By Zeeshan Aleem
In 2014, the Pew Research Center asked Americans a series of hypothetical questions about how they would feel about a relative’s potential spouse. When asked if they would be upset by a family member marrying someone of a different race, 11% said they would object. When asked the same question about a relative marrying someone of a different political party, 15% of Democrats and 17% of Republicans said they would be unhappy with the prospect. But when asked to consider a family member marrying someone who doesn’t believe in God, 49% of Americans disapproved.
Atheists are widely distrusted and disliked in the United States, even as the number of Americans who consider themselves religious has declined. A 2011 study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that Americans consider atheists about as morally suspect as rapists in some scenarios, and in 2014 a Pew poll showed that Americans prefer an adulterer or a marijuana smoker to a non-believer for president.
What’s the source of this animosity toward atheists? Religion, primarily in the form of Christianity, is inextricable from U.S. history, but the Founding Fathers were primarily deists who held a complex and skeptical relationship with the Christian faith and set into motion one of the most successful experiments in secular governance in history. Antipathy toward atheism today is more likely a vestige of the Cold War, when the Soviet Union’s atheism was presented by the U.S. as proof of communism’s moral bankruptcy. More recently, the rise of a haughty and combative “New Atheism” movement has tarnished the reputation of the godless.
But the religious shouldn’t fear atheism. Popular misconceptions about atheism have presented a distorted view of what most atheists actually believe, while obscuring the areas where religion and godlessness overlap. There’s a significant number of things the religious can learn from atheists without discarding their own beliefs altogether.
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