That's the title of an article that appeared in the April edition of the American Sociological Review. It got some attention back when it first came out, but I just got a chance to read it for myself. Here are the highlights. The full citation, for those who are interested, is
Edgell, Gerteis, and Hartmann. "Atheists as 'Other': Moral Boundaries and Cultural Membership in American Society." American Sociological Review. 2006 Vol. 71 (April 211-234).
First, let me take a moment to be embarrassed for this country. The scientists who did the study used two measures to determine acceptance of a group: Do they share your vision of Amerian society, and would you be okay with your child marrying one? In both cases, atheists got the most "no"s, and Muslims got the second most. For the vision question, the next two were homosexuals and conservative Christians. For the marriage one, however, African Americans got the third most "no"s, with 27.2% saying that they would not want one of the children marrying one.
What the hell is wrong with us? I mean, I know, you'd probably get the same figure for believing that people who disagree with you go to Hell, but this was one I thought that we had gotten past. Damn.
Anyway, moving on. One of the first statistics in the article says that 14% have no religion, 7% either don't believe in or don't know whether there's a god, and 1% of Americans are atheists or agnostics. This immediately suggests a problem with a simple policy solution: spend more money on teaching English.
The article provided many other interesting bits of statistical analysis. One was that acceptance of atheists is correlated with all sorts of good stuff, such as belief in procedural democracy. Rejection was correlated to a degree with adherence to conservative Christianity, but it was more strongly correlated with belief that religion should play a big role in government. This is good news and bad news. On the one hand, we have all the sane people on our side. On the other hand, we seem to be short on sane people.
Two statistics were particularly striking, though. One I already mentioned: atheists are more hated than Muslims, in spite of having killed considerably fewer Americans in recent terrorist attacks. The other is that homosexuals used to be on the bottom of the heap for presidential viability, with atheists second worse. Recently, however, atheists and homosexuals have switched positions.
Both statistics point to one conclusion: we need better PR. Undoubtedly, the reason that homosexuals are now viable presidential candidates is that they've been coming out in droves recently, showing the world that they're normal people. When Sept. 11th hit, the majority of opinion makers were falling over themselves to say that Islam is a religion of peace. One group did good PR, the other got good PR done for it. In both cases, the result was greater acceptance.
Let's face it, atheists: we suck at PR. We've got good writers and speakers, true. Dan Barker is both. But how good does even he do at PR? Terrible, frankly. The average person off the street is most likely to hear about him because of a church/state lawsuit or some such. It may be necessary to fight the court battles on those issues, but they invariably turn out to be bad PR.
Just how bad the situation is I didn't realize until reading the results the researchers got from individual interviews. The general conclusion was that atheists are associated with two things illegal activities such as "drug use and prostituation" and "rampant materialists and cultural elitists." One interviewee, for example, said that "There's a real 'I'm an atheist' attitude among people with major money." I think this means that the lady's idea of an atheist is pretty much Britney Spears, and this seemed to be a common notion.
From this I conclude the following: screw the objections that have been raised to the atheist video. Better to have a snotty British biologist as our representative that Britney. Let's spread that video as far and wide as we can.