between outsiders and insiders. It could be for Muslims, the issue of wearing head scarves in school, or for Sikhs, carrying the necessary dagger, or for Jews, observing holidays. It could be the issue of language – when does a Syrian church decide that sermons must be done in English rather than in Arabic. It may be the issue of Christian Science healing. (You will notice, I am sure, how many of these issues become issues of law.) Introduce the group and the issue, discuss various aspects of the issue and how the group has adjusted, and how the larger society has adjusted.

So, with that in mind, here are my questions. BTW, please note that these are for research, not debate purposes, so I’m really looking for serious, thoughtful responses here, not snarky or combative ones. I mean, feel free to be snarky or combative if you like, it just won’t be all that useful to me. Thanks. 🙂

1. How would you define and especially describe contemporary atheism in America? Are there different types of atheists (e.g. freethinkers, skeptics, humanists, non-theists, anti-theists, etc.), and if so, how would you delineate between them. (Please keep in mind that I’m looking for something a little more nuanced here than just the bare-bones definition of “lack of belief in God.” I’m looking at the atheist community more through a sociological lens than a strictly philosophical one.)

2. Have you yourself ever felt like an “outsider” (in whatever context) because of your atheist views? Have you ever been the target of discrimination because of your atheism? Please describe your experiences.

3. What would you say are some of the key issues that lead to atheists being marginalized or discriminated against in our society? Are there particular practices (or lack thereof) that frequently lead to tensions between atheists and the broader society?

4. What are things that religious people do (whether deliberately or inadvertently) that contributes to your feelings of being an “outsider”?

5. Is discrimination against atheists a regional phenomenon in your experiences? For instance, are there certain parts of the country where it would be more normal or accepted to be an atheist (New York City? Boston? San Francisco?) than others (the Bible Belt?), or where you might even feel like the mainstream majority?

6. For those who live in places where discrimination against atheists is more common, what have you done to adapt or adjust? For instance, have you ever tried to hide your atheism? What happens when you “come out” (or are “outed”) in these settings? If you don’t hide your atheism, how do you navigate relationships or situations where tensions might arise over it?

Please answer any of the questions above that you are able/interested in, though I am most especially in need of responses to questions 2, 3, and 6. And thanks again for your help. Hopefully this won’t just be beneficial for me, but will spark a stimulating conversation here as well.


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  • Matthias

    2. In a family setting, I’m the only person in our family I know who is an atheist. One time during a dinner discussion with some extended family, we all decided that creationism was bogus and false theology, but “atheism is taking it too far.” Everyone heartily agreed, except myself. Coming out as an atheist to each individual family member feels like such a gamble to me that I’ve only revealed myself to 2, maybe 3.

  • bt

    I don’t want to be picked on.

  • Meg

    1. Absolutely. Just going off the examples you’ve given, I’d put humanists and free-thinkers in one category; they seem to me less focused on the godless aspect of atheism and more so on the reason and logic bit. I’d also put anti-theists (and the “New” Atheists?) in another group, because they seem to be more focused on pulling civilization out of religion and are more vocal about their godlessness. I’d put skeptics and non-theists together in a group somewhere between the other two, as they seem to be the likely intermediate.

    2. I’d been agnostic for several years and finally decided that I was in fact atheist within the last year or so; I’ve not personally been the target of discrimination, though there was an incident on a plane when someone saw me reading Dawkins and proceeded to cross themselves, but that’s so passive I don’t think it should count as discrimination. I attend a fairly liberal university, so I haven’t really experienced outsider-ness either.

    3. This may be a big “duh” but I find that people discriminate based on what they hear/are taught rather than what they experience. Because the majority of people are religious, and are taught that disbelief in God is immoral they automatically assume we’re terrible people. Tensions arise almost at the mere mention of atheism. I’ve heard several stories of vandalism and slander targeted towards things like the Atheist Bus Campaign, which says nothing bad about theists at all.

    4. Personally, it’s mainly little things like saying something like “I’ll pray for you/your family” etc. I know it’s silly but it makes me feel pretty awkward. My mother was very sick last summer, and when I told an acquaintance about it she said that she would pray for her. I know she meant well so I was thankful for the thought, but I couldn’t help thinking to myself how useless it was.

    5. I grew up in the pacific northwest but go to school in the upper midwest. I haven’t been “out” for long (a year or so) but so far it seems like it’s about the same in both places. I’ll be spending spring break in South Carolina, though, and if the trip last year was any indication I’ll definitely keep my godlessness to myself. I don’t think there’s anywhere I’ve been where atheists are the majority.

    6. Like I said, I haven’t been overtly discriminated against, but I also don’t go around shouting that I’m an atheist. The most I’ve got is a couple small posters from the Out Campaign etc on my dorm room door, and no one has made any negative comments about them (to my face anyways).

    Sorry for the linear format of my reply, but I hope it’s clear enough and gives you the info you want. Good luck with your project 🙂

  • 1. Just as there are a wide variety of religious people, there are a wide variety of atheist people. While atheism does tend to cluster based on other factors, such as education or IQ, there are generally the same categories of person- there are liberal atheists, conservative atheists, extremely passionate atheists, casual atheists, and many other groups. Atheism is but one characteristic among many.

    3. I think the main reason that atheists are discriminated against is a combination of misinformation and an “us vs. them” attitude. For most people, the good, god-fearing citizens are the in-group, and those soulless, evil atheists are the out-group, so atheists fall into the same category as commies, terrorists, etc.

    4. When people explicitly say “GOD bless you” when you sneeze, it may just be habit, but it is a consistent reminder that you are different, an outsider. (And an outsider with a cold, at that.)

  • 1. How would you define and especially describe contemporary atheism in America? Are there different types of atheists (e.g. freethinkers, skeptics, humanists, non-theists, anti-theists, etc.), and if so, how would you delineate between them. (Please keep in mind that I’m looking for something a little more nuanced here than just the bare-bones definition of “lack of belief in God.” I’m looking at the atheist community more through a sociological lens than a strictly philosophical one.)

    I think there are definitely some differences between atheists. Some are more apathetic than othes, some are more scientific than others, etc.

    2. Have you yourself ever felt like an “outsider” (in whatever context) because of your atheist views? Have you ever been the target of discrimination because of your atheism? Please describe your experiences.

    I’ve definitely felt like an outsider, and still do. I’m the only atheist in my family, and I feel like I have to keep it quiet from other family members. I also feel like I’ll be looked down upon when I go in for interviews, so I never put that I was an officer in a non-theist organization. I just live in one of the areas where it’s good to be super religious, and those who aren’t religious must not be good people.

    3. What would you say are some of the key issues that lead to atheists being marginalized or discriminated against in our society? Are there particular practices (or lack thereof) that frequently lead to tensions between atheists and the broader society?

    I think people think atheists complain too much and are just mean and hate God. Besides, we’ve been painted as evil people, and people just believe that.

    People also like to take things personally, so when an atheist says something against religion, people think it’s about them personally.

    4. What are things that religious people do (whether deliberately or inadvertently) that contributes to your feelings of being an “outsider”?

    When they talk to me about religion like I’m a religious person. There’s so few non-Christians in my area that I’m sure the thought doesn’t cross their mind that I may be something other than a Christian.

    5. Is discrimination against atheists a regional phenomenon in your experiences? For instance, are there certain parts of the country where it would be more normal or accepted to be an atheist (New York City? Boston? San Francisco?) than others (the Bible Belt?), or where you might even feel like the mainstream majority?

    I think it has the potential to happen anywhere, but it seems that most of it happens in conservative areas.

    6. For those who live in places where discrimination against atheists is more common, what have you done to adapt or adjust? For instance, have you ever tried to hide your atheism? What happens when you “come out” (or are “outed”) in these settings? If you don’t hide your atheism, how do you navigate relationships or situations where tensions might arise over it?

    I just hide it, and those who do know I’m an atheist are people I trust not to out me. I was in a situation where someone almost outed me to a room full of Catholics talking about their religion, but before he could, I switched to a different topic and later told him to not talk about my views with other people. He was understanding. He just didn’t realize that I wasn’t that open about it.

  • aubyn

    2. Growing up in Manhattan and then attending a small private college in northern Florida, in the bible belt, I have constantly found myself feeling like an outsider. When I first came here, many of my peers (age 20-22) said that I was the first atheist that they had met or the the first atheist who seemed “normal”. They had heard of atheists but had not been associated closely with them for whatever reason. Many asked questions about it and were surprised to find that I am equally as focused on morals and values as they are. I found myself being ostracized or criticized because of my being atheist, even though I never “declared” it at any point. But within only a few months of moving here, I found myself frequently being asked what church I attended or which section of Christianity I adhered to. My answer undoubtedly caused shock. Some people were flat out discriminatory, and asked me not to discuss is any further after I said I was an atheist. They didn’t want to know anything more about it- or me. I also found that my peers frequently told eachother that I was an atheist, as an interesting topic of discussion. But really, there was no discussion to be had. They thought it was weird, and sad, and that I was lost, and they made that very clear to me even if they didn’t say it directly (of course, some did say it directly).

  • DemetriusOfPharos

    Interesting topic. Hope this helps.

    1. Richard Dawkins said it best when he compared contemporary atheism to herding cats (in The God Delusion, I think). We tend to be highly intelligent and very independent, thus choosing a banner that pleases everyone is unlikely. Going from your list (and this is off the cuff, gut reaction stuff.):

    Freethinkers: Tend to not like “atheist” because it identifies them on religious terms (same with Naturalist, according to Julia Sweeny)
    Skeptics: Easy, not all skeptics are atheists, and not all atheists are skeptics. Skeptics question the evidence regardless of how much of it there is, some atheists believe in anti-vax, new-age, and other goofiness.
    Humanists: same deal as above, the humanist movement is concerned with quality of life stuff, you don’t have to be atheist to qualify.
    non-theists: Silly distortion of language, same meaning as atheist but perhaps there is to much baggage associated with the term, so they use a slight variation.
    anti-theist: this variation would be the type who is actively against religion existing in any form, whereas others variations are more concerned with letting people choose their personal beliefs

    2. I live in Salt Lake City, have my whole life. I often feel like I have to censor myself because of other peoples reactions to the topic of religion. This was more evident in social circles before I starting actively seeking out other atheists, I never felt like I fully belonged. In terms of discrimination, well, I could probably never prove it in court, but my first programming job had a team full of non-believers of one sort or another, including my direct superior – new direct superior comes along who is more religious and about a year later, all those people are gone (5 in total, 2 gay, one of the gays became trans-sexual, 3 quit, 2 were laid off under what I consider mysterious circumstances. The trans-sexual was randomly laid off despite being the only person left who had certain expertise, I was let go because I constantly questioned my superior openly and in emails). In terms of family, the people I care about didn’t seem at all surprised – they aren’t atheist, but they weren’t surprised I was and don’t treat me differently because of it – and the rest of the family I had stopped caring about long before I self-identified as atheist.

    3. I’d say the biggest one is the perception some religious people have that lack of belief equals lack of morality or ethics, and in some cases its because we are “missing” something, we aren’t smart enough to “get it”, whatever. Case in point, a pastor showed up at the regular coffee chats here, was totally caught off guard by our discussions not only in terms of just how in depth we could discuss the bible, but philosophy and all manner of other things. In summary, its society’s perception of atheism that marginalizes us.

