The definitive refutation of those who say atheists are bigoted and alt-right

April 5, 2018 • 1:00 pm

I wish I’d known of this article when I wrote my critique of faitheist Chris Stedman’s VICE article calling out the atheist “movement” for converging with the alt-right. As I noted at the time, Stedman was long on accusation, anecdote, and generality, and notably short on actual data. Are atheists really as bigoted, misogynistic, and homophobic as he claimed? And how do they compare to the population in general, which, in the U.S., is largely religious?

Well, I’ve already written quite a bit on how countries as a whole show a negative correlation between religiosity and well-being: the most atheistic countries, like those of northern Europe, tend to be those that score the highest on various measures of social welfare. They also tend to be countries whose inhabitants are happier. The more religious a country is, the less likely its inhabitants are to be doing well, and the unhappier they are. The U.S. is not that much of an outlier, for it’s a religious country and, compared to places like Sweden, Iceland, and Switzerland, scores poorly on “social success.” I’ve given my own theories about this correlation, views shared by some sociologists, and won’t go into that here.

But what about within countries—in particular the U.S.? Are atheists and agnostics really likely to be more odious than believers? Well, there are plenty of data on the issue, and the answer is a pretty firm “no”, at least according to sociologist Phil Zuckerman, the only professor of secular studies in America. (He’s at Pitzer College in California.)  In 2009, Zuckerman published a piece in Sociology Compass (reference below; free access) that examines the psychological and behavioral traits of atheists and agnostics versus religionists. It’s worth reading, and people like Stedman should have read it before writing “J’Accuse” pieces against atheism.

I’ll concentrate just on the variation among Americans rather than among countries, since the claim of Stedman and other atheist-dissers applies to people within my country.

Zuckerman begins by estimating the proportion of atheists in different countries. Estimates of nonbelievers vary according to how you define “atheist”, “secularist”, “agnostic,” and so on (Zuckerman considers this), but combining various statistics, he says that, at the time of writing, “we can estimate that somewhere between 10 million and 47 million adult Americans are atheist, agnostic, or secular.” That would have been, given the population of 307 million in 2009, between 3% and 15% of all Americans. (I usually use an estimate of 10% for “nonbelievers”, though of course some of these are “spiritual” or “pantheists”.)

Here are the salient facts; quotes are from Zuckerman’s piece and emphases are mine.

  • As we know, men are more likely to be nonbelievers than women, and atheists tend to be younger than believers.
  • Atheists tend to be more highly educated than the average American
  • “Secular people score markedly higher on tests of verbal ability and verbal sophistication whe compared to religious people” and that goes for “indicators of scientific proficiency” as well
  • Professors at American universities are “far more likely to be atheists than the general American population”
  • “. . . when we actually compare the values and beliefs of atheists and secular people to those of religious people, the former are markedly less nationalistic, less prejudiced, less anti-Semitic, less racist, less dogmatic, less ethnocentric, less close-minded, and less authoritarian”
  • Atheists are much more likely to register as Independents and Democrats than religious people.  Atheists are also “the most politically tolerant” group compared to various religious groups, supporting “the extension of civil liberties to dissident groups.”
  • “Recent studies show that secular individuals are much more supportive of gender equality than religious people, less likely to endorse conservatively traditional views concerning women’s roles, and when compared with various religious denominations, ‘Nones’ possess the most egalitarian outlook of all concerning women’s rights.”
  • On many contemporary social issues, atheists and secularists take a more liberal and progressive stand than do religionists: these include protecting the environment, supporting gay right and gay marriage, the death penalty, treatment of prisoners, use of torture, and assisted suicide.

Now not all is peaches and cream in Non-Believer Land. As Zuckerman notes, he’s made every effort to find the relevant studies, regardless of whether they show atheists in a good light. So where we fail compared to religionists are in donations of individuals to charity (though I suspect that many of this is to religious charities), our generally less optimistic attitudes than those held by religious people, and our tendency to have more extra-marital affairs. But I’ll take a little extra adultery if it goes with the panoply of liberal social attitudes mentioned above.

Here’s Zuckerman’s conclusion:

This essay began with a well-known Biblical quote stating that atheists are simply no good. Do the findings of contemporary social science support this Biblical assertion? The clear answer is no. Atheism and secularity have many positive correlates, such as higher levels of education and verbal ability, lower levels of prejudice, ethnocentrism, racism, and homophobia, greater support for women’s equality, child-rearing that promotes independent thinking and an absence of corporal punishment, etc. And at the societal level, with the important exception of suicide, states and nations with a higher proportion of secular people fare markedly better than those with a higher proportion of religious people.

