Who is the first person who comes to mind when you think of atheism?
Mind you, that doesn’t mean the person is the most famous atheist. Just the name that comes up when you think of the word.
The Pew Research Center asked that question, along with similar ones concerning the major world religions, and they just released the responses. It won’t surprise you to learn that Buddhism prompted Buddha (55% of respondents said that) or that Catholicism led to the Pope (47%).
Perhaps it’s a bit surprising that 21% associated Billy Graham with Evangelical Protestantism, more than any other single person, given that he died in 2018 and stopped preaching regularly long before then, though many of the more prominent evangelicals today are better known for politics than religion.
But when it came to atheism, the one name that came to mind more than any other was…
6% of Americans thought “Satan” when prompted with “atheism.” Which doesn’t even make sense. But there you go.
51% of Americans couldn’t think of anyone, 10% said it was someone they knew personally (i.e. someone who’s not famous), 26% gave a smattering of random answers (i.e. people who aren’t famous enough), and 4% each said Richard Dawkins and Madalyn Murray O’Hair (who was murdered in 1995).
There were some other names on the longer results list, many of whom were included in that 26% of random answers.
There’s astrophysicist Stephen Hawking (2%), comedian Bill Maher (2%), author Christopher Hitchens (1%)… and, for whatever reason, Jesus (1%).
President Barack Obama, who is Christian — or “Muslim,” if you’re an ignorant Republican — also got a few undeserved mentions (less than 1%).
The big takeaway for me is that there really isn’t any prominent atheist these days — the sort of person who can cut through the atheism-only bubble and talk about it to a mainstream audience. The names that come up today are probably the same ones that would’ve come up a decade ago. Atheists aren’t as well known because atheism has become less of an issue since the “New Atheism” hype in the mid-2000s.
These results come from the same survey in which people were asked about their religious knowledge. As you may recall, Jewish respondents fared the best, closely followed by atheists and agnostics. But none of the groups did exceptionally well.
Many people don’t know much about religion, period. So it’s no wonder that the most famous people associated with various belief systems aren’t necessarily ones that make sense. No living (or even recently alive) Jewish person made the popularity list. Even for evangelicals, the big names who were alive this century were Graham and Jerry Falwell (the despicable dead one, not his despicable son).
Or, if you want to spin that in a good way, it means there are openings for people who speak about their religious views to break into the American consciousness regardless of background. Just as we can always use strong science communicators, it would be wonderful to have a (literally new) atheist who can break through our own bubble, who the media can turn to for comment, and who isn’t cringe-worthy in a variety of other ways. It’s not something you can just volunteer for, but it starts by finding a way to advocate those views in a way that doesn’t turn the whole world against you.
At least we can hope for that. The alternative is having an atheist version of Falwell, the sort of person you have to constantly apologize for instead of point to when your belief comes up.
(Featured image via Shutterstock)