    4. That false humility they all seem to share. Somehow, because I don’t hide my amazement at how incredibly unlikely it is that we are here (speaking of the evolution idea.) This is something I experience as a programmer, so I will use that as a metaphor. As a programmer, I’m pretty good, not great but confident and competent. Coworkers see that I am confident and hardly ever have to say something like “wow, that major bug is because I missed X, dang”, and they thinks its ego because they have to say it (or a variation) more often then I do. Same thing in general terms: I happen to be fairly smart, and confident in most cases. I don’t often have to admit when I am wrong and it bothers people, they think its ego. Trouble is, I’m rarely wrong because I am careful about what I say, I’ve read a lot, and I don’t tend to just spout whatever nonsense I think of. (For what its worth, I don’t have a problem admitting to being wrong, I enjoy being wrong because I learn from it.)

    5. Well, I haven’t traveled outside of Utah much but I have noticed that in downtown SLC its much less likely that someone is going to be surprised by it then it would have been in other areas of Utah. I don’t have the exact percentages, but in downtown SLC Mormons are less than 50% while “nones” are the second biggest demographic. However, in the more rural areas, its probably closer to 90% Mormon. So, it does tend to be regional here.

    6. I’ve simply chosen to not associate with people who would discriminate whenever possible (for any reason, not just religion) so you could say I’ve adapted. In a job setting, I just tend to keep my mouth shut unless I know the people fairly well.

  • I want to give these questions some thought. I’ll make a video response tomorrow & put it up on my YT channel 🙂

  • Trace

    1. I would place Humanist in one end of the spectrum and Anti-Theists on the other. But this is just me.

    2. Absolutely, because of our family’s lifestyle (secular homeschoolers) we tend to interact quite a bit with religious homeschoolers. In that context I feel very much like an outsider. I have learned to live with it though, but I know that if I made my views known to some I (and son by default) would be ostricized to one degreee or another by others.

    In other contexts is not too bad, plus I speak with an accent 😉 so people are (quite often) more “forgiving” if I do not see things like they do.

    3. Ignorance and political oportunism (sp?)

    4. Assume that you are theist (particulary Catholic because of ethnicity).

    5. I have moved quite a bit in my life and I find the following:

    Western Europe: it is quite easy to be openly non religious, either in the city or in the country. There is quite a clear correlation politics/ligious views: a)conservative/religious and b)liberal/non-religous.

    US: Rural vs urban (suburban, it depends, can be quite conservative).

    I currently live in rural NY. Quite religious and VERY conservative.

    I found that whenever I have lived in a college community (it did not matter where: Midwest, East or West Coast/ urban or rural) it was very easy to be openly non-religious. Once you leave those enclaves it depends on the social economic and ethnic composition of the community you live in.

    6. See 2 above. Normally I don’t wear my atheims in my sleeve. You learn to identify “red flags” quite fast, have standard answers ready and veer the conversation towards neutral arenas fast. It works most of the time. If this doesn’t work and I tell people that my wife’s family(Anglo) are Methodist and they leave us alone. It is tecchnically true and if they want to asume that is up to them.

    I hope this helps you with your paper and that you can make sense of my broken sentences 😉 (just woke up).

  • Lindsey

    1. There are different types of atheists, some are more outspoken then others, some are very agressive, some are passiv etc. just like with any ideology. Some people don’t believe in God, but don’t want to identify as and atheist because of the stigma the term has gotten.

    2. I always feel like and outsider, I live in SLC, Utah, and the majority of my friends are LDS and religion takes up a very large percentage of their conversations. I never really feel like I can be myself and share my opinions because I’m afraid they’ll become upset and ditch me (or try harder to convert me).

    3. One issue that leads to marginalization is the monopoly christianity has on religious criticism. Hardly anyone has any complaints when christians lash out against non-belief, but when an atheist tries to express their beleifs they are called anti-christian and bigoted (Golden Compass movie controversy). Christians are allowed to criticize atheists, but when an atheist criticizes a christian an uproar is made.
    There is also the perception thats atheists are angry cynics, or that they don’t have morals.

    4. Alot of people, when they find out I am an atheist, try to tell me that I am just angry and confused, and that I will be happier when I find God. And then just every day things, like saying God Bless You when I sneeze, or saying they will pray for me. I never know how to respond.

    5. I haven’t ever been directly discriminated against, but I do think that acceptance of atheism can be regional. While its not truly accepted anywhere that I know of, places that are more liberal tend to be more open to atheists and conservative places are more hostile (kind of llike being gay).

    6. I’ve never been discriminated against for being atheist, but I’m not open about it, so I don’t really know if I would be or not. But why risk it?

  • Theophania

    1. Atheism simply refers to the lack of belief in a god or gods. It makes no comment whatsoever on what a person actually DOES believe. There are many different types of atheists. I would define freethinkers and skeptics as those who require a scientific standard of evidence in order to accept a claim. A non-theist could also refer to a so called “weak atheist”, meaning someone who simply does not believe in a god or gods, whereas a strong atheist believes there is specifically no god. The distinction is that the weak atheist does not see enough evidence to accept the claim, whereas the strong atheist sees evidence to directly contradict the claim. I would consider atheists with an altruistic moral code to be humanists. I would consider those with a strong opposition to religion to be anti-theists.

    2. I did feel like an outsider when I first realized that I was an atheist, because I did not know any other atheists, and I did not realize there was as much of a movement and a history as there is. The more I have learned, however, the less I have felt like an outsider. The internet, especially, has really helped me feel like I am part of a community. I have also found and joined a local group, thanks to the internet. Most importantly, though, I am in a relationship with a fellow atheist, and it has been the most meaningful and rewarding romantic relationship of my life.

    3. I think the most obvious reason that atheists are marginalized is that we are such a small minority. I think tensions arise when atheists question belief systems that believers are heavily invested in.

    4. There are several things that believers do that make me feel like an outsider. One is to dismiss my lack of belief. After nearly 10 years I still get the, “You’re just confused.” or “You just don’t want to have to answer to a higher power.” Basically, I feel like an outsider when my worldview is so alien to another person that they cannot even consider the fact that I’m being sincere. I also feel like an outsider when issues of church-state separation come up, and a believer cannot even understand why anyone would have an issue of it. I was a believer once, so I know what it’s like to be on that side of it. But I’ve yet to meet a true believer who can imagine why I believe the way I do.

    5. I live in Oklahoma, the “buckle” of the Bible belt, some say. Honestly, most people I come across here don’t even know what an atheist is. I would think that discrimination here would be especially bad, but I haven’t come across it much personally. This could be be due to the fact that I’ve always lived in urban areas, specifically those around colleges.

    6. As I said before, I’ve never had any direct confrontations, but I have prepared myself for it. I am out to anyone who cares to know. I tend not to bring it up with most of my family, but I don’t hide it either. I was hesitant to add my grandmother to facebook, what with all the atheist-related links I post, but I finally decided not to censor myself, and if she asks, I’ll be honest. I have many gay family members, and the rest of the family is very tolerant, so I figure that would show me the same courtesy, and thus far they have. Now I have had a couple of co-workers “de-friend” me on facebook, yet continue to be friendly to me at work, and I figure this is due to my atheism. As these were never close relationships, however, I really don’t care much, so long as we can cooperate at work. As I said, I’ve prepared myself for discrimination.

  • Deltabob

    1. There are a wide variety of atheists, because unlike religious groups, there is not a single set of tenets or practices that bind us together. Many atheists belong to atheist organizations, and I think that those groups are scarce enough that many people may join simply for the chance to meet new people without a fear of how to or when to address that they are atheists, rather than joining because the group focuses on a particular ‘flavor’ of atheism.

    2. When I have attended wedding or funeral services for believers, I have felt uncomfortable; almost like an impostor or even a hypocrite for attending religious services, even though I understand that I don’t have to accept those beliefs to celebrate or pay my respects.

    In terms of feeling like an outsider or experiencing discrimination, I find it difficult to isolate specific incidences. In the Midwest in the United States, there is a general assumption that ‘everyone’ believes in god, so day to day experiences are saturated with references to god and prayer. Sometimes, I find it easier to let those slip past or to omit; but on the times when I feel it appropriate to share my views (which is usually a response to a direct question about what church I go to, or what religion I follow) I am almost always greeted with wide-eyed surprise, followed by either discomfort or disgust.

    3. In my experience, it is the base assumption that people should and do believe in a god which leads to marginalization and discrimination. Many believers feel that the right to “freedom of religion” means that you must belong to a religion to have that freedom. With the explosion of blogging and social networking, expressing support for practices and/or laws that back-up the separation of church and state often cause believers to get up in arms. When I worked in a large office, lots of people with children would come around asking me to buy something to support their children’s schools. I have a policy of not supporting private schools or groups and clubs with a religious affiliation. This caused more than one argument and more than one receipt of a cold shoulder.

    4. I think it’s human nature to either assume that other people are like ourselves, or that other people are like the majority. So, people tend to assume that if they are believers, everyone else is too. So, they will ask you to pray for someone who’s going through a tough time, or they will talk to me about how terrible it is that there are people who ‘refuse’ to believe in their god.

    5. As I live in the Bible Belt, I sense a lot of distaste or distrust for atheists; and I get the impression that living in a larger metropolitan area, particularly one with a more diverse population would lead to less discrimination, but I am not sure.

    6. I used to be very closeted about my atheism, and I would use clever phrasing and omission to dance around the topic. Today, I am much more open about it; that isn’t to say I wear a big “I’m and atheist. Ask me how!” button, but if the topic comes up, I am straightforward about it. As a general rule, I suppose you could say I follow a “don’t ask; don’t tell” policy when I am in environments where personal discussions or religious discussions are not appropriate, such as in the workplace. In my personal life, among friends and acquaintances, for the most part, I am quite open about my atheism. There are some people in my life, e.g., some of my family, who don’t know I am an atheist, and unless they would directly ask me, I don’t plan on telling them. There are a few other people in my life who feel very hurt and betrayed by my atheism. My mother, for example, is more upset by the fact that I am an atheist than the facts that I am bisexual and lived in a polyamorous relationship for many years.

    Regarding how I handle the tensions, usually we don’t talk about it. If a topic comes up though that relates to religion/god or my lack of same, my mother usually tries a number of tactics trying, if nothing else, to guilt me into changing my mind. It usually ends with me explaining that we will simply have to agree to disagree.

    On the other side of the coin, I have a friend who is a believer and can speak calmly about our differing views. We both enjoy learning about different world-views, and sometimes we like to bounce a topic off the other person to get a different perspective.

  • Jeff Dale

    1. How would you define and especially describe contemporary atheism in America? Are there different types of atheists (e.g. freethinkers, skeptics, humanists, non-theists, anti-theists, etc.), and if so, how would you delineate between them. (Please keep in mind that I’m looking for something a little more nuanced here than just the bare-bones definition of “lack of belief in God.” I’m looking at the atheist community more through a sociological lens than a strictly philosophical one.)

    There’s a lot of overlapping membership and meaning in these categories. I think I qualify in all of them, if they’re properly defined. I’ll do my best at capturing the sociology of each:

    Freethinker: Seems generally to be considered a euphemism for “atheist,” and as such may sound a bit condescending, but it simply means a person who relies on his reason, rather than on authority or tradition. “Independent thinker” might be more apt.

