More Hostility to Atheists:

Some commenters to the post below suggested that unfavorable views of atheists may not indicate any desire to discriminate against individuals because they're atheists, but just annoyance at the views of prominent atheists (especially those who label themselves "atheist" rather than "agnostic" or "irreligious"). That's possible, and I don't know how to test this directly using existing polls, but here's the closest I could come up with.

A June 23, 1999 Fox News poll asked, "Would you consider voting for a political candidate who did not believe in God?" The responses were: Yes: 26%; No: 69%.

The closest comparable poll that I could find related to other religious groups was a Jan. 14, 2003 Fox News poll that asked, as to various groups, "Over the years there has been debate over whether a presidential candidate's religion is an obstacle or an advantage to getting elected. I'm going to read you some religious affiliations and I'd like you to tell me whether you think that affiliation is a positive thing that might make you more likely to vote for the candidate or a negative thing that might make you less likely to vote for the candidate...." Here are the results:

Candidate's affiliation

Positive, More likely to vote [for the candidate]

Negative, Less likely to vote [for the candidate]

Doesn't matter [volunteered]





"Roman Catholic"




"Christian Coalition"












So in 2003, 47% of respondents said they'd ignore a candidate's being a Muslim, or see it as a plus. 49% said the candidate's being a Muslim would make it less likely that they'd vote for him, though presumably for some respondents, there would remain some possibility that they'd vote for the Muslim candidate.

Yet in 1999, only 26% of respondents said they'd consider voting "for a political candidate who doesn't believe in God" (even without any reference to the possibly emotionally laden term "atheist"), and 69% apparently wouldn't even consider such a possibility.

Mark B (mail) (www):
In support of my point in the comments on the previous related posting, this Jan. 14, 2003 Fox News poll did include the "Doesn't Matter" option. And the results show that in most cases, "Doesn't Matter" is the majority option. Muslims are the exception, but even there it is close, and certainly there are understandable (if not universally acceptable) reasons for that result. The poll discussed in the previous posting did not give a "Doesn't Matter" option and makes all respondents look like bigots in one direction or the other.
12.12.2005 3:59pm
anonymous coward:
This poll didn't seem to give a "doesn't matter" option; that response is labeled as "[volunteered]."

One problem would be if the earlier poll threw out "doesn't matter" responses in calculating the percentages. (The percentages don't quite add up to 100% but that could be "not sure"s or something else. I'd expect a few more "doesn't matter"s, even for atheists.)
12.12.2005 4:04pm
Thanks, Eugene, I just commented on the same thing.

It's also worth noting, as I did, that this hostility long predated Michael Newdow. The idea that use of the courts is responsible for hostility towards atheists, I think, is patently false.

I find that many university elitist types strongly underestimate the vigor of reigious belief across this country. Most people do not have a lot of friends who are atheists. I would venture that a huge portion of society believes that they have never met an atheist, despite their comprising 5-10% of the population. In truth, many people doubt that atheists even exist. The level of intolerance is much higher than a lot of people think.
12.12.2005 4:06pm
anonymous coward:
Actually, scratch that. A "yes" in the 1999 poll basically equates to a "doesn't matter" in the 2003 poll.
12.12.2005 4:08pm
I ust don't see this as evidence of "hostility to atheists," as the title of Eugene's post suggests. Without making any judgments about someone's personal qualities, it's entirely reasonable to use a key difference in world-view like "doesn't believe in the existence of God" as a disqualification for one's vote. Someone might similarly be unwilling to even consider voting for someone who believed:
- Religious politicans should act to advance the views of their church
- Peace is the natural state of affairs of the world
- Children should be raised by their "village" rather than their "parents"
- Democracy is a bad form of government.

In popular discourse, it also appears that there are many people who are willing to treat "belief in God," or at least "public profession of belief in God" as a disqualifying factor. Remember Senator Kerry's claim that in New England/Massachusetts, voters considered it unseemly for politicians to talk about their religious views?
12.12.2005 4:11pm
Christopher M (mail):
Now, surely you don't think that it's religious bigotry to say you wouldn't vote for someone because she or he is a member of the Christian Coalition.