So while religious people excel in a few areas, in the ones highlighted by Stedman—that is, those including bigotry, social justice, and liberalism—atheists are more progressive and less bigoted than believers, and since the proportion of atheists is so low, you can substitute “Americans as a whole” for “believers”.

In other words, Chris Stedman is dead wrong, at least according to the statistics, which have been compiled regardless of anybody’s biases. So I guess I’ll just put this post up and tweet it to Stedman, seeing if he’ll bow to the data. Granted, it’s nine years old, but I strongly doubt that atheists have become more conservative since 2009. And, at any rate, Stedman HAS no statistics. I suppose he could kvetch, “Wait! I just meant the atheist LEADERS, not atheists in general”, but that’s not how his article reads.

h/t: Heather Hastie, for pointing me to Zuckerman’s article


Zuckerman, P. 2009.  Atheism, secularity, and well-being: How the findings of social science counter negative stereotypes and assumptions.  Sociology Compass 3:949-971.

72 thoughts on “The definitive refutation of those who say atheists are bigoted and alt-right

    1. That’s a good article.

      A pity about a lot of the dross from the regressives in the comments.

      1. Yes, the TFA commentariat contains a sizable bloc of regressive leftist/Atheism Plussers who fully agree with Stedman that anything even slightly to the right of far left = alt-right ‘bigotry’.

        1. I suppose Hemant’s total lack of curation of his comment section is preferable to some other atheists’ deliberately harmful curation. But given some of the behavior there and especially how it appears to stem mainly from two or three very toxic individuals who can be found commenting on every article obsessively, I’d think some real moderation might be in order.

  1. If he takes the “leaders, not atheists in general” out we can focus on that next, right? That’s even easier because one can presumably read those leaders own words and even ask them questions.

    1. One would think so, if dealing with a rational and intellectually honest person. Unfortunately, Stedman intentionally misrepresented even Richard Dawkins’ own views and writings in his article.

  2. I would think most atheist would just know he was wrong. I don’t buy the charity bit. I bet they are just looking at charities to humans. We give to animal charities and give a lot. I suspect other atheists do as well.

    1. One has to be careful with stats on charitable giving. First, some studies use self-reported rates of giving. And religious people exaggerate how much they give, since they think they ought to give (just as they exaggerate how often they attend church).

      Second, as PCC says, giving towards the upkeep of churches and the salaries of pastors might count as “charitable” but is not actually charitable.

      I’ve never seen a study that showed that the non-religious were actually less generous.

      1. Yes, and unlike a lot of Charities, who will give a public accounting of where the money goes, I don’t think you will get this from a church.

      2. In Canada, “charity” (or at least “registered charity”) is a technical term in the tax code. CFI Canada (for example) is an educational charity, as is the human rights NGO I support. Religions are another. If that technical term is used (or a similar one) then in all likelihood large numbers of religious give to charity and likely in over all larger amounts, due to greater number of people.

        I’ve long said I have no problem with the soup kitchens doing what they do, but they should not cross-pollinate funds (though receiving donated space is fine).

      1. That cold be. But unless contributions to churches are excluded from the mix, I don’t the this comparison.

  3. I suspect a lot of the accusations of alt-right stem from the criticism of Islam, which is equated to bigotry. I see a lot of hate for Sam Harris because of that among liberal/leftist writers.

    And atheists who reject “critical feminist theory” can also get labeled as misogynist.

    1. Good points, I suspect you’re right. SPLC would undoubtedly label a lot of atheist groups as hate groups.

    2. Islam is Alt-right squared (if not cubed), criticising Islam should be considered anti- Alt-right.
      But it is not, I guess you’re right there.
      And the idea that not supporting anti-scientific, pomo, third wave femenist bullshit is somehow misogynistic is beyond ridiculous. But I guess you’re right there too. 🙁

  4. Your point that the religious may donate much of their charity to religious institutions is important. For example, is tithing considered charitable giving? I think so, since I believe it is tax deductible. It would be interesting to see a breakdown between religious and secular donations. I will grant that some contributions to religious institutions may be used for secular purposes, such as child care and soup kitchens. Still, a large proportion is used to support religious institutions or the evangelical scam artists, whether on TV or in megachurches.

    1. Good point. Many religions have a percentage that is clearly spelled out to the flock. Generally 10% of your income is requested by the church. Exactly how the church knows they are getting this, maybe they want a copy of your tax returns?

    2. I was going to make the same point, tithing is tax deductible and considered charitable donations. But most of it goes to building bigger churches, not to help anyone.

    3. I’m pretty sure I’ve read that the most generous group is Mormons. And, of course, they tithe. So they’re compulsorily giving the money to themselves. I’m not so sure that’s generous myself.