    Skeptic: There are skeptics who haven’t entirely rejected religious reasoning, while for other skeptics the label is simply another euphemism for “atheist.” So if your approach is to work with this broader definition, this group (in all its religious variation) might be best described as those who make a point of invoking or identifying with doubt as a virtue. But if your approach is to focus on the more narrow definition, that of atheists who self-identify as skeptics, you might be trying to distinguish between, say, freethinkers and skeptics. The distinction would, I think, have to be subtle; the latter label might, for example, be more attractive to atheists who focus on the flaws of theistic evidence, while the former label might be more attractive to those with more experiential reasons for atheism (e.g., didn’t feel comfortable with the conformity or authority-driven style of church communities, and just couldn’t get into the belief system).

    Humanist: To me, humanism is simply the love of humanity, not diluted or compromised by notions of obligation to a divine being. Happily, quite a few modern religious people have more or less this mindset in practice, even if it doesn’t flow unambiguously from the religious doctrine they identify with. But they generally won’t be identified as humanists, so I suspect your interest is mainly in atheists who profess a humanistic view. Generally, I think atheists who self-identify as humanists want to emphasize that they have substituted a positive, life-affirming worldview for its religious alternatives. Some of them want humanism to take the place of religious ritual in their lives; others simply feel profound awe at the (natural) miracle of our existence and our rational natures, and are therefore motivated to promote the good of mankind. (I’m in the latter group.) And of course, it’s yet another euphemism for “atheist.”

    Non-theist: I think this one exists only as a euphemism for “atheist,” and is otherwise devoid of content (like “atheist” itself) and probably doesn’t yield a coherent category of atheists.

    Anti-theist: Boiled down, I think this one is simply opposition to religion. For some, this may be motivated by personal ill will (e.g., bad childhood experiences with religion, or intolerance for religious expression). Others (including me) have no ill will toward religious people, but are deeply concerned about what they see as the deleterious effects of religion. The former group may act contemptuously toward religious people, though I think it’s important to stress that much of what some religious people see as contempt for them is actually just contempt for their beliefs (which makes them defensive in inverse proportion to how much support they have in their own minds for those beliefs). The latter group may try to build bridges with religious people in the hopes of “reaching” them, both for their own individual good and for the good of humanity. This is a good point of sociology that I think should be emphasized here: an anti-theist may have a profound humanistic respect and even love for fellow humans, no matter how strongly he disagrees with their theism. Apart from his concern for the survival and progress of humanity as a whole (and religion’s influence thereon), he may feel motivated to “save” individual theists from their mindsets, analogously to the motivation of some religious people to “save” people who don’t share their beliefs. I’ve heard this called “evangelical atheism,” and though I’ve heard many anti-theists write this off as a lost cause, their own conduct in debates with theists often displays this motivation.

    One other thing should be said with regard to the sociology of atheism, particularly in contemporary society. Atheists are often perceived as overly concerned with or unnecessarily hostile toward religion. This often takes the form of aggrievement (“Why are they trying to force their beliefs on the rest of us?”) that resembles the common response to homosexuals a generation ago, and is just as disproportionate now as it was then. However, it is true that atheists, in general, have a level of preoccupation with religion. What’s often not recognized, though, is that this is purely reactive. Atheists aren’t concerned with religion because of their own inherent natures, but because of their circumstances. Atheists have regular lives just like theists, and we’d all rather devote our attention to families, careers, sports, hobbies, American Idol, etc. In fact, as has often been pointed out, atheists as a group, for the most part, don’t really have anything more in common with each other than we do with theists; we’re as different as non-stamp-collectors. If theism were a relatively fringe occupation with little influence in the public sphere, like the belief that Elvis is still alive, then atheists wouldn’t pay much attention to it. But since theism is such an overwhelming force in the public sphere, and since theistic thought and practice have had such a persistent influence on nonbelievers (from persecutions throughout history up to modern-day discrimination and marginalization, deliberate or unintentional), religion takes on a much greater importance to atheists than it otherwise would. To see this in an analogy, think of America before and after 9/11: left alone to live our lives in relative comfort, we have a vast diversity of interests, but 9/11 magnified the importance of terrorism in our minds, and so (for a while) we became much more united around that interest, and set aside our differences to face the common threat.

    Hope this helps!

  • K

    4. What are things that religious people do (whether deliberately or inadvertently) that contributes to your feelings of being an “outsider”?

    I can answer this with an experience I had just a few months ago (before the Christmas season really kicked in. I know the sheer amounts of outward religiosity jump into high gear during the winter holiday season.) While sitting in the front section of a bus I ride on a regular basis, I saw a few other regular riders who obviously know each other. First things out of their mouths, basically, were “God bless!” and “Hallelujah!” The man was speaking to the woman about her daughter. Anytime the man commented on the daughter’s traits, her eyes being just like her mama’s, etc., the woman would come back with, “Praise Jesus.”

    I thought about saying something. However, since I don’t know these people, I just know them from seeing them all the time and have never spoken to them before, I decided I would unnecessarily stir up a shitstorm that I wasn’t prepared that day to weather. I wanted to tell them that their loud religious proclaimations on a Seattle-area bus weren’t welcome. Instead, I thought to myself, “Now, if this were two atheists talking about the child and uttering things like ‘Praise Darwin!’ how many other riders would have tolerated that kind of speech?

    (I know I would have, personally, but that’s beside the point, really.)

    I felt that, because these people were muttering religious nonsense aloud, they could basically get away with it. I very much doubt that two atheists would get away with this kind of thing, receiving disgusted looks at best and a passing comment from other passengers at worst.

    I might note here, too, that this took place not far from where I live. Although I technically live in the liberal and supposedly more atheist-friendly city of Seattle, I happen to live in an area just outside the city proper that’s very blue-collar and very much more religious. I hear these kinds of things and deal with it more simply because I live in this neighborhood.

    I’m not sure if that answered any of your questions, but that gives one example of how, even in a more welcoming and inclusive area there’s still a favoritism out there towards the religious. I know I felt uncomfortable about this kind of talk, and also felt that I could not say anything about it.

  • Charon

    1. Atheists can be categorized, in part, by their relationship with religion. A number of atheists I know are simply apathetic, somewhat default atheists (see point 5 for a bias about this, though). These tend to be people who were not raised in conservative religions. A second category I’ve seen is people who intensely dislike religion because they or people they know have been hurt by it. These tend to be people who were raised in conservative religions. I put myself in a third category, someone who dislikes religion not (mostly) for personal reasons – I wasn’t raised religious, but I’ve dedicated my life to understanding the world (as a physicist) and am intensely fed up with people who can’t deal with reality.

    2. I don’t often feel discriminated against. I work in a physical science department at a major research university in the urban Pacific Northwest – one of the few places in the US, I’d wager, where I’d find myself in the supermajority as an atheist. There are irritating things – “in God we trust” on money, that sort of thing – but they are quite minor for me personally. However, my ex-girlfriend just ended our 2.5-year relationship because I couldn’t love her religion, which was a very personal, but very intense, discrimination. I currently hate religion quite a lot right now, as a result.

    3., 4. Religion is generically promoted in our culture, by which I mean that “faith” is put forth as an admirable thing, to some extent regardless of which religion one chooses. Particularly among liberal religious people, one finds the sentiment that Catholic, Quaker, Hindu, what-have-you, it’s all fine and all tapping into some common mysticism. This form of tolerance has been widely pushed, but it quite actively excludes atheists as lacking a fundamental part of being a good human being. “Faith is good” is pushed heavily in our political system as well, with 534/535 members of Congress proclaiming religious beliefs (obviously a far greater proportion than the population as a whole). Having faith helps assure people that one’s heart is in the right place, and allows them to forgive missteps you might make.

    Among other things, this “faith is a great virtue” attitude causes atheists to be quiet about their beliefs. This leads to a substantial fraction of the population believing that they do not know any atheists personally, when they are in fact almost certainly mistaken. This misperception allows people to categorize atheists as “other”, and tap into all the great hatred/fear of other that humans have.

    5. There are regional variations, but much stronger than that is the urban/rural divide already mentioned. It’s the same “urban archipelago” effect that liberals find – yes, Washington is different from Texas, but there’s more difference between the urban and rural areas in both states than there is between Seattle and Dallas. I’ve never lived in a rural area (only the Bay Area, Chicago, and Seattle), but visit them with some frequency (hiking, mountaineering, etc.). They are weird places, often with billboards or handmade signs proclaiming, sometimes in very antagonistic ways, their religious beliefs.

    I feel most religiously comfortable around other scientists, the majority of whom are atheists. Large and/or elite universities are also places where I feel comfortable in a religious sense.

  • Carlie

    Is there an email address we could send answers to? I have a couple of anecdotes that would be too identifying to the people involved (if they were to stumble across it) even without names.

  • JulietEcho

    Glad to help 🙂

    1. First, I think there are active and passive atheists. Both have no belief in gods of any kind, but active atheists spend time reflecting about the consequences of their lack of belief, and may engage others in discussion/debate. This includes, by definition, every atheist who comments here. Passive atheists are more apathetic about their atheism. I think it’s much easier to be a passive atheist in areas of the country where you’re not constantly reminded that Christianity is the expected status quo. Further differences have been pretty well covered, and I think the “coexist” vs. “anti-theist” model is important – many people lump all atheists into the “anti-theist” camp, which is a mistake.

    2. Absolutely, and it’s mostly been within my own family. One thing I’ve noticed is that my Christian family members and friends are sad and disappointed when they find out that I’m an atheist, but they still expect that I’ll keep acting like a Christian when it comes to my life choices. They are much less tolerant of “sinning” than of atheism, even though atheism inherently includes the lack of belief in some God who defines “sin” and it’s ludicrous to expect that non-Christians will automatically follow the same moral code. So the reaction to my atheism itself – largely the loss of Christian friends and some strain with my family – is mild compared to the strain caused by the differences stemming from my lack of belief. I recently posted on the forum about the alienation and loss of friendship I encountered after leaving Christianity, if you want something longer.

    3. Far and away, the most important issue is the widespread misconception that “religion = morality” and that atheists are threatening because they must lack morality. People worry about their children becoming atheists, they don’t want atheists to marry their kids, they don’t want to elect atheists to office, they don’t even really want atheists teaching at schools or in any position of influence. The second most important would be the feeling (whether conscious or non-conscious) that the existence of vocal atheists is a threat to their religion – that other religious people will become atheists, that atheism by its very existence is an “attack” on their faith. There’s a sense of, “if you’re not with us, you must be against us” which is inconsistent with most theists’ feelings about other religions that also contradict their beliefs.

    4. Making off-the-cuff derogatory comments, assuming that everyone is a theist, asserting that I don’t really lack belief in God, asserting that I was never really a Christian, and reacting poorly to any actions or inaction on my part that conflicts with their religious code of conduct. At worst, this includes the various attempts to legislate religion – banning gay marriage, requiring abstinence-only education, requiring creationism be taught, etc.

    5. In “blue state” cities, I don’t exactly feel like a majority, but I feel like the majority of people don’t mind atheists and support a secular environment. In small towns, regardless of state, I feel uncomfortable revealing my atheism and feel like an itty-bitty minority.