I take your point to be the empirical one that all the religious groups listed are varied enough, or that their views are decent enough, that someone who ruled a candidate out on the basis of membership in one of the groups would just have to be irrationally bigoted. Whether or not that's true, it doesn't amount to some kind of general principle that someone's religion should not be a factor in forming an opinion of him or her (or in deciding whether to vote for him or her).
12.12.2005 4:14pm
Marcus1: Michael Newdow is far from the first atheist to start garnering national attention by bringing lawsuits seeking to enforce a complete wall of separation. I would trace the beginnings of lawsuit-related distrust, which I believe to be a significant source of these survey results, to Curlett and Schempp in 1963.
12.12.2005 4:15pm
anonymous coward:
Note that the 1999 poll claims that 69% wouldn't consider voting for an atheist. Not that they'd be less likely to vote for one or that they personally find atheists kinda weird. That's a pretty extreme reaction to some atheist somewhere sometime filing a lawsuit that hurt your feelings.

I expect that many voters (though maybe not THAT many) think atheists are particularly lacking in moral character or some such other characteristic important for running the government.
12.12.2005 4:27pm

So you think that before that people were generally receptive to atheists? You might be interested in the late life of Thomas Paine. Despite his instrumental role in gaining our independence, he died a social outcast.

And is that any reason to say that you would not vote for any atheist for any reason? There's a word for that kind of thinking: bigotry.

I can't believe all the apologists. What if 69% of people said they would not elect a Jew to public office. How would we respond? "Oh, well that doesn't mean they have anything against Jews -- just that they disagree on fundamental issues." Exactly what are these fundamental issues, anyway? That there is a god? Even if it did not represent hostility, which it obviously does, it would represent a gross misunderstanding of the nature of atheists -- the idea that simply because they are atheists they could not possibly be agreeable politically.
12.12.2005 4:31pm
spencere (mail):
Excuse my ignorance, but what is a "Christian Coalition".

this term means nothing to me.
12.12.2005 4:44pm
Apollo (mail):
It's not bigotry to not consider voting for someone with a radically different worldview from your own. I have an awful lot in common with fellow Christians, a good deal in common with Jews, and some things in common with Muslims. I have almost nothing in common with the worldview of atheists. The difference between viewing mankind as having a tragic existence, underneath a God, in a world that will one day end, and existing independent of God is going to create a radically different image of human nature, and that will be reflected in how the candidate approaches government. Remember the old Buckley slogan of "Don't eminitize the eschathon?" Well, that most conservative of sentiments loses all meaning to an atheist.

It is not bigotry to discriminate against a candidate because of their worldview, and atheism is most certainly a part of that worldview.
12.12.2005 4:46pm

I think 1963 takes us most of the way back in time to a period when uninformed bigotry was commonplace. A significant percentage of voters who supported Nixon in the 1960 presidential election believed that Kennedy was unfit to be President because he was Catholic. I suspect a significant percentage of voters in 1963 would not have considered voting for a candidate based on his race or gender. More importantly, I suspect that in 1963, people's views about Catholics, atheists, and non-Caucasians were genuinely hostile - i.e. they would be inclined to say "yeah, but he's Jewish" in response to some statement of a person's merit.

What I'm trying to say is that in the entire period of time when the "conventional wisdom" has accepted the proposition that people shouldn't be discriminated against based on their religious views, etc., atheists have been among those most strongly behind a strong, prominent, and unpopular campaign to trump the democratic will about the appropriate role of religion in education and ceremony in America.
12.12.2005 4:47pm
John Burgess (mail) (www):
Looks like an example of spontaneous "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" to me...

Those who announce their atheism--i.e., make a big deal of it--get shifted into the "extremist" category while those who keep it quiet, if not hidden, don't.

Announcing one's atheism is seen, correctly or not, as "trumpeting" their that atheism. That is off-putting.

For an older--and non-lawyerly, I guess--generation--the name "Madeline Murray (O'Hair)--continues to raise hackles. Attempts to "de-religionize" public life from the 60s onward have also been a little too "in your face" to make believers very happy.
12.12.2005 4:52pm
Shelby (mail):
It's always entertaining to see people who do not belong to a group try to label it by superficially assigning certain characteristics to it. "Republicans think," "Democrats always believe," "Terrorists want," etc.

Totalizing someone's world-view with the term "atheist" and assuming radical differences between their approach to government and your own, is just as absurd. Try to be precise when you're generalizing about a diverse group that you do not know well. The only thing atheists (self-labeled, or by others?) agree on is that they do not accept on faith the existence of a specific sort of deity.
12.12.2005 4:56pm

The view you express entails that it is impossible for atheists and christians/jews/muslims cannot have similar approaches to government ("that will be reflected in how the candidate approaches government.")

