Who's Counting: Distrusting Atheists


April 2, 2006 -- -- Given the increasing religiosity of American culture, it's perhaps not too surprising that a new study out this month finds that Americans are not fond of atheists and trust them less than they do other groups. The depth of this distrust is a bit astonishing nonetheless.

More than 2,000 randomly selected people were interviewed by researchers from the University of Minnesota.

Asked whether they would disapprove of a child's wish to marry an atheist, 47.6 percent of those interviewed said yes. Asked the same question about Muslims and African-Americans, the yes responses fell to 33.5 percent and 27.2 percent, respectively. The yes responses for Asian-Americans, Hispanics, Jews and conservative Christians were 18.5 percent, 18.5 percent, 11.8 percent and 6.9 percent, respectively.

When asked which groups did not share their vision of American society, 39.5 percent of those interviewed mentioned atheists. Asked the same question about Muslims and homosexuals, the figures dropped to a slightly less depressing 26.3 percent and 22.6 percent, respectively. For Hispanics, Jews, Asian-Americans and African-Americans, they fell further to 7.6 percent, 7.4 percent, 7.0 percent and 4.6 percent, respectively.

The study contains other results, but these are sufficient to underline its gist: Atheists are seen by many Americans (especially conservative Christians) as alien and are, in the words of sociologist Penny Edgell, the study's lead researcher, "a glaring exception to the rule of increasing tolerance over the last 30 years."

Edgell also maintains that atheists seem to be outside the limits of American morality, which has largely been defined by religion.

Many of those interviewed saw atheists as cultural elitists, amoral materialists, or given to criminal behavior or drugs. She states, "Our findings seem to rest on a view of atheists as self-interested individuals who are not concerned with the common good."

Of course, it should go without saying, but won't, that belief in God isn't at all necessary to have a keen ethical concern for others.

The study will appear in the April issue of the American Sociological Review and is co-written by assistant professor Joseph Gerteis and associate professor Doug Hartmann.

The results of this study suggest a couple of partial remedies. One is a movie analogy of "Brokeback Mountain," which dealt with manly cowboys coming to grips with their homosexuality.

A dramatic rendition of a devoutly religious person (or couple) coming to grips with the realization of his (their) disbelief may be eye-opening for many.

A movie version of the science writer Martin Gardner's novel "The Flight of Peter Fromm" may do the trick. In the book, Gardner tells the story of a young fundamentalist and his somewhat torturous journey to free-thinking skepticism.

One other suggestion is for politicians. When they invoke the inclusive nature of American society and go through the litany of welcoming Christians of all denominations, Jews, and Muslims to some event, they should go a step further and welcome people of other religious persuasions as well as nonbelievers.

The number of atheists and agnostics in this country is hard to measure, especially since most of these many millions of Americans don't advertise, but a politician's greater inclusiveness may pay political dividends. It's also the right thing to do.

A tenuously related story also near the crossroads of religion and politics is the No. 1 ranking of the debate team at Liberty University.

Founded by the Rev. Jerry Falwell, a Christian fundamentalist and political conservative, the university has in recent years fielded a team that has attracted much media attention.

The March 19 New York Times Magazine devoted a long story to the team, which also received extensive recent coverage in Newsweek, on CBS, and in various other venues.

The only problem with the No. 1 ranking and Liberty's "national title" is that it's somewhere between artificial and bogus.

As bloggers Jim Hanas, Ed Brayton and others have observed (and as is briefly and unobtrusively buried in the Times article itself), the ranking is based on the performance of the team in all tournaments, including novice and junior varsity contests.

The way rankings are determined in the "overall" category, winning at any of these second-tier tournaments adds to the team's point total. Liberty, which has a broad-based program, enters many of them and racks up many of its points by doing so.

The schools with the top individual teams, however, often don't have novice or JV teams and usually don't enter many of the lesser tournaments.

Even with such extensive, but light opposition, and the points resulting from it, the Liberty varsity team seldom reaches the semifinals and has yet to win a single varsity tournament.

In fact, in the varsity rankings Liberty is 20th, not first, and, when the quality of its opponents is taken into account, it ranks even lower than that.

As Hasan remarks, referring to Liberty as the No. 1 team and one of the nation's great collegiate debate programs is a bit "like calling the best Division III basketball team the NCAA champion."

Another analogy is to the brief 1992 presidential campaign of Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin. He was way behind in the primaries, but some of his staffers jokingly suggested that their man was leading. In winning Minnesota, Iowa and Montana, they argued that he had captured the largest land mass of any of the contenders.

Unlike atheism, hyping one's performance is well within the American mainstream, and that's not debatable.

Professor of mathematics at Temple University, John Allen Paulos is the author of best-selling books including "Innumeracy" and "A Mathematician Plays the Stock Market." His "Who's Counting?" column on ABCNews.com appears the first weekend of every month.