    6. I avoid mentioning it unless directly asked, and I’ve learned certain phrases and tactics that work to derail angry reactions – usually emphasizing the fact that I don’t know for sure, making myself seem more like a “searcher” than a skeptic, etc.

  • 1. How would you define and especially describe contemporary atheism in America? …

    I only want to add that I’ve never seen any attempt to define these terms without some disagreement. A lot of the discussions I’ve had center on the subject of whether it is possible not to believe in god without having some other belief system in its place. Is the “Zen” state of just not having a religious thought possible? Or must we always have something “filling” our minds concerning religion. I like to think this “Zen” state is possible and I personally strive towards it.

    2. Have you yourself ever felt like an “outsider” (in whatever context) because of your atheist views? …

    Yes when I was younger (in grade school). There were little “popular cliques” in school that I could not be a part of because they were all religious. One learns ways of finding fulfillment in other ways. The “discrimination” I received was really subtle and indirect. Because I knew that I would be “discriminated” against, I would tend not to express my religious stance. There were certain social avenues not open to me.

    3. What would you say are some of the key issues that lead to atheists being marginalized or discriminated against in our society? …

    The belief by some that atheists are evil or the tool of the devil. I’ve heard this many times. This ties in with the definition of atheism. Some want to limit its definition to evil people that want to destroy religion and burn down all the churches. When atheism is defined as such, it makes it easier for religious people to condemn and marginalize anyone without a belief in God.

    4. What are things that religious people do (whether deliberately or inadvertently) that contributes to your feelings of being an “outsider”? …

    Everything that falls under the category of the “tyranny of the majority”. The commonly assumed (sometimes stated, sometimes not stated) attitude that religious people are more moral and better people and that non-religious people are deficient, immoral, and somehow sub-human.

    5. Is discrimination against atheists a regional phenomenon in your experiences? …

    I have noticed that the more rural the local, the more religious the people seem to be and the less they understand or accept atheists. When I was very young, we moved to a couple of different small (rural) towns and my mother said that the first thing out of the neighbors mouth was to ask us where we went to church. Since our family wasn’t religious, that did not bode well for integration in the communities. In larger towns or cities, it is much easier to fit in.

    6. For those who live in places where discrimination against atheists is more common, what have you done to adapt or adjust? …

    I’ve often hidden my atheism when in environments where being known as an atheist would cause me disadvantage. In my opinion this “self censorship” is the biggest psychological problem facing atheists. I commend the generation of atheists that are now choosing to live openly. I have not always been willing to “take one for the team” as it were. Although, I am openly atheistic towards my family and close friends. I have chosen not to associate my last name on-line with my religious views so not to be discriminated against when future potential employers Google search me on the internet.
    It also may be no accident that my chosen profession is more technical in nature and is one in which the topic of religion rarely, if ever, comes up.

  • Phrosty

    1. I don’t have enough interaction with other atheists to have a helpful opinion.

    2. For me, being an atheist means always being the outsider in virtually every situation. In the ‘Bible Belt’, discrimination is to be expected, just as you can expect to get wet when you go water-skiing. It comes at you from all sides: family, friends, neighbors, strangers, employers, employees, etc. My parents see my stance as immature, because to them, I couldn’t possibly be an atheist, because I went to all those damn church classes. Not to mention, they think it’s just a phase I’m going through. Anytime the notion of atheists comes up in any kind of discussion (whether with other family or friends), they speak of atheists with contempt, as if they’re godless heathens lacking emotion and morals. This usually happens in front of me. So I haven’t proceeded to tell anyone else in my family. Also, I’ve only told about half a dozen friends about my stance, because I knew that they knew me well enough to already know, and that the rest would not understand. When it comes to religious, political, moral, and philosophical discussions, I virtually always just stay quiet. I don’t want to get into debate. I don’t want to discuss it. I don’t care about you. You (and I’m not referring to the OP here, by the way) want to know about my stance against religion? Fine, I’ll explain since you asked, but I don’t want to hear your thoughts. I didn’t ask. I grew up surrounded by a slurry of religions; I get the gist. Just let me do my thing. I state my stance through my actions (votes, refusing to take part in religious practices, etc.)

    3. There are countless ways atheists are marginalized in society. From big issues to small bananas. Some that should be relatively simple to solve (such as the Pledge of Allegiance or government policy) if it weren’t for religious fanatics infecting political positions, and some that are nearly impossible to alter (kids and religion as a fad, or fundamentalist views).

    4. When they say things like, “God has a plan for you,” or, “Jesus loves you.” I’m sure they wouldn’t be happy if a Satanist told them something like, “Lucifer fell for you,” so why should I be grateful for their arrogance? I’m not a part of your hokey religion, so drop the charade.

    5.

    Is discrimination against atheists a regional phenomenon in your experiences?

    I hear there are regions where atheism is completely in the norm, but I’ve yet to see them firsthand. I live in the ‘Bible Belt’, so religious discrimination is rampant. Here, you will find more houses of worship than hospitals, parks, and schools combined. However, do I consider this a regional phenomenon? Not in the least. I travel a lot, and I feel confident in saying that discrimination against atheism is a global issue.

    6. I just keep my atheism to myself.

  • bob

    1. How would you define and especially describe contemporary atheism in America?

    Largely made up of former believers who feel the need to, at times, convey their thoughts on the religious landscape around them.

    Lessly made up of those who have never been believers, and they, for the most part, have little need to speak out about religion.

    2. Have you yourself ever felt like an “outsider” (in whatever context) because of your atheist views?

    I can only point to one instance in which I have lost a job due to my atheism. Since then I have made sure to hide my unbelief. When a believer is making religious affirmations to me, I never disagree. I just nod my head and smile.

    I live in southwest Virginia, USA. In my profession I come in contact with many Christians. My girlfriend is a Christian, and she is the only Christian I know that is aware of my atheism.

    3. What would you say are some of the key issues that lead to atheists being marginalized or discriminated against in our society?

    Fundamentalists believe we are evil, can’t be trusted, and are going to suffer eternally in hell. They believe they should keep their associations with us at a minimum.

    4. What are things that religious people do (whether deliberately or inadvertently) that contributes to your feelings of being an “outsider”?

    Many will talk about us with out ever asking us what we think. I know my girlfriends minister does that occasionally, when he brings up unbelievers in his sermons.
    Many Christians will talk to me and just assume that I believe as they do.

    5. Is discrimination against atheists a regional phenomenon in your experiences?

    I assume so, but can’t be sure since I largely keep my thoughts to myself, except on the internet.

    6. For those who live in places where discrimination against atheists is more common, what have you done to adapt or adjust? For instance, have you ever tried to hide your atheism? What happens when you “come out” (or are “outed”) in these settings? If you don’t hide your atheism, how do you navigate relationships or situations where tensions might arise over it?

    I hide my atheism from most. My mother doesn’t know. Just this past weekend an old fellow asked me if I was a believer after he relayed to me some aspects of his faith. I said yes. If he had of been a complete stranger, I probably would have told the truth. Since I believe the vast majority of my clients are believers, I believe it would be financial suicide for me to “come out”.

  • 2. I constantly feel like an outsider. I’m a civilian employee of the U.S. Navy (and formerly active-duty) and am surrounded by people who assume that everyone around them is a Christian. Holiday decorations frequently involve Bible quotes. At our recent office holiday party, someone used the phrase “Happy Holidays” and another person corrected them by saying “It’s ok to say ‘Merry Christmas’ in this crowd.” I also confided once in an office-mate who had become a friend that I wasn’t a Christian and she, after giving me a shocked look, asked “Well, you still believe in God, though, right?” When I said no, she looked at me like I had just sacrificed a goat right in front of her.

    3. I think one of the key issues that marginalize atheists is what I described above – the assumption by religious people that everyone around them is religious in some way. Maybe they ascribe to a different religion (or are merely “spiritual”), but that all people fundamentally believe in God and those that don’t are angry, bitter, or just plain evil. They don’t have a concept that someone could be like me (middle class, happy, not committing theft and murder daily), and not have a belief in a higher power.

    6. I make a point of not telling someone unless I know them really well. Most people that I work with do not know that I am an atheist.
    At this point, my parents don’t know, although I think they have their suspicions. The reason I haven’t told them explicitly is because my sister came out to them as an atheist about 5 years ago, and the reverberations are still being felt. There was a lot of anger and hurt feelings on both sides (my sister wasn’t very delicate about it). Avoidance is my main coping mechanism, so I have chosen to avoid the subject for the foreseeable future.

  • J. Allen

    1.
    There are stages of skepticism, i have noticed. Atheism is a journey of asking questions. There are some who ask only enough to deconvert, but don’t want to ask questions regarding other people. They don’t like thinking about religion either due to apathy or painful memories. The latter end is the atheist who won’t stop asking questions…the ‘intolerant’ ones who are comfortable enough with their own views to challenge the culture at large. Some of this is fueled by the anger of shock of being ‘duped’ by something so huge as religion. Most atheist identities from my perspective fall on that scale somewhere. They usually revolve around the mental state of the atheist and how he is handling seeing the sky being blue when most people say it is red.

    2. As I prefer to avoid conflict, I tend to keep such things to myself, though sometimes I must admit that I don’t go to church when that is brought up. I can’t recall being discriminated against but I don’t give people the chance.

    3.
    Atheism is interesting because not only can anyone become one, but it lies in direct opposition to every other viewpoint. Even tolerant new age ‘accept-all-religion’ types will gasp as the ‘arrogance’ of an atheist for rejecting the supernatural. Major practices that are insulting and lead to tension are things like having ‘under God’ in the Pledge of Allegiance, insinuating that atheists are not loyal citizens. Also the common idea of group prayer often leaves an atheist feeling disconnected from the rest of the group.

    4. As I mentioned, prayer is a big thing that happens when done in a group setting, and public mentions of God or whatever. It immediately drives home the idea that I am different, or that I can’t trust these people because if they knew the real me they would not accept me.

    Places where education is valued are more tolerant, naturally. Having lived in liberal cities I meet as many unbelievers as believers. So yes, it is cultural. Some cultures promote education and the idea of questioning assumptions in order to develop new theories about life, and others see that as destructive to the status quo.

    6. Hell, I’ll even hide being a democrat in some places because some arguments are just so infuriatingly stupid, so yes I keep quiet in the presence of obviously religious people. I am afraid that if I got into an argument I would only make all sides upset. It’s hard to want to say to someone ‘your concept of reality is severely flawed.’ To compensate I use answers like ‘it’s complicated’ or ‘religion’s not my thing’.

  • 1. Being an Atheist is just one part of me. I do not know of one single Atheist in my social environment. I would consider myself a Non-Secular Darwinian Humanist, or just a nice person who loves science and her fellow man. I am still a ‘new’ Atheist, it’s been less than a year since walking away from Mormonism. But I love the ‘angry’ Atheists. Or the outspoken ones. As silly as it may seem, they give me strength. I believe the main difference amoung Atheists is the passion in which we feel about our lack of belief. Some are okay with their spouses teaching their kids about a god, others would divorce rather than stay in that situation. Some Atheists might still go to church, where some, you couldn’t pay them enough to park in a church parking lot. We have different feelings toward religion. But Atheists differ so much between themselves, it’s not like we all are 20 something college students, or 50 something science teachers, we don’t all prefer Star Wars over Star Trek, we aren’t all trying to populate Earth with little ones, Atheism may be the only thing some of us have in common as we do not have religious tenets. I think contemporary Atheism is reaching more and more people who used to be religious. It’s reaching teenagers, mothers, grandparents and even making it’s way into very religious families. Cognitive Dissonance knows no bounds.