Either that is trivially true (i.e., believers think that it somehow relates back to God, and atheists don't), or it means that there are definite and important things that atheists and believers will do in governing, solely in virtue of their being atheists or believers. Please name some, because I can't think of a single legitimate policy that a religious person will necessarily promulgate, and that an atheist necessarily will not, and vice versa.
12.12.2005 4:56pm
I just knocked off the email about blowback from the top of my head in between what I am supposed to be doing (work), but the point I was (poorly) trying to make is that the only contact most people have with known atheists is when the atheist is belittling something very important in their life. I would suspect most atheists have a live and let live approach to life, but they are not the ones you see on TV or read about in newspapers. I don't know if it is "hostility" or just a reaction to people that the respondents perceive as disrespecting them and their beliefs.
12.12.2005 5:02pm
Jim Hu:
Well, as an atheist, I guess I have to agree that "don't eminitize the eschaton" has no meaning to me...I have no idea what it means.

On the other hand, if don't bring on the Apocalypse, I suppose it depends on what immanentizes the eschaton. We may share common ground or not. Of course, I think of other sentiments as being much more central to conservatism...e.g. "Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness", or "that government governs best that governs least". If your religious belief requires that you think my nonbelief accelerates the endtime, then you are free to hold that belief, and I will defend your right to do so. But I will still call it neither conservative nor unbigoted.
12.12.2005 5:02pm
Jim Hu:
should read "if you mean don't bring on the Apocalypse"...
12.12.2005 5:03pm
Since this question was who do you not want in government, it may be relevant that the leading example of an overtly atheist government in our time was the USSR.
12.12.2005 5:04pm
The statement "I can't think of a single legitimate policy that a religious person will necessarily promulgate, and that an atheist necessarily will not."

I will not blindly vote for anyone who is not an atheist, because they may or may not agree with policies I support. But I think it's fair to put the burden on an atheist running for office to show that he supports school prayer, vouchers usable at parochial schools, and public celebrations of religious holidays.

I also think it's fair to believe that an atheist is unlikely to engage in public displays of faith, such as regular attendance at church, and statements such as "God Bless America" as part of his public service, and to believe that those public displays are important ones in which all elected officials should engage.
12.12.2005 5:04pm
Nunzio (mail):
As long as an atheist had respect for the fact that most people are believers and many people are religious, they would probably be fine running for public office. In fact, if someone just said, "If elected President, I promise to have a Christmas Tree at the White House," that would be enough.

Jesse Ventura is the most prominent example of an openly-atheistic politician I can think of, but I don't think he was open until after he was elected.
12.12.2005 5:06pm
anonymous coward:
"....the leading example of an overtly atheist government in our time was the USSR."

A vote for an atheist is a vote for COMMUNISM! Or possibly Objectivism, which would be considerably more amusing.

(Of course, most of us have figured out by now that electing a Catholic doesn't make America's a Catholic government.)
12.12.2005 5:23pm
Julian Morrison (mail):
The USSR wasn't atheist, they just had a competing religion.
12.12.2005 5:35pm
Time to bring out the big guns: Christians believe that I personally (and every other nonchristian) deserve to be punished eternally in hell for my sins. Whatever I may belive about them pales in comparison with this. It is one of the most depraved and sick beliefs that humanity has ever come up with.
12.12.2005 5:40pm
anonymous coward:
Actually, quite a lot of Christians don't believe in Hell. It's certainly not something that's mentioned often at most non-hardcore churches.
12.12.2005 5:44pm
statfan (mail):
Proseletizers of all sorts are more likely to be disliked (I include atheists here). I am a proseletizer on a certain political issue, and I know it doesn't win me any friends. If a certain religion requires proseletism, then adherence to it would be a sufficient and reasonable[1] ground on which to be hostile towards someone, except that people often consider themselves (say) evangelical without ever actually evangelizing anyone. So, perhaps someone is a bad evangelical but a good (i.e. non-proseletizing) person.

[1] It's not one I agree with -- I think we do better in a world in which there is a frank debate about competing views of the truth.
12.12.2005 6:05pm
Humble Law Student:
Okay, EV aren't you being a little hysterial saying there is so much "hostility" to atheists? Just because Americans have certain impressions atheists doesn't mean we all show "hostility" towards them.

