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Atheists Are the Most Feared Group in America — But Why?

The number of those identifying as nonreligious has grown dramatically in the U.S. in recent years. The percentage of American adults not identifying with any religion in Pew Research polls has grown from barely 15% to nearly 20% in the last five years.  Much of this change comes from the fact that just 9% of those 65 and older do not identify with a religion, and they’re being replaced by youths with far higher rates.

The amount of hate and distrust toward atheists in America is still astounding. “Atheists as ‘Other’: Moral Boundaries and Cultural Membership in American Society," a paper by three sociologists at the University of Minnesota, compared perceptions of atheists to those of other groups. Forty percent surveyed said atheists were a group which “Does not At All Agree With My Vision of America,” while the next most common response was Muslims at 26%. Nearly 50% said they would disapprove of their child marrying an atheist, and the next two highest groups were Muslims at 34% and African-Americans at 27%.

So when University of Tennessee researchers publish the first comprehensive study into the American irreligious we should pay attention. They stressed that previous studies have lumped everyone not connected to religion into one category, ignoring the myriad differences even among atheists.

The Tennessee study broke down nonbelievers into six groupings:

Intellectual Atheist/Agnostics (IAA). Members of this group tend to seek intellectual pursuits and pursue truth.

Activist Atheist/Agnostics (AAA). Most community oriented and often involved in other progressive causes.

Seeker Agnostics (SA). Are interested in philosophical questions but find themselves unable to definitely know much about the existence or nonexistence of the divine.

Antitheists. They see religion as a destructive force in society.

Non-theists. People who have always been apathetic or uninterested in religion.

Ritual Atheist/Agnostics (RAA). “Find utility in tradition and ritual” like yoga or a family Chanukah celebration.

Intellectual Atheist/Agnostics was the most common grouping. The image of the angry intellectual atheist like Christopher Hitchens may play in to fears about one’s child’s spouse, but the UT study found personality types of the nonreligious were distributed similarly to those of the religious. The authors suggest the angry atheist stereotype is due to those in the smallest group, antitheists, rating higher than others in anger and dogmatism — and thus attracting the most attention.

If people believe it takes the fear of God to make someone a good family member or American, this report may do little to shake them from their beliefs. But in the long term the greater acknowledgement that atheists don’t look that different from theists and that there is a great deal of diversity among the nonreligious can only help. 

Intellectual atheists have a nasty habit of thinking that atheists are smarter, more rational, or generally superior to theists. They themselves would also benefit from acknowledging atheists are not a homogeneous group. 

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