    2. We don’t gather together every Sunday to discuss what we don’t believe in. It’s tough finding Atheist meeting groups that I can bring my children to, they usually are on college campuses. I NEVER felt like an outsider as a Mormon. I almost can’t believe that is one of the religions on the list, they consider themselves Christian, so I felt I had something in common with my Christian friends growing up. Now as an Atheist, I feel like the Christians at the mothers group I attend would dislike me if they knew. It took me a few months to gain the strength to walk into the Methodist church where they meet. I emailed to find out what they meant by ‘fellowship’, a term they used repeatedly on their website. I can’t stand being preached to, as I don’t defend myself. My husband is a Agnostic Theist and he is uncomfortable when I wear my A pin. And is reluctant to buy me anymore Atheist jewelry. He doesn’t want the negative stigma that comes with being Atheist passed onto our children. So I feel like an outsider because of the way I feel people, mainly Christians, feel and think about Atheists. George Bush Sr. even went as far to say that Atheists shouldn’t be considered citizens or patriots. That’s harsh. I lost my Mormon family because I walked away from the Mormon church. I haven’t told them I am Atheist yet. Since I don’t really wear my Atheist/Darwin garb out much, I haven’t really felt discriminated against.

    3. I think once someone finds out another person is an Atheist, they demonize them. They think they are moral-less, unfeeling people. That leads to being treated differently. Religion is protected by the believers, and once you open up about the dangers and evils of ANY religion, the religious folks take it to heart, even if they asked your opinion.

    4. & 5. The look on people’s faces when they get that feeling that you don’t believe in their god is unmistakable. I have never felt the need to walk up to someone and be like “Hi, I’m Atheist”, I never did that as a Mormon. I just feel like people know. I don’t wear a cross like a lot of mothers do here in the midwest, I dont dress my kids in Veggietale garb when taking them to the Mommy and Me meetings, I don’t bring up god in our discussions. I think they can sense it. Craiglist has an Atheist forum and a lot of the people seem to be from San Francisco, Ca. I feel that would be someplace it may be embraced more because of the LGBT community and the liberal feel of the city. I know that in Salt Lake City, Utah it would be tough. I went there as a Mormon and didn’t feel ‘good’ enough. I couldn’t imagine going as a real outsider.

    6. I keep my mouth shut about my personal beliefs. I try to not talk about politics or religion (or lack of my belief in a diety). I live in a college city in Indiana, but I do go to the Methodist church on Wednesday mornings so my kids can play with other children and I can be with other mothers. I don’t wear my Atheist pins and hair clips and shirts. I dress conservatively and stick to ‘mom’ topics. I just be myself. I never feel the pressing need to engage uneducated people into deep topics, like Evolution or the myth of god. Being an Atheist is just one part of me. I know if I announce it, that I would be treated poorly by my peers (which all happen to be Christian mothers). I am proud of where I am in my beliefs, I am proud of myself for being strong enough to tell my husband about my doubts and I am so lucky that he walked away from Mormonism with me.

    I have found that I feel more like an outsider because I know my peers wouldn’t accept me in the same way if they knew I am an Atheist. I fear what I would lose if my peers acted the way I think they would act if they found out I was an Atheist. I would lose the group altogether, or I would be constantly preached to. Neither option would work for me and I would have to pay to put my kids in a structured daycare for them to develop social skills, and I would have to look elsewhere for friendship in my new city. We just moved here from California and Indiana is a conservative state. I spent months trying to form an Atheist Mommy and Me with no luck. 🙂
    .-= Leilani´s last blog ..Losing my Religion =-.

  • 2. Oh boy, have I. Going to a Catholic high school in the Bible Belt pretty much guaranteed my feeling like an outsider. I only noticed one or two other people (outside of my group of like-minded friends) that didn’t cross themselves at the mandatory Masses, and they might have just been Episcopalian or something. But hell, the “outsider” feeling could have just been because it was high school.

    3. Broader society constantly tells athiests that we’re wrong, we’re terrible people, and we’re going to spend eternity somewhere very hot and unpleasant unless they personally convert us back.

    4. I let my religion teachers know about my views in the hopes that they wouldn’t call on me to lead the before-class prayers. They invariably questioned my maturity and mental facilities loudly and in the middle of class. My nonbeliefs were even used as an example in the school-wide Mass once. That was fun. The year I came out to my mom was also the year I didn’t get anything for Christmas. Coincidence? I think NOT! There were some super-zealot kids at school that would cross themselves when I passed them and hide rosaries in my locker… I was a victim of a constant religious pressgang!

    5. I’ve always thought somewhere like Portland might be a little more tolerant. But alas, being born in the Bible Belt also means that any temperature below 60 has me wearing a parka.

    6. I try not to mention it unless the conversation comes up on it’s own. Graduating high school and getting away from all of those crazy people helped.
    .-= spackledorfed´s last blog ..Retrospect =-.

  • Holly

    1.I actually come from an atheist/non-believer family, so I’ve seen the distinctions in my own home. I have one relative who is a Richard Dawkins-esque vocal atheist, while I have others who have probably never used the word ‘atheist’ to describe themselves, despite otherwise living the lifestyle (humanist, perhaps?). Personally, I just call myself an atheist, and as a second-generation non-believer, I feel comfortable just leaving it at that.

    2.My only real experience with feeling like an outsider due to atheist was when I was quite small (10 or 11) a friend wanted to play “church” with our dolls. I was clueless, but she insisted. I spent the afternoon extremely uncomfortable and asked my mother to avoid future playdates at her place. I now work in a university environment, which is extremely non-religious, making other incidents unlikely.

    As a caveat, I’m Canadian, rather than American, but I lived in the US when I was younger and the girl in (2) was American.

  • Felicia

    2.2.This happens to me all the time. I live in a largely rural state and many people who live here were born here and rarely travel so are not exposed to people that are different than they are that often. There are a number of highly religious people where I work and my husband’s family have all committed themselves to their churches as much as they possibly can. When I first met my husband, his family was profoundly disappointed that he was interested in me because of my atheism and multiple members of his family tried to dissuade him from seeing me any more. When we announced that we were getting married, one aunt went out of her way to harass me about where we were getting married. When she learned we were to wed in my grandmother’s church (which was done as a favor to my grandmother) she proceeded to grill me about it’s doctrine to find some way that it was unacceptable. My husband and I receive one email after another from his mother and sister-in-law with stories of miracles and preaching about their god’s love for us all despite having been told very bluntly that we do not want to receive such things and why. Visits to his family generally result in at least one conversion attempt directed at my husband, if not outright bullying, and I am largely ignored. At work, the religious employees all decorate their desks with biblical verses and other bits of religious slogans. Since I am the company’s IT staff I spend a great deal of time at other people’s desks and find myself feeling bludgeoned with it at times. Conversations in the break room often revolve around their religious views and I feel that if I were to speak up I would be the one accused of making waves.

    3. 3.I think one of the causes of the reactions by religious people against atheists is a result of the religious people not being as strong in their faith as they want to be. The justifications I have seen for faith from people I’ve interacted with boil down to “I just know it is true.” and this is something I have been told repeatedly. This argument looks rather shallow when you are standing next to someone who says “I see no reason to think so.” The fallback position I have seen runs along the lines of “You actually know this is true and you are just denying god so you can behave however you want to.” This indicates to me that part of the foundation of their beliefs is that everyone agrees with them. Having people not agree with them undermines that.
    I also think that atheists tend to be unseen and unheard more often than not. Even I do this at work, as I mentioned above. Because we are less visible, many people of faith don’t really know what atheists are like. My mother (having become a little crotchety as she gets older) has begun informing people that they are not talking to a believer when they begin expounding on some piece of dogma and the reaction she normally gets is shock. She is generally thought well of by people who know here and justifiably so. For them to learn that she is this way without faith is unexpected for them.

    6.I generally don’t mention my atheism when talking with people. One exception is that I made a bumper sticker for my car that says, simply “Friendly Neighborhood Atheist.” I have seen reactions from people glaring and making rude gestures at me while driving down the street to one set of neighbors who had to tell us how relieved they were that they were not as surrounded by fundamentalists as they had thought they were. That family were Christians, but were fairly relaxed in their practice of faith.

  • Mandy

    2. I have never been the target of any overt discrimination, but I also am very selective in revealing my lack of religious faith. I have family and friends whom I would never tell I was atheist as their response would most likely be harassment or the loss of the relationship.
    As for feeling like an outsider that happens quite frequently. There is the assumption made that “everyone” is religious in some way so it is okay for things to be “spiritual” because then everyone can be included.

    3. I think the key issue is that because we don’t believe in a divine being and nothing bad happens to us, that means that there is doubt possible and that the religous might be wrong, and no one likes to be wrong. It is easy and convenient to paint us as the bad guys, and use us as a cautionary tale about doubting. Also the fact that we don’t believe in a deity means we are attacking those that do, because “god is everything”.

    4. Little things like sending prayer requests and spouting cliches like “Well, everything happens for a reason.”, and big things like the fact that their views can be in the public forum, but mine have to kept secret because anything I say is an attack on moral american values. Everything I say is an attack, but things said that offend mean don’t matter, because I am wrong.
    Also, there are those that feel that atheism equals nihlism and that I feel no awe or wonder at the universe, and if I do express emotion that I must really believe. There is always this push to show that I actually do believe, so they can feel better about themselves.

    5. Not that I can see, of course I don’t feel it is necessary to tell everyone I know about my atheism. Although I do live in a suburb of Boston and work in science, atheism is not the norm. I have one coworker that is an atheist, while most claim a faith (organized or not) of some sort.

  • cicely

    1. How would you define and especially describe contemporary atheism in America? Are there different types of atheists (e.g. freethinkers, skeptics, humanists, non-theists, anti-theists, etc.), and if so, how would you delineate between them. (Please keep in mind that I’m looking for something a little more nuanced here than just the bare-bones definition of “lack of belief in God.” I’m looking at the atheist community more through a sociological lens than a strictly philosophical one.)

    One difference I see is between those who have no tolerance for the right of others to believe, even in the privacy of their own minds, and no tolerance, either, for other atheists who do believe that others have this right. To me, the theist who isn’t trying to impose their belief on others is at worst committing a “victimless crime”; but some approach this with something that looks suspiciously like the same kind of “stamp out all dissent” that other extremists use.

    2. Have you yourself ever felt like an “outsider” (in whatever context) because of your atheist views? Have you ever been the target of discrimination because of your atheism? Please describe your experiences.

    Yes. Outspokenly voicing an atheistic perspective frequently causes the more theistically-inclined, even of the non-fundamentalist persuasion, to view all your other opinions with suspicion, as unreliable, or potentially morally turpitudinous (since as everyone knows, all atheists are immoral in all things, right?). It can result in a knee-jerk unwillingess to take what you say seriously, or as a viable approach to a problem; to dismiss your input out of hand.