Many Americans are Christian, and most are religious. Religion is a core trait for many people.

The citizenry want their leaders to represent and exemplify them. As such, many Americans want their leader to be religious and/or Christian. It's perfectly natural and hardly reflects some hostility.

What next? Affirmative action for atheists?
12.12.2005 6:07pm
Humble Law Student:
Another important point is the public perception of atheists.

Atheism is at its heart a contrarian doctrine and belief. It denies the existence of God. It is doctrine that is at its core all about "opposition" to the idea of God. Its definition only makes sense when it is juxtaposed against the very thing it denies even exists. Rather interesting I think.

In the public sphere, what have atheists done aside from impugning the deeply held beliefs of the majority of the American people? Nothing really. I'm not saying that many atheists don't do many great, wonderful and important things, but the only time people ever trumpet their atheism is when they use to set up their contrarian position. Christians help others because of their belief. You never hear of atheists doing anything in the name of their "belief" except for trying to limit others' practice of their beliefs. I'm not saying atheists are bad, just that they are waging a horrible PR campaign.

Maybe if the public saw atheists using their atheism for something that everyone saw as socially beneficial, then the public perception will be different. But as long as atheists define themselves as "people purely in opposition to the majoritian values of America" and only enter the public sphere to address that issue and not some socially agreed upon good, Americans as a whole will not have much use for them.
12.12.2005 6:15pm
Jim Hu:
Maybe we just need better PR.

Public service commercial: We are America's Atheists.
Inspiring, vaguely patriotic music in the background as we fade through a montage of a mix of men and women of different ages and ethnic backgrounds:

  • Man (standing by Xmas tree): This is our Christmas tree...and it's a Christmas tree, not a holiday tree!

  • Woman (at a Little League game): I sing God Bless America during the 7th inning stretch at ballgames. I've sung the Messiah

  • Man (in black tie): I think Mozart's requiem is a gorgeous piece of music.

  • Woman (at voting machine): If I was President, I wouldn't say God Bless America at the end of every speech, though

  • Older Man (in a schoolroom): I oppose prayer organized by school employees in public schools, but support the right of students to organize prayers.

  • Older Woman (in a library): I support vouchers that could be used for parochial schools, or for materials and tutoring for home schoolers, for that matter

  • Man (in military uniform): I am not a Communist or an Objectivist

  • Small child (holding adorable puppy): I think Michael Newdow and Annie Laurie Gaylor are silly!

Cut to group shot.
All: We are Atheists...we're your neighbors...and we're proud Americans!
12.12.2005 6:16pm
Bill (mail):
The most straightforward interpretation would seem to be that voters are much more accepting of candidates with any other religious affiliations than they are of candidates who expressly do not believe in God. There are many different things that could explain that.

One study that would be interesting to see is:

Would you be willing to vote for a candidate who answered the question "Do you beleive in God?" by saying "I don't think my religious views are relevant to my qualifications to be president."

Anyway, lots remains unclear:

There are religious people who don't "believe in God".

I think that there are people who say: "I'm Hindu but not religious" and/or "I'm Hindu but/and/so I don't believe in 'God'" (These are different things to say.)

It's also not clear whether agnostics (or only athiests) should say:

"I don't believe in God"

and if that's any different from:

"I can't decide whether or not to believe in God."

or the also comprehensible:

"I'm not sure if I believe in God or not."

Perhaps followed by:

"Do YOU think I believe in God?"
12.12.2005 6:19pm
CEB, get over it. Christians say the exact same thing about their own sins.
12.12.2005 6:21pm
Steven Schmitt (mail):
I think the point about the USSR being an atheistic government is actually relevant: Over the years of the Cold War, atheism was often defined in terms of being equivalent to Communism, and vice versa. Millions of people have had that equivalence drummed into their heads. Could it be that the people of the US simply still hold that equivalence to be true? There certainly has been nothing I've seen to counter it. If it has not been actively countered, it's probably still operative.

For what it's worth, I bet most people of "Gen X" and younger know an avowed atheist. I wonder if those polls broke down the data by age? Could we be dealing with a Cold War relic in the political arena?

