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Atheism, Morality and Belonging in American Life

Joseph Gerteis

The last couple of months have been interesting to say the least. Most of my research is historical in nature, so I'm not used to being relevant. But I was thrust into some debates that actually go to the heart of the issues we face as a nation. Penny Edgell, Doug Hartmann and I published a paper in the American Sociological Review called "Atheists As 'Other': Moral Boundaries and Cultural Membership in American Society." In a national survey, part of a broader project on multiculturalism and solidarity in American life that we call the American Mosaic Project, we found that one group stood out from all others in terms of the level of rejection they received from the general public. That was atheists. And not by a small margin, either.

This was a surprise to us, at least at first. When we were putting together the survey, we thought that it would be Muslims that topped the list in these post-9/11 times. We asked about atheists mostly as an afterthought, as a kind of counterbalance to our questions about conservative Christians. But it was indeed atheists at the top of the list of the folks Americans rejected--and the finding was robust; we asked the question in two ways just to be sure. Our "private" measure was to ask whether or not people would object if their son or daughter married a person of a given type, with the idea that this would tell us whether Americans would welcome different kinds of people into their own homes and families. Our "public" measure was to ask whether or not such groups agreed with the respondents' vision of America. Here the idea was that we may not want to associate with some people, but we might still accept them as part of the fabric of the country.

In fact, atheists topped the list of strong negative reactions on both measures. It is an interesting finding not least because there are so few atheists around. How does such a small group pose such a threat to a large majority? The more we explored this finding, the more we came back to a simple answer for it. Like it or not, many (possibly most) Americans see religion as a marker of morality. To many Americans, "Atheists" are people who lack any basis for moral commitment.

Should this have been a surprise to us? Maybe not, but the fact is that people tend to talk mostly to other folks who are like them, and academics can be as sheltered as anyone. Academics of course are by and large a secular bunch. If anyone approximates the European model of the Godless secular humanist, it is the academic. Our colleagues were genuinely interested in our finding, but many also had a hard time accepting it. Perhaps we had a problem with the measurement or the coding that would explain this odd result. Or perhaps this negative reaction to atheists was confined only to some people--Southerners, say, or those without higher levels of education. (For the record, we didn't make a mistake and the reaction was quite widespread). Students were more likely to come up to us and say that the findings made sense--particularly students who either explicitly identified themselves as atheists or agnostics or those who grew up as evangelical Christians. For them the finding was not at all surprising, it reflected their experience. There were more surprises for me as the news of the paper traveled around the internet--first to atheist and secular humanist newsgroups and then to some of the blog sites. Several hundred comments were posted in response to one prominent blog. More came directly to us via email. Many people were truly just happy to see some research on a topic that they felt was important. But many also had some serious misunderstandings about what we were trying to do. Contrary to what I thought would be the case, we got relatively few comments from conservative Christians, and quite a lot from atheists and secular humanists themselves. Some wanted us to know that atheists could indeed be moral people. Another complaint: we had asked about "atheists" but we had allowed respondents to define that term any way they wanted. Maybe "atheist" is kind of a cultural code for people that lumps together every negative bogeyman they can think of--from "Communist" to "homosexual." Most interesting from my point of view was the last complaint: we had seriously underestimated the number of atheists out there!

We answered all of these points as directly as we could, but the more we talked about them the more we realized that they went to the heart of some deep issues. First, it became clear to me that there was a disconnect between those who "got" the findings and those who didn't. The rejection of atheists was widespread, but it is relatively rare to hear open attacks on atheists in the same way that one hears debates over gay marriage. Instead, it seems to me closer to the way that an earlier generation "heard" anti-Semitism--not exactly hidden, but not exactly in plain sight either. If one is attuned to it one can hear it all the time, but otherwise it might be easy to miss.

Atheists and other nonbelievers tend to hear it, but they also wanted to fight it when they thought we were simply echoing these claims. So again, we answered the objections as best we could. Yes, plenty of atheists are indeed moral people--and plenty of religious people are not. But we weren't measuring whether atheists were moral people, we were measuring whether Americans in general think they are moral. Yes, maybe "atheists" serves as kind of a catch-all code for "bad folks." But again, isn't that the point? And isn't it interesting that in recent years "atheist" has even outstripped "homosexual" in its negative connotations? There isn't a national debate about atheists in quite the same way, but clearly some of the same things apply. To the extent that homosexuality is threatening to people, it is not a direct personal threat but a broader symbolic and cultural one about, say, what it would mean culturally to accept gay marriages. To the extent that atheists are a threat it is not in any direct or individual way, but collectively and symbolically. They are seen as a threat to collective morality.

