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Curmudgeons or not, atheists like those of other faiths more than Christians do, study finds

(RNS) — David Speed does not worship Satan — a fact that helped win over his wife-to-be early in their relationship.

On one of their first dates, Speed’s wife, who grew up Anglican, asked him what faith he belonged to. When Speed replied that he was an atheist, she pressed for details.

“So you worship Satan?” he recalls her asking.

We still laugh about it,” said Speed, an assistant professor in social psychology at the University of New Brunswick in Saint John.

It wasn’t the only misunderstanding they had to get over. In his wife’s upbringing, atheists were seen as not only given to bad spiritual practices, but hostile to religious people, especially Christians. That’s a common stereotype, said Speed, especially in the United States, where atheists are often disliked and distrusted.

The preconception, however, doesn’t hold up, according to a new study: Atheists, overall, view their neighbors in a positive light.

“Despite stereotypes of atheists as pugnacious, insular, critical, and/or antitheist, it appears as though they hold less animosity toward Christians than Christians hold toward them,” wrote Speed and his colleague, Melanie Brewster of Columbia University, in the academic journal Secularism & Nonreligion.

For an article entitled, “Love Thy Neighbour … or Not,” Speed and Brewster looked at data from the 2018 General Social Survey to see how atheists viewed their religious neighbors.

In that survey, Americans were asked to rate people of various religious persuasions on a scale from one to five, with one being “very negative” and five being “very positive.” Christians rated their fellow Christians at about 4.5 on average, while they gave atheists about a 3 rating, with other faiths in between. (Americans, in general, rated faith groups in a similar manner.)

Chart courtesy of David Speed

Chart courtesy of David Speed

Atheists, however, rated their fellow atheists at about 3.5 on a scale of one to five, and every other faith group about the same.

“When it comes to these other groups, I think everybody is wrong,” said Hemant Mehta, a writer and blogger known as the Friendly Atheist. “But guess what, that’s fine.”

As long as religious people aren’t trying to get him to follow their beliefs or infringing on the rights of others, Mehta said that he has no problems with them.

The study didn’t surprise Mehta, who said he’s well aware of the stereotypes that some religious leaders use to self-described atheists. And he knows that some atheists are seen as hostile to religious people. But that’s not the case for most atheists in their day-to-day life.

Chart courtesy of David Speed

Chart courtesy of David Speed

Chart courtesy of David Speed

Chart courtesy of David Speed

While the GSS asked participants to rate religious groups and atheists, it did not collect specific data on people who identify as atheists. But the survey does ask if people identify as religious and asks if they believe in God.

For their study, Speed and Brewster categorized anyone who said they do not believe in God as an atheist, since not believing in God is a central part of being an atheist, said Speed. About 15% of respondents in the GSS fit that category. By contrast, a 2019 Pew Religion Survey found that 4% of Americans identify as atheists.

Despite their shared disbelief, Speed suspects that atheists don’t see themselves as part of a coherent group. That sets them apart from their religious neighbors.

“You really can’t be accidentally Christian,” he said. “But you can accidentally be atheist.”

After reading Speed and Brewster’s paper, sociologist Ryan Burge of Eastern Illinois University looked at the GSS data to see if rates of attendance played any role in how Americans view religious groups.

Chart courtesy of David Speed

Chart courtesy of David Speed

He found that church attendance had different effects on Catholics and evangelicals.

“The more evangelicals go to church,” he tweeted, “the more positively they feel about Christians and Jews. But they feel more negatively about Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims.”

By contrast, Catholics who attend Mass more often felt better about other religions. Neither Catholic nor evangelical views of atheists changed when they went to services more.

Very few of the so-called nones, those who claim no religious affiliation, attend services regularly. Those who do tend to have a more positive view of religious groups than those who don’t attend services.

Speed and his co-author argue that in-group versus out-group dynamics explain why Christians dislike atheists more than atheists dislike Christians. Christians may dislike atheists because they are seen as rivals, in the way that fans of one hockey team, say, the Montreal Canadians, dislike fans of a rival team, like the Toronto Maple Leafs.

But atheists lack that kind of shared identity, so they are less likely to dislike nontheists or have a reason to like their fellow atheists.

“We are curmudgeons,” said Mehta, with a laugh. “There’s nothing really binding us together, so why would I like a random atheist more than anyone else?”

Speed and his co-author also see another factor at play. Because so few Americans identify as atheists, Christians or other religious people have little social contact with them. So it’s easier to believe stereotypes about atheists.

“Melanie pointed out that you can navigate your entire life as a Christian in the United States without actually knowing an atheist,” he said; “but you can’t do that as an atheist in America. You can’t say, I’ve never met a Christian before.”

Ahead of the Trend is a collaborative effort between Religion News Service and the Association of Religion Data Archives made possible through the support of the John Templeton Foundation. See other Ahead of the Trend articles here.

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