The Stigma of Being an Atheist: An Empirical Study on the New Atheist Movement and Its Consequences

By Arcaro, Tom | Skeptic (Altadena, CA), Spring 2010 | Go to article overview

The Stigma of Being an Atheist: An Empirical Study on the New Atheist Movement and Its Consequences


Arcaro, Tom, Skeptic (Altadena, CA)


IN 1963 THE SOCIOLOGIST ERVING GOFFMAN published a book that has become part of the canon in social psychology, Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity, in which he defined stigma as "an attribute that is deeply discrediting." Those who are stigmatized are "reduced in our minds from a whole and usual person to a tainted, discounted one" Further, "sometimes it [stigma] is also called a failing, a shortcoming, a handicap" and that in extreme cases, a stigmatized person is "bad, dangerous, or weak." (1) Then there is the issue of "coming out:" "To display or not display; to tell or not to tell; to let on or not to let on; to lie or not to lie; and in each case, to whom, how, when, and where." (2)

That atheists are stigmatized in the United States was dramatically illustrated by the University of Minnesota researchers Penny Edgell and Joseph Gerteis in their frequently cited 2006 article "Atheists as 'Other': Moral Boundaries and Cultural Membership in American Society;' in which they present data indicating that atheists are much more stigmatized than other historically marginalized groups:

   Atheists are at the top of the list of groups that
   Americans find problematic in both public and private
   life, and the gap between acceptance of atheists
   and acceptance of other racial and religious minorities
   is large and persistent, It is striking that the rejection
   of atheists is so much more common than
   rejection of other stigmatized groups. (3)

Margaret Downey began collecting discrimination narratives through the Anti-Discrimination Support Network (ADSN) she founded in 1993. (4) Downey has collected hundreds of detailed stories of atheists losing their jobs, facing abusive family situations, being subjected to organized campaigns and even death threats. More recent work by the staff at the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers documents the hostile environment for atheists in the military.

The "New Athiests" Are Not So New

There has been a "freethinking" movement in the United States for a very long time, even predating the outspoken 19th-century orator Robert Ingersoll. Indeed, atheists have had many champions over the centuries from the European thinkers Thomas Aquinas, David Hume and Immanuel Kant, and more recently in the United States, Madalyn O'Hair, Michael Shermer and Carl Sagan. The so-called "New Atheists"--Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens-are but the latest in what is now a more widely publicized movement.

Media attention on atheists in the United States has been on the increase in the last half decade, and includes highly publicized debates between believers and nonbelievers, bus advertisement campaigns, numerous editorials, and documentaries. An impressive rise in Internet-based social networking sites specifically for atheists has occurred, most notably AtheistNexus.org, which has in just over 14 months attracted well over 15,000 members worldwide and has l00,000 unique visitors every month.

Despite all of this attention, there remains in the public mind a very monolithic and negative image of atheists, and there seems to be no end in sight to this particular dimension of the culture wars. Ray Comfort in the "Introduction" to his special 150th Anniversary Edition of The Origin of Species writes, "It's rare to find an atheist who doesn't embrace Darwinism with open arms. Many believe that with creation adequately explained by evolution, there is no need for a God and no moral responsibility [emphasis added]." (5) This stereotype about nonbelievers is pervasive and distressingly common among Christians, especially in the American South. The sad fact is that Comfort is but one voice among many working to perpetuate the marginalization and even demonization of atheists. That nonbelievers are decidedly not a homogeneous set of amoral individuals may be obvious to those who are close to this topic, but much work remains to more completely address the negative stereotypes. …

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