As for me, I'll certainly vote for an atheist (I profess to be Evangelical), as long as she is a Republican. ;-)
12.12.2005 6:29pm
Fishbane (mail):
Its definition only makes sense when it is juxtaposed against the very thing it denies even exists.

That's rather circular, don't you think? One might as well say that religion X only makes sense as an assertion that athiesm is incorrect for these reasons. Or, for that matter, that anarchy only makes sense when juxtaposed against statism.

In fact, all atheism is is an assertion. A non-provable one, by definition, just like theism. Attempting to cast it as a strict negation is just providing an object lesson in what Eugene's talking about.
12.12.2005 6:42pm
CTW (mail):
webster defines bigotry as obstinate devotion to one's prejudices, which in turn are defined as adverse opinions based on ignorance (in this case, of what atheism actually entails). my guess is that under these defs, the majority of the poll respondents who wouldn't vote for an atheist are bigots. for an example, see apollo above.

jim hu: I'm envious of your ability to remain cool and respond to some of the more irritating posts with humor. as I recall, you were one of my favorite posters on the defunct L2R and I'm reminded why.
12.12.2005 6:47pm
Christopher M (mail):
Humble Law Student--

Atheism is at its heart a contrarian doctrine and belief. It denies the existence of God. It is doctrine that is at its core all about "opposition" to the idea of God. Its definition only makes sense when it is juxtaposed against the very thing it denies even exists.

I'm not sure what your complaint is supposed to be. The definition of theism only makes sense when juxtaposed against the notion of a world without God. That's how contradictory ideas work--they mutually exclude one another. And of course atheists have less to say on the subject -- do you expect them to have a complex and developed theology of something they don't even believe in?

[T]he only time people ever trumpet their atheism is when they use to set up their contrarian position. Christians help others because of their belief. You never hear of atheists doing anything in the name of their "belief" except for trying to limit others' practice of their beliefs.

That's because atheists don't generally view their moral actions as motivated by atheism per se in the same way that Christians' moral actions are motivated by their Christianity. If Atheist Bob stops to help an old lady across the street, and you ask him why, he'll say "because that's what nice people do" or "because Kant's categorical imperative says I should" or "because I'm a utilitarian and the benefit to her was worth the cost to me" or whatever. Obviously he's not going to say "I helped her across the street because there is no God." I mean, seriously, you need to think a little harder about whether what you're saying makes any sense.
12.12.2005 6:48pm
Eric S. (mail) (www):
Jim Hu:

If atheists feel misunderstood, such an advertising campaign, however humorous, would be a great idea! It's exactly the right approach to take when people hijack a label or identity from others who identify with it. See, e.g., PR efforts by Islamic groups.

Among the commenters on this board, I suspect a cheaper-yet-effective option would be to organize an atheist group to file amicus briefs opposite Michael Newdow and other plaintiffs in hyper-secularist lawsuits (as a number of religious groups that support extremely strict separationist positions already do, I believe).
12.12.2005 7:02pm
An agnostic, or something:
Some people have argued that hostility to atheists comes from exposure to "militant" atheists, and others have responded that that's no more fair than, or no different from, holding an opinion of, say, Christians, based on the ones who have most obnoxiously tried to convert you.
But I think there's an important difference. If you're an atheist (agnostic, etc.) and don't go around trying to convert your acquaintances, few people may ever even know your beliefs. I know that some of my friends are Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, etc., because they go to church, or celebrate Passover, or whatever. So I might find out someone's religion in an ordinary conversation (e.g., "No, I can't go out tomorrow, it's Shabbat," or "That reminds me of something funny my pastor said") without either of us trying to convert the other. On the other hand, I'm only likely to find out an acquaintance is an atheist if we're having a discussion about God (which doesn't happen often), or if he's trying to convert me, which I generally find irritating (not that that happens too often, either). In fact, now that I think of it, I doubt many of the people I know, including reasonably close friends, have any idea what I believe about God. Nearly all my friends, on the other hand, would know that I go to Yom Kippur services every year.
So it seems likely that if people think over the atheists they've interacted with, that is, the ones they know are atheists, they're going to come up with a relatively high proportion of people who have tried to convert them. Right? And, as has been pointed out here several times, people who try to convert you are, often, obnoxious and irritating.
12.12.2005 7:14pm
Mike Yeomans (mail):
A few thoughts. (BTW, I use theist as shorthand for religious person, not out of ignorance of the differences).