Finally, we didn't underestimate the number of atheists. It's a matter of what counts as an atheist. In the blog debates, even the self-professed nonreligious couldn't agree! Some counted everyone who was nonreligious, others counted only those who clung to a firm and positive belief in the nonexistence of God. No wonder that the rest of America is confused about who the atheists are! For the record, those who do not specify any religious preference constitute about 7% of the population, and this is the number that is most often cited in atheist circles. Those who explicitly label themselves as atheists or even agnostics are a much smaller group, on the order of about 3%. The more important point is that there are a lot of people who are not involved with religion in any organized way who still think of themselves as religious on some dimension. Religion in America is simply taken for granted.

The fact is that the settled assumption for most Americans is that people are religious. Even those who aren't religious tend to assume that others are. And it has been this way since the beginning. Alexis de Tocqueville made it a center point of his overview of America in the 1840s. More striking even was the great sociologist Max Weber's take on the issue half a century later. Traveling in the backwoods of North Carolina, Weber was curious why people were joking about a man in line for a river baptism. His American cousin informed him that the man was as much interested in the public ritual as the inner belief--for it would bring new clients to his business. But Weber was quick to point out that the link between religion and morality wasn't all cynical. It was deeply engrained, even for those who weren't especially religious themselves. In his classic book "The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism" his claim was that the modern capitalist mind-set came about in North America not by accident; rather it was the result of an ascetic protestant "ethic" that went very deep. So deep that a figure like Benjamin Franklin was a major proponent of the mindset, even though he was not an ascetic Protestant at all--as Weber said, he was at best a "colorless deist." It didn't matter--the religious ethic had become so deeply engrained in American culture that it didn't need to be especially religious any longer.

So where does this leave us? The findings are the findings. As a scientist, what I can say for sure is that there is a widespread rejection of atheists, that it is manifest in assumptions about who atheists are as both public citizens and as private individuals. As someone who cares about this issue, what I can say is that I am convinced that it turns on issues of morality and how we understand it. And I think that it is not as black-and-white as it might seem.

It's a very deep and very old debate, and it is unlikely to go away soon. In fact it goes back to two different ideas about how morality is connected to public life and public order, both with deep roots in American life. Drawing on the work of Rhys Williams, we termed these the contract model and the covenant model. The covenant model is what Tocqueville noted in American life--it is based on common commitments that come from religion. The contract model is based on the idea--also deeply American--that moral order can emerge from the commitments of rational individuals to each other.

My sense is that most people will tend to emphasize one or the other or these models, but that few are willing to completely reject either. It's worth considering the fact that a lot of the behind-the-scenes debate over religion, atheists and morality is driven by what Americans hope their country won't become as much as what they hope it will. For the religiously minded, the fear is that the U.S. will become more like Europe, with its rejection of traditional religious worldviews. For atheists, secularists, and fellow-travellers, the fear is that the U.S. will become more like a theocracy, driven by a restrictive and narrow understanding of morality.

Where the two sides come together is in a common commitment to pluralism and multiculturalism, in religion as in other things. A few atheists and secularists may indeed be committed to the idea of one nation without god, but what most want above all is an appreciation for the fact that there are different ways to be a moral person. And they want public institutions--schools and courts especially--to reflect that. A few religious conservatives no doubt want to see one nation under a single God, but most embrace religious pluralism (if not yet atheists), and want recognition of the traditional role of religion in general, rather than a dogmatic commitment to any given religion, as a common basis for morality.

The two sides clearly do differ in how far pluralism should extend. And there is no doubt in my own mind that the debate will get more heated over the coming years. But it is also worth remembering that there is room for common ground, and that while the strongest voices in the debate are at the extremes, there are likely to be far more quiet voices in the middle. It's often said that a simple thought experiment can put to rest any conservative Christian claims of public persecution: could a presidential candidate get elected after standing up and publicly announcing that he (or she) is an atheist? At the same time, it is worth imagining the reverse situation too. Imagine (it's not hard) an evangelical Protestant president who is outspoken about his faith. Whatever he may believe, his public rhetoric will stress that there are many ways of being a good American.

Skeptical? I was too, but my colleague Penny Edgell presented me with an example that changed my mind. In a speech to the National Religious Broadcasters Association, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft put himself clearly in the covenant camp. "Civilized individuals, Christians, Jews, and Muslims, all understand that the source of freedom and human dignity is the Creator," he said. "Governments may guard freedom. Governments don't grant freedom."[1] While he was pluralist in the sense of including several religious traditions into the circle of "civilized people," atheists clearly didn't make the cut for him. By contrast, President George W. Bush had this to say: "The great thing about America is that you should be allowed to worship any way you want. And if you choose not to worship, you're equally patriotic as someone who does worship."[2] What's the difference between these two? My guess is that it's not differences in religious worldviews, or at least not only that. My guess is that it also has a lot to do with the fact that one of these figures cared about how his party fared in a large and very diverse nation.


[1] From report by Peter Beinart in The New Republic, ("Bad Faith" posted March 18, 2002, at

[2] Text drawn from

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