    3. What would you say are some of the key issues that lead to atheists being marginalized or discriminated against in our society? Are there particular practices (or lack thereof) that frequently lead to tensions between atheists and the broader society?

    I’d say that it’s all about the unspoken assumption that of course all decent folk believe in (Capital G) god. It permeates everything, and is ‘the norm’, i.e., normal; therefore, if you aren’t part of it, you are abnormal. The 10 Commandments in courthouses and Christmas creches in public venues are just symptoms of this, as is the outrage when Christian missionaries fall afoul of the law in foreign countries (with their by-definition heathen and barbaric regimes) while at the same time feeling that “them muslins” had it coming here in the USofA if someone abuses them or their houses of worship. And how dare those Buddhist nuns donate to someone’s political campaign, and how dare he accept the donation, but accepting a like donation from a Christian-based organisation is met with approval. But I’m getting too involved, here. (*deep breath*) Next question.

    4. What are things that religious people do (whether deliberately or inadvertently) that contributes to your feelings of being an “outsider”?

    I’ve touched on some in answering the previous questions. I think that the presumed untrustworthiness that attaches to being atheist, or suspected of being an atheist, and the side effects of this presumption, are the biggest contributors, for me.

    5. Is discrimination against atheists a regional phenomenon in your experiences? For instance, are there certain parts of the country where it would be more normal or accepted to be an atheist (New York City? Boston? San Francisco?) than others (the Bible Belt?), or where you might even feel like the mainstream majority?

    My own experience as an atheist is regionally limited. If you’re at home to Mr. Hearsay, from what I read from others, it sounds as if it does matter where you are. I can only say that, here in the Bible Belt, it matters a lot in the mainstream culture, though less or not at all in some non-mainstream subcultures.

    6. For those who live in places where discrimination against atheists is more common, what have you done to adapt or adjust? For instance, have you ever tried to hide your atheism? What happens when you “come out” (or are “outed”) in these settings? If you don’t hide your atheism, how do you navigate relationships or situations where tensions might arise over it?

    I reveal my atheism only to people I trust. Yes, I am a whimpering coward. That would be my choice, and my business.

    I will pose challenges to religious assumptions as supported by science, or history, whichever is relevant, supplying references where necessary/possible; given my known interest in science and history, this has tended to pass without necessarily provoking the pitchfork-and-torches brigade, and has been more productive than leading in with “Your dearly-held religious viewpoint/observance is clearly stupid and wrong” would be. It can be tricky, though.

  • john locke

    1. I think the most common variation of atheists are people who simply don’t care about religion. They want to do their own thing and are happy to let others do theirs. They may feel religion has has benefits, but don’t feel it plays a major role in their lives.

  • Jenea

    Not sure where this fits in exactly (perhaps #3?), but an potentially interesting area to explore is the controversy over references to God in the Pledge of Allegiance and on our money. I think mainstream deists find these issues to be a distraction and a waste of our time and taxpayer dollars. Atheists fighting these fights are inevitably labeled as “extremists” or (perhaps) “whiners.”

    Of course, flash forward to Trijicon defending their practice of including bible verses on scopes sold to the military by saying “how is it different from including ‘in God we trust’ on our currency?”

  • Thank you everyone for your responses so far. They have been very useful. BTW, if you would prefer to send me your responses privately, you can email me at mike.clawson@gmail.com.

    Thanks again!

  • LKL

    1. Definitions:

    I don’t have much to add to what others have said wrt. definitions, except to say that I vacillate between calling myself an atheist and a pantheist. The latter expresses my emotional reaction to the universe better than the term atheist does, but I agree with Dawkins that there isn’t much real difference between the two. In real-life relations, I am a coward and use ‘pantheist’ pretty much exclusively because it does not carry the social stigma that ‘atheist’ does.

    I’m not sure how much contemporary atheism differs from historical atheism; Susan Jacoby has done a good job of showing that we didn’t originate in a vacuum, and much of the writing of historical atheists resonates just as profoundly to me as that of modern atheists. The success of the ‘new’ atheists lies not so much in new ideas (though their ideas are often very well elucidated) as in a critical mass of atheists willing to spend the money it takes to put their books on the bestseller lists.

    2. Feeling like an outsider:

    Oh, boy, have I ever. This last christmas eve, in a bout of introspective feeling, I went to the Starbucks at the local Target store and just sat for a long time, watching all of the celebrants filing buy with their shopping carts full of hundreds of dollars worth of merchandise. My own family celebrates christmas, and has for my entire life, but I still felt particularly detatched this year. Maybe it’s the fact that ‘christmas’ now occupies a full quarter of the calendar?

    A complete stranger noticed my introspective mood and came over, seemingly concerned about my state of mind, and then proceeded to ‘witness’ at me. Bleah. Absolutely the *last* thing I needed at that point.

    I can’t say that I personally have been the target of discrimination, since I am still quite closeted. However, when I was in grade school a classmate knocked me against the wall (seemingly out of the blue) and demanded to know whether or not I believed in god. Since I was raised in an xian family and hadn’t really thought about it at that point, I eventually prevaricated, ‘well, yeah, I guess I do,’ to which my classmate responded, ‘Oh, well, I guess you’re ok then.’ In addition, relatively mild statements of non-affiliation (for example, writing ‘we’re not all christian’ on a group banner otherwise covered in crosses and jesus fish) have been obscured, vandalized, or covered up by scandalized believers.

    3 key issues:

    I think that community is really a huge issue. Firstly, for a lot of church-goers, even moderate ones, church is at least as much about community and social feeling as it is about belief and worship. They associate the one with the other; for someone to reject belief, they assume that they are also rejecting community. Thus, non-belivers are sociopathic by definition, in the mind of a churchgoer. Secondly, those who are able to leave a church that they were raised in tend to be the people who are less influenced by the group, more likely to think out of the box, and more likely to be perceived as black sheep/lone wolves. This reinforces the first point. The fact that the churchgoer never *sees* the non-church-goer doing anything wrong does not change the perception that there is something ‘different’ about them.

    4. Bad behavior by religious people:

    Assuming that I’m the same faith that they are.

    Assuming that they know what is happening inside my head better than I do, and telling me flat out not to contradict them because they won’t believe it (“Don’t tell me that you don’t worship anything, because everyone worships something.” “Don’t tell me that you’re not a dualist; true monists don’t exist.” etc.).

    Taking profound offense at even the most innocuous suggestions that there might be non-believers (“Happy holidays,” “Don’t believe in God? You are not alone.”)

    Using their religion to justify regressive social policies and then crying discrimination when they are contradicted by actual data. Apparently, the only argument against one side using religion is for the other side to find another religionist who can justify their argument using some *other* interpretation of the scripture in question.

    The disbelieving tone of voice that newscasters use when they have to say the word, ‘atheist.’ For example, ‘In the other news, a group of *atheists* is challenging the constitutionality of the nativity scene at the courthouse…’ is voiced in exactly the same tone as, ‘In the other news, a group of *flying purple elephants* is challenging the constitutionality of the nativity scene at the courthouse…’ would be.

    5. Regional issues

    mostly already covered. Bible belt = wouldn’t move there for a million dollars, Coasts = slightly better, but still quite conservative in rural areas.

    6. being in the closet
    I live in California, but I work in a relatively rural (Catholic) hospital. I recently put a scarlet A sticker on my car and a button on my backpack, but only because I think it’s something that most xians wouldn’t know about. I mean it more as a ‘you are not alone’ to other atheists than an ‘in your face’ to xians, not that I expect that they’d see the difference if they recognized the symbol. I don’t know if I’d lose my job if my atheism really came out and I was confronted about it, but it wouldn’t surprise me; ten years of good behavior would be forgotten as everyone suddenly remembered every bad mood, skeptical look, missed appointment, and/or other lack-of-perfection I had ever committed in order to recalibrate their view of me as an atheist.

    That said, it is rarely my coworkers that present a problem at work. Most are civilized enough to keep their faith to themselves, barring jewelry, during working hours (breaks are another matter). The hospital has a policy of non-discrimination in hiring, and most people respect that. The patients, however, either do not know about that policy or do not care; it is not unusual for them to ask me to pray with them.

  • Miko

    1. I’d say the most significant division is those who care about religious issues vs. those who don’t. While pretty much everyone here is going to be in the first group, it’s worth remembering that most atheists are probably in the second.

    3. One of the main reasons atheists are attacked is because some Christians assume that atheists are attacking them. (And of course some are, but they’re a very small minority.) Consider as a prime example the “War on Christmas” rhetoric, or check out the sentiments expressed in any comment thread on any online news article about the Bible-verses-on-gun-scopes thing. (Specifically, those along the lines of “how dare those atheists complain about this?”)

    According to L.H. Morgan’s “theory of history,” social evolution comes as a result of our relation to our technology changing faster than our relation to each other. Communication technology (mass media, independent online blogging, public education, etc.) has reached a point where Christianity’s dominant socio-political position cannot survive and the current “Culture Wars” issues are by and large about how Christians, atheists, and members of other religions are adjusting and responding to this new status quo.

    6. No, but I don’t necessarily feel the need to stridently proclaim it constantly either.

  • 1. I don’t think the various groups are all that different from each other beyond temperament. Really, at their core, they all disbelieve, and there isn’t really much variance from that (mostly because there isn’t much to be variant from with that). Those that call themselves freethinkers seem to take a more academic approach to their non-belief, while humanists try more diplomatic approaches. Skeptics try to take a broad-view approach to not just religion, but anything mystical in nature. Anti-theists are just taking a hardline against religion.

  • I have a follow-up question based on a discussion I had with my professor today after class about my paper. He pointed out (and several of you have too) that atheism is much more normative, perhaps even expected, in the higher academy, and that because of this, many atheists are in fact in a position of significant cultural power and influence. You are often considered to be among the educated elite in our country, and that fact carries with it a lot of social (and often material) privilege. While of course it is not universally the case that atheism is normative in the academy, and certainly not all atheists are among the educated elite themselves either, nonetheless, it seems to me that there is a lot of evidence to suggest that in many cases atheists do at least hold this one particular position of significant cultural privilege and influence.

    What do the rest of you think about that argument, and more importantly, do you think it undermines my claim that atheists are an “outsider” group in America? Can atheists still be truly “outsiders” if they hold such a position of privilege and dominance in one of our core social institutions?

    I have my own responses to that question, but I’m curious to hear what the rest of y’all would say about it as well.

  • Mike,

    What percentage of the population holds tenured faculty positions in America’s universities? I dare say it is a VERY small percentage. Of course if you live within that environment, it may seem like atheists are well represented and in some disciplines even expected. But then again, try running for office were the general population votes. How many politicians even want to admit they have an atheist advising them? The opposition candidate will jump all over that (and probably win).

  • Autumnal Harvest

    5. There are regional differences (i.e blue states/red states) that pretty much match the stereotypes. However, a more important difference is the professional or social environment that you spend most of your time in. I’ve spent most of my life in science and academia, and there agnosticism/atheism is more the norm. In fact, I would guess that most people in the physical sciences tend to assume that other scientists are atheists, so my experiences are different than most others here, in that I’ve never felt particularly like an outsider due to my atheism. When I lived in the Midwest, I could tell from billboards and newspapers that everyone expected that Christianity was normative, but that had little effect on my work environment, or the people I was likely to spend time with. So my atheism hs never made me feel particularly like an outsider.

