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People Really Don’t Like Atheists. Why?

Jun 4, 2019

By Ryan P. Burge

For the last few weeks I have been considering a pretty simple question: Why aren’t there more religious nones elected to the United States Congress? I previously concluded that atheists and agnostics are surprisingly cohesive political groups and therefore one cannot say that non-believers can’t get elected because they don’t have a unified political ideology. I also put together a roadmap on what it would take it to get more nones in the U.S. Capitol. Short answer: try to persuade Democrats who live in safe, urban, and very liberal districts.

But, I have been circling a bigger concern that colors this entire line of inquiry: people just flat out don’t like atheists. You’ve probably heard some of these statistics before, but they bear repeating. Seven states prohibit atheists from holding public office (unconstitutionally – these provisions are not enforced) and half of Americans would be upset if a member of their family married an atheist. But, one thing that these statistics fail to elucidate is why so many Americans seemed biased against religious nones. That’s what i want to tackle here, but first let’s make clear just where atheists stand in relation to other groups.

The 2012 American National Election Study asked respondents to place twenty two different groups on what social science calls a feeling thermometer scale. Those work very simply: zero is extremely cold toward a group, one hundred is very warm and a fifty represents a neutral opinion. I broke the sample up into three groups based on political partisanship and tried to label the groups with the color that they are most closely associated with (e.g., unions are Democratic blue, while the military is Republican red). Some groups are not associated with a political party (e.g., the Supreme Court) and I colored them purple.

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