Many athiests that I know, including myself, come from theist families, and the personal battles that lead to such a break from tradition and family are similar in nature (but certainly not in degree) to those of gays. Is it unreasonable to assume that more athiests have spent serious time questioning their faith than theists?

A lot of the hostility, I think, is rooted in misperceptions across groups, and it's much harder to make the case that athiests, who are surrounded by religious beliefs and traditions and in many cases practiced themselves for a time, are less informed about theists than the other way around. Perhaps if athiests had their own holidays that demonstrated their secular values as a group, they would not be as demonized as they are now? Perhaps this is why atheists are singled out apart from other non-christian belief systems in a poll that presumably questioned many more christians than any other group.

Sidenote: there was a feature article about this in the NYT magazine about two years ago (pointer, anyone?) that had similar poll numbers about considering voting for an athiest, compared with blacks, women, jews, gays, etc. that might compliment Eugene's data set.
12.12.2005 7:22pm
dick thompson (mail):
Julian Morrison,

If you follow the pronouncements of the openly atheistic, they also have a different religion; it is called atheism and they will defend it and try to promulgate it at the expense of all the other religions. See Michael Newdow. He is doing it even at the expense of his own daughter, yet he claims it is for his own daughter. See Madelyn Murray O'Hair. She tried to force out any opposing view of religion as having any value. The atheists may say they do not believe in any religion, but when you see them trying to force any sign of another religion out there, even when it was there for historical purposes, it brings up the question of just what beliefs they have. As an example, the lawsuit threat to remove the cross from the symbol of Los Angeles when the cross was one of the bases for the foundation of Los Angeles. After all the full name is The City of Our Lady Queen of the Angeles and it was founded as a monastic rest home and mission. Now the atheists are trying to change the history of the city and hide the basis of its founding. I think it is cases such as this which lead to the results of the polls on whether one would vote for atheists.

I would grant you that most atheists would not really care. The problem is that since most politicians say one thing and do another when they run for office, could you trust the atheists to keep their word once they were elected.
12.12.2005 7:53pm

webster defines bigotry as obstinate devotion to one's prejudices, which in turn are defined as adverse opinions based on ignorance (in this case, of what atheism actually entails). my guess is that under these defs, the majority of the poll respondents who wouldn't vote for an atheist are bigots.

CTW, that means that atheists who condemn religion without having tried it are bigots, yes?

One who disagrees is not necessarily ignorant about the issue. On the issue of atheism, which is by definition a religious issue, I think it quite possible that religious persons generally are less ignorant than atheists generally. What is it you think they are ignorant about? Nietsche? That some perfectly nice people may be atheists? Maybe Dr. Volokh should take a poll about that and see how it correlates.

Perhaps a hasty generalization, but "Bigot" seems to be a favorite word of liberals in this forum. As an ex-liberal I imagine for that reason alone I must be a bigot in someone's eyes. Until they take away my right to vote, I'm not going to worry about it.
12.12.2005 8:01pm
Humble Law Student:

Yes, it is circular. I was just make an observation. I wasn't trying to make any substantive point with that remark.

I realize that atheism is an assertion, but I am pointing out that much of the connotative meaning of atheism is associated with its denial of a God. That if you take away the word God (which it denies the existence of) much of the traditional definition is lost. Of course, you can still define it, but it in a much different way. My point is how this effect plays out. Much of atheism is based on being "against something" rather than being for you own set of beliefs. Granted, you can just switch words around and make your position sound positive, instead of just being in opposition, but I think this social meaning of atheism is instructive as to the cited poll numbers.

And I'm sorry if my point only "proves" EV's point. Maybe you atheists should try to do something about it.
12.12.2005 8:29pm
Humble Law Student:
Chris M,

To your first point, I was just making an observation. See my response to Fishbane. How atheism is defined in America is a big part in informing people's understanding of it and the consequences that result.

Secondly, my position makes complete sense. I was speaking to how the actions and political/social goals of atheists play out in the public sphere. Your point about the lady crossing the street is a red herring and irrelevant.