    1. Most atheists that I’ve interacted with wouldn’t consider themselves part of an “atheist community,” let alone classify themselves as a particular type of atheist. They just don’t think about atheism or religion at all. As an analogy, I’m not a communist, but I don’t identify myself as a non-communist, or spend much time thinking about how communism doesn’t work. Most atheists that I’ve met are like that. On the other hand, none of the atheists here are like that, for the simple reason that you’ve selected a group of people who are interested in talking about how they’re not communists. I tend to think that most atheists are the kind of “indifferent atheists” that I know, but that may be because of my experiences, described in #5.

    2. Not really, because of the self-selected professional and social environments described in #5. Things like the fictional “War on Christmas,” or the decision of my local government to decorate the city hall with angels remind me my atheism makes me an outsider in American more generally, but that doesn’t feel as personal.

  • Autumnal Harvest

    Mike, just posted my answers, and then saw your follow-up question, which seems almost tailored to my answers. I don’t think your professor’s observation undermines your claim that atheists are an “outsider” group in America, it just reminds us that “outsider” status depends on context. Mormons are outsiders in America in general, but not in the context of Utah. Asian-Americans make roughly as much as white Americans, and are overrepresented in academia, but I doubt that your professor would dispute that Asian-Americans are outsiders in the context of America at large.

  • 2. No, I can’t say that I’ve ever felt like an outsider because of my atheism. It’s been a complete non-issue in my life, especially since I’ve never had any religious beliefs, grew up in a secular family, and live in a liberal, tolerant area. Even though I have assorted friends and relatives who are theists, they’re all moderate or liberal and are definitely not given to preaching, so it’s just never come up in a negative way. Discrimination? No, not unless you count someone ripping the Darwin fish off my car about five years ago.

    4. Even though I don’t feel like an outsider, I would say that there’s a definitely an expectation in our society that everyone believes in some form of the supernatural. I find that mildly annoying, how other people just assume you must believe in it. I wouldn’t say it’s deliberate on their part, though. It probably comes from being in the majority and not really understanding that there’s a minority viewpoint out there.

    5. I would guess that discrimination is much worse in certain parts of the country. I was born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area and have lived here all my life, so I can only speak about my own experiences. It’s really been a non-issue here. Although people seem to expect you to believe in “something,” they’re vague about what that “something” is. Religion is considered a private thing. I don’t see religious billboards or bus ads, and strangers and acquaintances are not likely to inquire about your religious beliefs. I’d go so far as to say it would be considered pretty rude for them to do so.

  • LKL

    The fact that atheism (and alternate belief systems in general) is more accepted in academia does not necessarily mean that atheists are dominant in academia, especially outside of the sciences.

    here are some links you might find useful:
    religion.ssrc.org/reforum/Gross_Simmons.pdf
    summaries of the above:
    http://harvardmagazine.com/2007/07/faculty-faith.html
    http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2006/10/09/religion

  • Richard Wade

    Mike, the letter from the student nurse in the latest Ask Richard post might be of use to you as an example of being treated as an outsider (a very mild term in this case) and in being marginalized.

    Personally, I’ve been treated like dirt only a couple of times, but that’s because generally I’m careful to keep my atheism private while in the three-dimensional world. I was considering getting more involved in positive dialogues with faith groups to promote understanding, however, reading the couple hundred letters I’ve received so far has had a chlling effect on me. After hearing about how bad the mistreatment can get, I’ve become even more reluctant to “out” myself in my immediate community. I can be quite a chicken sometimes.

    I don’t know if this fits into any of your questions, but from the experience of reading so many stories from atheists, I’ve come to strongly think that the root of the animosity that theists have toward atheists, and the resultant marginalizing is not anger, it is fear.

    I think that for most people, continuing their faith is difficult. It is hard for them to maintain belief in something that is not clearly and obviously confirmed by their senses. It is only confirmed by mutual agreement. That is why they congregate weekly, to reinforce each other’s sagging belief.

    When many of them meet a sane, intelligent and moral person who is simply not convinced of what they believe, it is very very threatening to them. They try so hard to discount the atheist’s view by attributing it to being insane, being stupid or being depraved. When the atheists don’t confirm that in their behavior, it becomes even more threatening and the theists dig even deeper into their weakened ability to believe unconfirmed ideas, and they insist even more that the unconvinced person is the ogre they have claimed, and so it cycles worse and worse.

    So their hate comes from fear. They fear us because just standing around, doing nothing more than being not convinced, we remind them of the painful holes in their faith.

  • Jeff Dale

    I have a follow-up question based on a discussion I had with my professor today after class about my paper. He pointed out (and several of you have too) that atheism is much more normative, perhaps even expected, in the higher academy, and that because of this, many atheists are in fact in a position of significant cultural power and influence. You are often considered to be among the educated elite in our country, and that fact carries with it a lot of social (and often material) privilege. While of course it is not universally the case that atheism is normative in the academy, and certainly not all atheists are among the educated elite themselves either, nonetheless, it seems to me that there is a lot of evidence to suggest that in many cases atheists do at least hold this one particular position of significant cultural privilege and influence.

    What do the rest of you think about that argument, and more importantly, do you think it undermines my claim that atheists are an “outsider” group in America? Can atheists still be truly “outsiders” if they hold such a position of privilege and dominance in one of our core social institutions?

    This doesn’t significantly undermine the argument. At most, it indicates that there’s one small, largely self-contained social setting in which atheists can feel comfortable being “out” among peers.

    An academic position does have some cultural power and influence, but this doesn’t help much in the area of atheist social acceptance for these reasons:

    [1] Most of the general public doesn’t have much contact with academic professionals. At most, they might happen to know a professor or two (neighbor, acquaintance from high school, etc.). Most people never find themselves in a social setting in which academic types make up a substantial proportion. Even many college students (at least at the undergraduate level) have little contact with their professors outside of class and office hours, and generally not in social settings with other professors.

    [2] Even to the extent that academic professionals do have influence on students and other people they know outside the academy, that influence is mainly going to be in the academic content or career issues (for students), or other subjects of general social interest (for non-students), and atheism is generally not going to be part of that influence. It probably won’t even come up in conversation, unless there’s already a reason for it (e.g., they’re at an atheist group meeting, in which case the non-academics in question are already at least interested in atheism).

    [3] Academic professionals generally don’t have much opportunity to extend their influence in the public sphere beyond [1] and [2]. In particular, they’re unlikely to be elected to any significant public office, since most Americans still idealize the everyman with ordinary folksy appeal and can’t relate to the “elitists” who work in the “ivory tower” world. (Yes, they do sometimes elect highly intelligent and academically successful people, such as the most recent two Democratic presidents, but these are practicing attorneys who either are religious or hide their atheism, not people working in the academy, who would be too easy to paint as “out of touch” in attack ads).

    Moving beyond the academy to your broader point about atheists being, in general, among the educated elite, I think it would be fair to say that we get a bit more influence, especially from economic power, when compared, say, to a comparable-sized representative sample of religious people. Even so, there’s only so much the educated elite can do to influence the religious outlooks of the masses. In other words, atheists may, as a group, garner a disproportionate share of the education and material success, but that just makes everyone else want to emulate their education and material success, not their atheism (which is often hidden in any case).

  • here are some links you might find useful:
    religion.ssrc.org/reforum/Gross_Simmons.pdf
    summaries of the above:
    http://harvardmagazine.com/2007/07/faculty-faith.html
    http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2006/10/09/religion

    Thanks LKL! Those are very, very useful links.

  • Eliza

    Hi, Mike – here’s my 2 cents on the academics question.

    First, establishing credentials: Other than 5 years in private (medical) practice along the way, I’ve been in an academic setting in one form or another since starting college in 1980: first as undergrad in chemistry + biology at a highly science- & engineering- focused college, which had plenty of Christian students, then graduate school in chemistry then in medicine, then postgraduate training (residency) in medicine, then working my way up the academic ladder from “acting instructor” (which has nothing to do with drama) to assistant professor, and, if all goes well, up to associate professor in a few months. Both grandfathers were professors, my dad was a professor (physics), & my spouse is also a professor (in a science/engineering field). So I’ve been pretty steeped in academics, mostly on both coasts but also for a while in the midwest.

    Three thoughts about beliefs in a SECULAR academic setting:

    (1) A higher percentage of people in academics are nontheistic compared with the general population (esp in sciences, as has been pointed out) – but there are still a significant number of believers, so a nontheist still has to be careful about what they say to which person about religion or atheism. As an anecdotal example, for the past 5 years my direct supervisor and her direct supervisor, both of whom are of higher academic rank than me, are Christian; therefore I been extra careful not to say anything about my beliefs or practices with regard to religion at work.

    (2) I suspect the common culture in most secular academic settings encourages people to be less likely to display their personal beliefs. Maybe it’s the greater, if still fairly quiet, presence of nontheists, and/or the recognition that any belief expressed in an academic setting might become fair game for rational inquiry especially by those who are skeptical of the claim – ?? Instructors & professors are trying to teach material & approaches, trying to stimulate the students to think & investigate & question. Typically (in a secular setting) the topic of religion/atheism will be avoided unless it’s supposed to be part of the class material; then (I’m really heading off into supposition here) in a secular setting the factual material won’t be the professors own beliefs, but notable sources with some historical or other import.

    (3) While academicians do, by and large, enjoy a privileged position in society (at the very least, not having to punch a clock, and being encouraged to explore new ideas), the stereotype of academicians as having pointy hats (or heads) and living in an ivory tower has some basis in reality. Topics of atheism & religion probably come up infrequently as part of the work of most secular academicians, certainly with some potential exceptions (evolutionary biology could; philosophy, I suppose) and, as in (2) above, one is supposed to encourage analysis & investigation, not shove one’s own beliefs down other people’s throats. (Or, down other people’s kids’ throats.) Other than their contact with impressionable college students, I suspect that most academicians are not really looked to as “opinion leaders” in society, esp. in religious belief, where many people already have “experts” identified – their church leaders.

    How’s that for making up some analysis on the fly? 😉

    Edited to add: the way I know about my supervisor and grand-supervisor being Christian is brief mentions they’ll make about something they’ve done with their church – thank god it’s pretty low key, no proselytizing, but enough also so that I’m reminded to be careful what I say.

  • Eliza

    I’d been planning originally on responding to your OP, Mike; to save time I’ll plagiarize something I wrote on 1/20 as part of a discussion in a small Christian group that has welcomed some atheists in, as it seems somewhat pertinent. Sorry not to break my comments down into the categories you asked about.

    ***

    The Christian who runs the group had written: “But, it appears to me that there is more animosity toward Christians than the other direction. As I observe the atheist forums and websites, it seems they are bent on ridicule of believers. I know that some Christian apologists resort to ridicule as well, but the Christians I know would only wish the best upon atheists, which in their mind includes getting them ‘saved’.”

