In “Atheists As “Other”: Moral Boundaries and Cultural Membership in Am...,” Penny Edgell, Joseph Gerteis, and Douglas Hartmann show that “atheists are less likely to be accepted, publicly and privately, than any others from a long list of ethnic, religious, and other minority groups” (pg. 211). Using various statistics—the American Mosaic Project Survey, Gallup polls, along with a plethora of information from scholarly works in the sociology of religion—Penny Edgell et al. paints a vivid portrait of Americans’ negative view of atheists and other unbelievers.
When asked to respond to “This Group Does Not At All Agree with My Vision of American Society,” atheists ranked the highest at 39.6% (above Muslims and Homosexuals). When asked to respond to “Would Disapprove if My Child Wanted to Marry a Member of This Group,” atheists rank highest at 47.6%. These statistics show that when national and filial lines (“symbolic distinctions” as Edgell et al. refer to them) are drawn, atheists are the least trusted and last to be considered to have moral and cultural membership in America.
This study ought to inculcate a worry about how atheists are perceived in American society. These perceptions—that atheists are un-American and morally suspect—shape public discourse and inform political decisions. There is no wonder why there has not been a single outspoken atheistic president in the history of the United States, and only one atheist in Congress (Pete Stark, D-CA). Not surprisingly, the symbolic distinctions that Americans make reflect their own personal biases and misconceptions. As Edgell et al. say, “We believe that in answering our questions about atheists, our survey respondents were not, on the whole, referring to actual atheists they had encountered, but were responding to 'the atheist' as a boundary-marking cultural category” (pg. 230).
The images associated with “atheism” are primarily negative: the anarchy of the French Revolution, the atheistic Communism of the U.S.S.R. and East Germany, and the “secular fascism” of Benito Mussolini, Mao Zedong, and even Adolf Hitler (although throughout Mein Kampf Hitler refers to himself as “Catholic”).
The images in popular culture are just as bad. The “Friendly Atheist” provides four archetypes of atheists in the popular media (in this case, television programs); they include: "The Brilliant, Snarky Misanthrope:" Dr. Perry Cox (Scrubs), Dr. Gregory House (House), Dr. Cristina Yang (Grey’s Anatomy), Matt Albie (Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip); "The Heartless, Dysfunctional Whore:" Andrew Van De Kamp (Desperate Housewives), Dr. Christian Troy (Nip/Tuck), Brian Kinney (Queer as Folk); "The Slutty, Angsty Rebel:" Jen Lindley (Dawson’s Creek); and "The Lab Geek:" Dr. Temperance Brennan (Bones), Dr. Mohinder Suresh (Heroes).
Although not as bad as depicting atheists as rapists and murderers, these shows still promote the idea that atheists are grumpy, mean, and arrogant people. You put all of this together and these are the words people might associate with atheism: secular, fascism, communism, anarchism, angry, mean, pessimistic, and immoral. These images are of an “other” (“not at all like us”) that cannot meet the accepted norms for cultural membership in American society.
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