Tuesday, 7 June 2011

People Trust Atheists Least Of All

Woman, as John Lennon once put it, is the nigger of the world. But atheists, according to Penny Edgell, Joseph Gerteis and Douglas Hartmann ('Atheists as "Other": Moral Boundaries and Cultural Membership in American Society', American Sociological Review 71:2 2006, 211-234) are currently, at least in America, an even more comprehensively abjected group:
Despite the declining salience of divisions among religious groups, the boundary between believers and nonbelievers in America remains strong. This article examines the limits ofAmericans' acceptance of atheists. Using new national survey data, it shows atheists are less likely to be accepted, publicly and privately, than any others from a long list of ethnic, religious, and other minority groups. This distrust of atheists is driven by religious predictors, social location, and broader value orientations. It is rooted in moral and symbolic, rather than ethnic or material, grounds. We demonstrate that increasing acceptance of religious diversity does not extend to the nonreligious, and present a theoretical framework for understanding the role of religious belief in providing a moral basis for cultural membership and solidarity in an otherwise highly diverse society.
The shift from 'ethnic and material' to 'moral and symbolic' logics is particularly interesting here; since atheism is not identified with any particular ethnic or national groups. But there is also, presumably, a sense in which atheism is the necessary abjection of any predominantly religious community; the apparent contradiction of the collective ethos that secretly speaks to its hidden fears and anxieties.


Eric M. Edwards said...

It may be a surface detail, arising from a more profound and deeply set malaise, but for many Americans - wrongly - atheism is associated with socialism/communism (as again, wrongly, but many can not see the difference between the two either historically or as systems).

Equally, there is a fear of science, pouring in a sweat from a society that is intensely reliant upon it - and even prides itself oddly enough, on its supposed global primacy when it comes to technology. But fears knowledge, especially knowledge for knowledge's own sake, at the same time. The latter a Quixotic quest made suspect and incomprehensible to many, if it doesn't result in capital gains or furthers the national interest. This is not as counter intuitive as it might seem, as dependence often builds both a loathing and terror of what one relies upon.

Community in the US is very much a closed shop, inward leaning, outwardly suspicious, so again, I think some of this inherent hostility comes from the false association of atheism with Foreign Otherness. It not only denies god in any form, but comes from outside the pale of the local communities which identify most strongly with theism at home.

It thus threatens both the internal ties which are seen as promoting these groups' domestic objectives, and dilutes the unified front of an America Against All Others. Faith in god for many equates to faith in unfettered muscular capitalism and in turn, faith in the rightful place of the US at the head of the table. All these get entangled for a lot of people in the US. Those who guard the fences (perhaps rightly) fear that one faltering expression of doubt in one, hides a lack of faith in the others.

To be an atheist then in America is not only to be against god, but against the country: un-theistic and throughly un-American.

Pointing out that the theistic leanings (or lack of) in the nation's architects and founding thinkers is a very questionable ground on which to build such a myth, doesn't find many converts or thanks.

Ah well, bless 'em.

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