The American Mosaic Project 2003

University of Minnesota Department of Sociology

The American Mosaic Project studies attitudes about the role of diversity, particularly racial and religious diversity, in contributing to or challenging individual visions of America. Based on a telephone survey conducted in 2003, the Project continues to publish papers examining gender, race, prejudice, and other themes of significance within the data.

Atheists as "Other"

The publication most relevant to Secular Americans was a 2006 paper entitled Atheists as Other: Moral Boundaries and Cultural Membership in American Society (.pdf). According to authors Penny Edgell, Joseph Gerteis, and Douglas Hartmann, atheists were viewed less favorably than all other groups - African Americans, homosexuals, Jews, conservative Christians, Muslims, recent immigrants, Hispanics, Jews, Asian Americans, and white Americans - when respondents were questioned about a shared vision of American society and a child's choice of spouse. In fact, even though the survey's data was collected not long after the attacks on the World Trade Center, atheists were significantly more disliked than Muslims, a group many Americans feared and distrusted at the time:

This Group Does Not At All Agree with My Vision of American Society
Atheist 39.6%
Muslim 26.3%

I Would Disapprove if My Child Wanted to Marry a Member of This Group
Atheist 47.6%
Muslim 33.5%

The authors summarize the "atheists as 'other' " paradigm this way:

Those whom we interviewed view atheists in two different ways. Some people view atheists as problematic because they associate them with illegality, such as drug use and prostitution — that is, with immoral people who threaten respectable community from the lower end of the status hierarchy. Others saw atheists as rampant materialists and cultural elitists that threaten common values from above — the ostentatiously wealthy who make a lifestyle out of consumption or the cultural elites who think they know better than everyone else. Both of these themes rest on a view of atheists as self-interested individualists who are not concerned with the common good.

An atheist by any other name ...?

Invariably, surveys about attitudes towards atheists reveal misperceptions and outright prejudice. We wonder: what if the word atheist were replaced with a description of someone who lives a principled life without religion, or similar phrasing? Would respondents be less certain of their antipathy and more likely to give fair consideration?

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