    I replied, “My animositimeter is in the shop, but having self-identified as an atheist for almost 40 years and having been ‘closeted’ for ~35 years due to early & repeated clues that animosity against atheists was widespread and immediate, I’d say it goes both ways (in real life & on the internet). I suspect what you are noticing now is a burst of relief, as it were, from people who before widespread use of the internet, with its community-building, experience-sharing, and anonymity-granting features, were isolated, closeted, feared, and reviled. (Now we’re just feared and reviled. And, unfortunately, I’m not kidding.) I can’t help but share some of the anger that you hear & read about from “new atheists” because we have been essentially forced to pretend we’re something we’re not, and shut out from society’s full privileges. (If you think I’m exaggerating, try running for public office as an “out” atheist.)

    On various websites where topics having anything to do with religion – like the one Pharyngula links today [1/20] about whether or not there is life after death – all too often the posts from Christians (or, at least, the people whom one can’t mistake for anything else) are essentially diatribes either quoting long stretches of scripture or exclaiming that obviously the answer is [insert religiosity here] & proclaiming simplistic solutions like just believing, accepting Christ, just reading the Bible, etc, oh and often adding that if you don’t you’ll go to hell. I’m sure that some of them have convinced themselves that this is a ‘loving’ way to interact with other people, and that they are doing what god wants them to do. That’s part of the big disconnect between some Christians (not all, but a vocal portion) and many non-Christians – the behavior that the C’s consider “loving” comes across as anything but, to the non-C’s.

    How does one interpret & act on the teaching, “love thy neighbor” when one thinks that their sacred, loving duty is to convince their neighbor to accept Christ, but the neighbor disagrees? The mind boggles.”

    ***

    And, more thoughts (again, no categorization or numbers, sorry): I was raised without religion (didn’t used to be common; will become more common). I have felt for all of my “sentient” life that I am TREATED like an outsider in American life, though I don’t feel like I/we ARE outsiders, or SHOULD BE outsiders. I rage against the unfairness of how atheists are treated (in the US). I hold the U.S. Constitution in high regard and wish it would be implemented in its full glory, especially Article VI section 3 (“no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States” – well, the media & the voting public violates this one in practice all the time), the first amendment (including of course separation of religion & government), and the 14th amendment (equal protection clause). Our money and our country’s pledge of allegiance simply should not contain religious slogans. (There is no god statement which can be all-inclusive. Besides atheists, Hindus and Buddhists are left out by the monotheistic statements on money & in the pledge.) These and other assumptions of monotheism pervade our culture and are a daily slap in the face to remind us that we are, as GHWBush apparently wanted, barely considered citizens.

    I also rage at how difficult it’s been to achieve legalization of same-sex marriage. As Ted Olson (in Newsweek) and others (including Andrew Sullivan) have pointed out, granting marriage rights to adults in committed relationships seems like it should be a conservative ideal! The ONLY argument I see against it (in most of the world) comes down to Abrahamic religious tradition. In the US, given the protections & rights supposedly granted by our Constitution, IMO it should be obvious: it’s unconstitutional to deny civil marriage rights to adult couples simply because they’re nontraditional in some way.

    Then there’s the whole question of whether & why marriage would need to be limited to 2 people. I won’t get into that here. You probably don’t really want that diatribe cluttering up your notes. 😉

  • Anonymity

    2. All the time. I am first year third grade teacher living in the Bible belt. It’s pretty much a given that if you are an elementary teacher in the area where I live that you are two things: religious and conservative. I am everything but those two things. Very often at my school, the teachers talk openly about their experiences at church and say things like “God bless” and “I’ll pray for you.” Emails sent to the faculty will often have Bible verses and other religious text as a foot note at the bottom of the page. The whole situation is very astonishing to me because the teachers at my school never even bothered to ask what church I attend or what my religion is. It’s wild to me that they automatically assumed I have the same beliefs as them. Not to mention that schools are supposed to be free of religion. Discussions with my fellow teachers can become very awkward when the topic turns to religion because I try to remain engaged in the conversation while trying not to seem like I am agreeing with what they are saying. I haven’t bothered to tell any of my teaching peers that I am an atheist because I don’t want things to be awkward. Also, I don’t think its necessary or professional to talk about these types of things while at work. However, if eventually they do ask me what church I attend or what denomination I belong to I will definitely state my beliefs. Also, my friends are all Christians. We tried discussing religion and atheism once upon a time, but after trying a few times and not getting very far we unconsciously decided to avoid the topic.

  • pinko

    2. I felt like an outsider attending a public school in Texas, where everyone was defined by which church they attended. I feel like an outsider in legal academia, where plenty of schools discriminate against non-believers in hiring of faculty. When a speaker came to a southern law school that I was a fellow at and was arguing that non-believers don’t get offended by christmas displays, I came out of the closet at that school. Faculty members were shocked. When searching for a tenure-track position, I learned that law schools with christian affiliations that will hire believers of other mainline religions will not hire an atheist (such as Notre Dame and Pepperdine)

    3. People are afraid of what they don’t know. I think about how Justice Powell was on the fence about whether a state should be allowed to criminalize gay sex in Bowers v. Hardwick, and told his law clerk that he didn’t know any gay people. It turned out his own law clerk was gay, but couldn’t say anything out of fear of jeopardizing his legal career.

    Likewise, many people think they don’t know an atheist, esp. in conservative areas, because we are afraid to be out in the open due to the repercussions we’ll face.

    5. In Texas, out of the closet atheists like myself are rather uncommon. I live in a big city, which helps, but it would be difficult if I was in a more rural part of the state.

    6. My goal is to educate. I am open and honest about my beliefs. My goal is for people to be able to look at me and think to themselves that there is a moral person who does not believe in any gods, and maybe other atheists are moral as well.

  • 1.) To start, one thing that I have to clear up is the fact that, though sociology is the study of groups, atheists and in turn agnostics, have no macro situation. From a social stand point, we as a “group,” have no bindings other than a common idea within our views of the world and definitions. There is no innate community or creed to adhese us together because in all honesty, an integral part of these ideas is that we do not require a community to support us.

    So with these thoughts in mind, to define atheists and agnostics (I refer to both because I believe that strong agnostics fall within the same realm. And from here on in, when I refer to atheists, I mean agnostics as well.), it has to be noted that they are at a base value, usually alone. There are atheistic family units, but they are few and far between, and there are communities of atheists, but to my working knowledge, they are those with a conviction, having experienced judgment and ridicule, they have learned to adapt their skin to armor and words to dextrous daggers.

    Are there different types? Yes. Would I be satisfied breaking them down? No, these ideas are not so easily separated into neat little bundles like main stream religions. Each and every atheist has a different and unique world view, and to me the differences are inconsequential. What ties us is the fundamental idea.

    2.) As a social group, not only are atheists outsiders, more often than not (This is not absolute.), they are a product of marginalization and discrimination. Through questions, and the negative connotations that those questions bring, atheists are born from the negative feedback that a curious mind requites. It is a logical backlash, by shunning thoughtful ideas and punishing, socially and sometimes physically, those who are interested, a deeper curiosity is sparked. In our culture, through this “spiritual” curiosity, the seeds of deductive reasoning are born. So drawing back, for many atheists, being an “outsider” is the beginning, not a trial. It is something we have grown accustomed to.

    For me personally, I am lucky enough not to have experienced a large amount of discrimination, but I no longer argue religion. Not because I’m afraid of those around me or discrimination, but more so that I am tired. I have argued religion long enough, and never have I changed someone’s mind (To my first-hand knowledge.). I have only further convinced myself, and fortified my own personal strength in debate, the common word, and logic. But just as I find it pointless when someone claims their faith to me, do I find it pointless to claim my lack of faith to someone else. Maybe I have learned unconsciously that broadcasting it can bring about unfavorable results, but when I do speak of religion, I keep myself as ambiguous as possible, to watch the ideas sink in, versus having them shunned completely from being tagged an atheist.

    3.) Simply put, religions today view other religions innately as like other cultures of people. They exist, but as long as they do not mingle, the status quo can be held. Atheists on the other hand challenge every single religion that believes in a deity. We confront the idea and deny it out loud. This is frightening to people, especially those who do not rely on deductive reasoning, or practice the art of debate. They lack these skills, and thus lack the ability to understand concession, let alone partake in it. It is not our practices or belief structure that lead to tension, we have neither. It is merely out existence that threatens. We are villains by definition, and are relegated as such.

    4.) We are not accepted. Take a look at any poll about atheism and you will see that we are a commonly unacceptable part of society. To claim yourself an atheist is political suicide; in certain states it will get your tires slashed; we must constantly correct the idea of atheism from erroneous preconceptions; we are assumed to be immoral because morality is apparently a religious idea; we are consistently reminded that this country was founded on “Protestant morals” (Ha, ha.); “One nation under God” and “In God we Trust.” It is a general and over-arching mentality that keeps us marginalized, relegated within the same fractured logic that labels religious extremists as “terrorists,” instead of aptly naming them, or “Commies” during the the early to mid 1900’s. McCarthyism much?

    5.) Coastal cities within the United States are more likely to tolerate or understand, but when you really peel back the layers, there is no such thing as a mainstream majority. Even in San Francisco, where the Gay Parade breaks many laws which are overlooked and the Folsom Leather Festival can run at full stride, speak your mind about religion as an atheist and you will get a dirty look. Maybe not at the Gay Parade or Folsom, but anywhere else, and you’ll get at least one. It surprises even me sometimes, and I’ve lived in the Bay Area my whole life.

    Everywhere else? Besides the more liberal countries throughout the world, in many places we’d be stoned to death.

    All things aside, feel free to mail me with any inquiries.

  • BTW, thank you all so much for your help. I finally finished the paper and your insights and stories were very, very useful to me. I really appreciate it.

  • Autumnal Harvest

    Do you plan to post the paper?

  • I doubt it. It’s rather long (19 pages). But I can email copies to anyone who’s interested.

  • Mel

    1. I am of the thought that the more “kinder, gentler” descriptive words for Atheism (freethinker, humanist, skeptic, etc) are a buffer of sorts for the usual backlash that is received from most people when coming out as an atheist. I know I initially used the term “Freethinker” to segue into the more controversial “Atheist” when dealing with certain persons. I have now come to accept that the “soft words” used to describe my Atheism are doing a disservice to us as a community.
    2. I feel like an outsider almost every day. My family and I live in a small semi-rural community that has many religious ties. Our having no social ties involving the church like weekly Sunday Service or church groups has, I feel, isolated us more than our neighbors, but I am not willing to compromise our lifestyle to bend to a set of social standards in our community. As of yet, there has been no outward discrimination towards us.
    3. I believe that the key issues to us being marginalized or discriminated against are pretty much the same as any other group who has experienced discrimination. Lack of knowledge. For countless years many religions have portrayed Atheists as “evil” and “immoral.” People hate what they fear and do not understand. We as Atheists need to be more active and out in our communities doing good works to show that the negative connotations are false. Better organization is key.
    4. Four Words: “I’ll pray for you.” Actually, I could fill a book with why I feel like an outsider for my atheism, but that BS is tops.
    5. I think that certain areas, perhaps more metropolitan and diverse, are more tolerant, but I have never felt that I was ever a part of the mainstream majority regardless of where I have lived.
    6. I am out to a certain degree in my life. I don’t wear a banner proclaiming my atheism, but I do display my Darwin fish on my car and have a lapel pin of it on my purse. It generally starts conversations where I can explain my point of view. Luckily, I have never been discriminated upon in a profound negative manner. I guess my community may be too WASP-y for that type of confrontation.