My point is that "atheism" through some fault of its own has defined itself as an idea that is very appealing to most people. Ask yourself this. What could the average person say that atheism has done to make their life and their country a better place? The average American probably wouldn't be able to name anything. However, if you ask them what Christians or Jews or some other religious group do. They could talk about the Salvation Army, the many Christian charities, the works that churches do, all sorts of things. That is my point. There are many positive and negative things associated with Christianity. However, the average American who is not an atheist would be hard pressed to come up with some sort of contribution that atheists have made to the social good. Once again, I'm not saying many atheists aren't great people who do a lot for their fellow man. My point is about is the social perception if atheism and its role in American society.
12.12.2005 8:37pm
Humble Law Student:
Edit: Third paragraph, "as an idea that is not very appealing to most people."
12.12.2005 8:38pm
Jim Hu:
CTW: Thank you (blush)...I didn't realize L2R was defunct, but then I haven't been there in months...
12.12.2005 9:07pm
tiefel & lester student (mail):

I think you make these points in your last post, but...

As far as atheism is defined, it is no more in opposition to theism than theism to atheism.

As far as the connotations of atheism in most Americans' minds, it is very much in active opposition to theism (see, e.g., dick t. above).

However, to confuse the philosophy of a movement with the actions of some of its more hysterical adherents is bigoted.

As Chris M. points out, atheism is rarely the central tenet for atheists. When asked what shapes their moral beliefs, atheists may respond by saying their moral views are utilitarian, neo-Kantian, or pragmatic. However, it would be silly for them to respond "atheistic" in the same way that it would be silly for an evangelical Christian to respond "non-utilitarian." That answer may be true and provide some information about their views, but it is hardly sufficient. Hence, most atheists don't express their atheism explicitly very often.

The minority of atheists whose principal acts are explicitly atheistic are the ones who garner press as the representative "atheists." The Newdows and O'Hares of the world make controversial stories which the media loves. As you suggested in your post, however, this media bias skews Americans' perceptions of what an atheist does ("What could the average person say that atheism has done to make their life and their country a better place?").

And this, I think, is EV's point. The Americans in the polls (to the extent the polls reflect what I am assuming they reflect-big assumption) view atheists as people who tear things down, not build things up. While their views are understandable given media coverage, those views are not justifiable insofar as atheist simply means "not theist."
12.12.2005 9:29pm

>CTW, that means that atheists who condemn religion without having tried it are bigots, yes?<

No, trying out every religion is infeasible. In truth, everybody rejects the vast majority of religions without trying them. Atheists just reject one more than everybody else.

If the atheist goes a step further, however, and condemns all members of a religion, then that could likely be considered bigoted. If he went a step further and condemned everybody who even believes in God, then I think that would be quite bigoted.

So is it just atheism that is disliked in America, or is it atheists? I think we know the answer. If you tell the average person that you're a Christian, they say "that's nice." If you tell them you're an atheist, they say "Dear God, what tragedy befell you as a child?" And that's if they're open-minded.
12.13.2005 1:26am
CTW (mail):
"CTW, that means that atheists who condemn religion without having tried it are bigots, yes?"

I explicitly stated that I was referring to a specific ignorance ("of what atheism actually entails"), not generic ignorance. also, I choose the word carefully - it is not synonymous with unintelligent. we are all ignorant of most things, whether dirt-dumb or brilliant.

the first problem is what one means by "atheist". webster defines it as "one who denies the existence of god", ie, an active stance against. in my experience, it often would often be a more accurate description of the mindset of those who would accept the label "atheist" that they simply see no evidence to support belief in god or perhaps don't even find the question interesting (eg, if I understand the concept correctly, the existence of god ala deism would entail no practical consequences in day-to-day life). so, my answer to your question is that it is totally meaningless as stated. atheists don't necessarily "condemn religion", don't necessarily dispute all religious beliefs, and in fact don't even necessarily claim there is no god. but if the essence of your question is "aren't atheists who obstinately hold adverse opinions about religion based on ignorance bigoted?", then according to webster the answer is yes. and of course, the answer would be the same for anyone, atheist or not.

