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Survey: Americans Feel Coldest Toward Atheists and Muslims

Last week, Rowan created a visualization of Pew Research polling data on Americans collected from January-March 2014.  When Pew asked respondents how they would feel about their children marrying athiests, members of the American Christian majority displayed a strong tendency to express unhappiness at the prospect.

Because surveys gather data from samples and not the entire population, any one piece of survey research might produce a pattern by chance alone.  For this reason, it’s good to look for other research asking similar questions to see if the pattern holds.  In more than 50 years of Gallup polling on atheists as presidential candidates, the pattern holds.  In the American Mosaic Project’s research on atheists as marriage partners, the pattern also holds.  In all of these pieces of research, atheists appear to be the most feared, loathed and rejected social group in the United States.

This week, Pew Research has released the results of a different poll that is also germane to the subject.  Conducted in May-June of 2014, this poll asked American respondents to share their attitude regarding various religious groups using a “feeling thermometer”:

“We’d like to get your feelings toward a number of groups on a ‘feeling thermometer.’  A rating of 0 degrees means you feel as cold and negative as possible.  A rating of 100 degrees means you feel as warm and positive as possible.  You would rate the group at 50 degrees if you don’t feel particularly positive or negative toward the group.”

The following are the average thermometer readings given to religious groups and atheists, those without religious belief:

Group Being Evaluated Average Thermometer Reading
Jews 63
Catholics 62
Evangelical Christians 61
Buddhists 53
Hindus 50
Mormons 48
Atheists 41
Muslims 40

This finding matches the pattern in the other research I’ve cited above: atheists are the group toward which Americans feel most antipathy. The only deviation from other research is the clumping of Muslims at the bottom with atheists; other research suggests that atheists are despised more than Muslims, with Muslims a close second.

Some might suggest that the low temperature reading for atheists reflects the attitude of a narrow sliver of American Christianity, namely the conservative evangelical segment. But Pew finds that negative temperature readings are nearly universal across the Judeo-Christian spectrum, with the relative exception of Jews:

Group Evaluating Atheists Average Thermometer Reading of Atheists by Group
White Evangelical Protestants 25
Black Protestants 30
White Mainline Protestants 41
Catholics 38
Jews 55

We each may come to a different conclusion about what ought to be done on the basis of this trend, but to my eye it’s pretty difficult to dispute the existence of the trend: in the esteem of Americans today, atheists are at the bottom.

7 comments to Survey: Americans Feel Coldest Toward Atheists and Muslims

  • Charles Manning

    I was surprised that no one commented on my observation in another thread concerning the impact of belief in the existence of incorporeal souls that can supernaturally pass from one universe to another (to use the “multiverse” cosmological theory as an analogy). There could be many variations in detail, but a commonly accepted Christian version of this belief is most familiar. Many Christians believe souls are created at conception and remain associated with the body during its life, but survive the death of the body. The soul, although incorporeal, is believed to maintain a person’s identity after the body dies, but in another parallel universe, either heaven or hell, and in another body or mode of existence that never dies. The souls that migrate to heaven commingle with each other in what’s believed to be eternally satisfying ways. But to move into heaven (moving from heaven to earth is reserved to the soul referred to as the “Holy Ghost”) requires that humans believe in Christian doctrine and perform acts pleasing to God during earthly life. The evangelical mind-set holds that people should be kept away from any non-Christian religion or belief so that their souls can make this great journey. Ascendance into heaven is believed to be the most desirable outcome of anyone’s life. Therefore, such believers logically would think that atheists or agnostics who find the Christian myth to be just that — a myth — threaten the lives of believers’ souls and the souls of their family members and friends by telling Christians that their beliefs are mythical. I find it almost incredible that many Christians think this way in a world where science appears to be honored and valued. Although there are other grounds of conflict between such believers and non-believers, the myth of migration of souls to heaven, or migration of souls of non-believers to hell, constitutes the most serious impediment to amicable relationships between non-believers and many Christians. Non-believers like me, although having in common with Christians many moral beliefs and attitudes, are strangely silent about this great theological divide. I’m the only person mentioning it in the recent discussions on this forum of why atheists are so little respected (to put it mildly) in America. Or am I deceived about this?

    • Dave

      Charles, as a believer I often find that the moment a non-believer learns about me (often having been “warned” by another non-believer beforehand) they feel uncomfortable hanging out with me. They are waiting for me to a) thump a Bible b) pressure them to visit my church c) condemn them for their lifestyle. It is difficult for me to socialise with non-believers if they’ve been told to be careful around me, but very easy to get acquainted if they have no preconceived idea of what I am like. I have no fear that anyone can keep me from my eternal destiny, whatever one might think that is or isn’t, so in my case and for the majority of people I know that’s not a serious impediment to amicable relationships. I genuinely like people and try not to display off-putting behaviour socially, which I consider the above-mentioned traits (a,b and c) to be.

      Aside from the usual structured social or work settings, my experience is that non-believers resist social interaction with believers because they think they are being held to their own idea of the believer’s standard of behaviour. An icky feeling, I suppose, but not my fault as a believer. I am the last man on earth with any right to lay condemnation on someone for their conduct in life.

      An old farmer was once asked by a stranger if he was a Christian. The farmer took out a pencil and paper and patiently wrote a long list. “These are the people who know me best” said the farmer. “Go ask them.”

  • Charles Manning

    Thanks for the comment, Dave. While obviously you have no fear that anyone can keep you from going to heaven, I find it odd that you express no concern that your children might be persuaded to reject your beliefs.

  • Dave

    My children know the changes they’ve seen in their old man since he came to faith and they seem to like it well enough.

  • Bill

    I had to go read the survey report, because I found it awfully odd that the only Protestant group evaluated was “evangelical Christians.” What does that make me, chopped liver?

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