" ... atheism, which is by definition a religious issue ..."

this smacks of the assertion of IDers that "believing" in science is religious, which mistakes casual use of a word for precise use. my bet is that most science/technology people if pressed to carefully state their position would simply say that the evidence suggests that the scientific method has yielded many very useful results, not that they "believe in science". similarly, as I argue above, my impression is that describing some atheists as "believing there is no god" is not accurate. "not believing X" and "believing not-X" aren't quite the same. labeling the former "religious" is a stretch.

finally, I champion your right to vote, even if you benightedly vote against my positions, ie, the correct ones.
12.13.2005 12:28pm
CTW (mail):
"Atheism is at its heart a contrarian doctrine and belief."

as several others have pointed out, most atheists probably don't even consider their atheism to be a significant part of their self image, never mind being a "contrarian doctrine or belief", etc. they would consider not believing in god to be roughly equivalent to not believing in anything else, eg, ESP or werewolves.

as a general rule, I would argue that to attribute any characteristic to an atheist other than the defining one makes no more sense than it would to do so in the case of, say, a teetotaler. want to know what an atheist's position on some issue is? ask them. to try to infer it from a label is at best intellectual laziness, at worst demagoguery.
12.13.2005 1:46pm
CTW, I think you mistake me, I wasn't intending a reference to ID nor do I think of ID as science, or science as religion. I was suggesting that whether you are "not believing X" or "believing not-X," you are talking about "X" ---where here "X" happens to be the central issue of religion. Thus my remark about "by definition."

I'm agnostic myself and have no quarrel with what atheists think about X. I do think it is a mistake for atheists to think religious persons must be ignorant about atheism because they aren't atheists themselves.

Specifically I think you were mistaken to argue that the majority of anti-atheist respondents in that poll must be ignorant about atheism and therefore bigots. If you believe it, fine, but I'd say you were unjustly applying a deliberate pejorative.

Elsewhere in these threads Mike Y told his story, which is kind of similar to my own. He knew something about religion, thought about it carefully, and made the jump to atheism. My point is, don't assume that the people who didn't make the jump never thought about it.

And I'm not really interested in the "can atheists be bigoted?" idea, which was no more than rhetoric on my part. You answered it well.
12.13.2005 3:31pm
CTW (mail):
"CTW, I think you mistake me"

based on your elaboration, you are correct. my apologies. I'm a bit touchy about this owing to the rhetorical strategy used by some religious zealots who essentially argue that any "belief" is religious. I believe in gravity and can't explain it, but that doesn't make it a religious belief. similarly, I don't "believe there is no god", I simply see no evidence to suggest that there is one (at least ala theism). I don't see that posture as religious and neither does webster.

"I do think it is a mistake for atheists to think religious persons must be ignorant about atheism because they aren't atheists themselves. Specifically I think you were mistaken to argue that the majority of anti-atheist respondents in that poll must be ignorant about atheism and therefore bigots."

I don't "think" what you assert nor argue what you assert - read the comment! I said "my guess is ...", and explain that the guess is based on their prejudice as evidenced by the poll results, which suggest to me some very "adverse" ideas about atheists. eg, per the comments on the follow-up to this thread, you will learn that atheists have no moral base, lack humility, don't respect the values of the society, et al. and this from a relatively smart, informed elite. my guess re the general public may be wrong, but I'll stick with it barring evidence to the contrary.
12.13.2005 6:04pm
CTW, then I may have mistaken you, sorry. But I did have another thought last night. If you will permit me to quote myself quoting you, for context---

...whether you are "not believing X" or "believing not-X," you are talking about "X"...

Maybe I'm wrong but it occurred to me that what you might have been getting at was "No, I'm not talking about X! I'm talking about me!"
Strangely enough, I can empathise with that. Maybe it helps clarify in my mind your other remarks into something I can empathise with.
12.14.2005 10:14am
CTW (mail):
my point was:

the webster definition of atheism, which is probably what most people think when they hear the term, is "one who denies the existence of god", ie, "believes not-X", where X=god exists, an active denial. my posture is more passive, viz, I don't see evidence to suggest existence of a god ala theism (ie, one who interacts with the world as we know it), and existence of a god ala deism (ie, one who kicked off the world but since has let it run its own course) seems rather by definition to be unknowable. this posture, which I abbreviated "not believe X", is close to webster's agnosticism (god is unknown and unknowable) except that if there is a god ala theism, he is in principle knowable in that he could reveal himself.

I trust any moderately theologically informed person could shoot me down on this, but that's the best I can do from my posture of relative "ignorance". [see, I really don't mean it to be demeaning, just descriptive (:>) ]
12.14.2005 4:50pm
CTW, thanks, and your description sounds close to how I might have described it myself. But I've got to get some work done this week, and this thread will be archived soon anyway. I enjoyed our conversation!
12.14.2005 5:18pm