      1. Depends on what it gets used for, though I for one would want to carve off the actual social services (e.g., soup kitchens, scholarships, babysitting) from the religious functions and make the latter no longer a charity.

        (Cf. the bit in _Agora_ where the miracle of Christianity is supposedly the poor people being fed [non-miraculously].)

        Of course I would also reorganize society so that the former charities are also asymptotically unnecessary.

        1. I agree, both about only genuine charity only being tax free, and the restructuring of taxes etc so charity isn’t so necessary.

  5. Not sure if it was noted – This is the 40th anniversary of the FFRF today and they have approximately 33,000 members.

  6. The reality is that they call alt-right all those who disagree with their postmodern radical left ideology. And it’s obviously false. Unfortunately, the tendency of ideologies is to see everything as white/black, right/wrong, without facing the many intermediate shades of gray (alias the complexity of reality).

  7. I just read the post about Chris Stedman from the other day, this post, and Stedman’s article. I think he is trying to say one thing but gets confused. I think he is trying to say that as more people from the alt-right become atheists, it’s a good idea for atheists to condemn the negative values of those people.
    ‘”Too Many Atheists Are Veering Dangerously Toward the Alt-Right’”
    He is trying to say that if atheists aren’t vocal about condemning alt-right atheists, they might be perceived by the religious as the same. He does additionally mention how some atheists display similar behaviors. I saw only a couple of links to articles.
    ‘”It’s not surprising then that atheists, who are often marginalized in America, may be prime targets.’”
    This sounds like he is saying that atheists are targets of the alt-right and I don’t understand this.
    “’Many nonbelievers champion the idea that people can be “good without a god,” and while they’re certainly correct, it’s not enough to just say it. We need to live it.’” I have found that for myself, I get nowhere talking to religious people if I am not very kind and gentle. I think he means well, but maybe he’s hit a wall in what he’s trying to do.

    1. I think what Zuckerman’s article shows is that atheists actually do walk the talk. In most areas by which modern society judges morality, we do better, on average, than the religious. The problem is the prejudice of the religious towards atheists, not the behaviour of atheists.

      I’ve written about this using Pew Surveys about attitudes along with Zuckerman’s work. The stats show that there is a massive difference between the attitude of the religious to atheists if they actually know an atheist. I can’t remember exactly what it is off the top of my head, but it’s 20 or 30 percentage points. I’ll post a link later when I’m on another device.

      1. That sounds like an interesting link. I think when it comes to interacting with the religious, atheists are not always kind. It matters. It matters. Love to see the link if you have it. I wonder if there is one for the other way around.

        1. I can’t remember if the figures go both ways – I wrote the post a while ago. However, I’d assume there aren’t many atheists who don’t know any members of particular religious groups, so they may not be available due to the numbers being too small to be reliable. I’ll check for you.

          1. YouGov did a poll with attitudes to various policy positions – gay marriage, abortion, raising taxes on the rich, universal healthcare etc., and compared religious groups with “agnostic or atheist” (and also asked everyone to say “what would Jesus think?”). In all cases, the AorA category is the most liberal: (eg support universal healthcare: overall, 54%, Aor% 81%).

            1. Yes. That’s a good one! Everyone look at this! I forgot about it so I’m glad you put it here.

      2. Going back and find these posts, they make me look a bit like a Jerry Coyne fanboy! You’d think I never did anything else except read WEIT, then write posts about Jerry! The titles are self-explanatory. (I hope I got the links right – I’ve never done this in a comment before!)

        7 December 2014. (This is a critique of an attack by Luke Savage on atheists.)
        America Hates its Best Citizens: The Atheists

        3 March 2017: (Has the Pew data which shows that when people know someone from a generally despised group, they find they actually like them. There are data for how people overall feel about all the less popular groups, but there are no data for how those groups feel about other groups.)
        Atheists are Becoming More Popular

        3 Feb 2017:
        The Authoritarian Left and the Misdirected Animosity in the Atheist Community

        25 Nov 2014:
        Reza Aslan Pontificates: Atheism is an Ideology and New Atheists are Violent

        11 Dec 2014:
        Seven (More) Things Theists Get Wrong About Atheists

        19 Sep 2015:
        Is New Atheism a Cult?

        I’m pretty sure I’ve got other stuff about atheist attitudes, but this is what came up when I did a search for “Zuckerman”. There are some posts that disappeared from my site after a hack attack about three years ago, and as I didn’t have copies I’ve never been able to reproduce them. All the posts that disappeared were either anti-Islam (but not Muslims!) or pro-atheist.

        1. Thank you so much for all of these. I learned a lot from them. I especially enjoyed the reference to the organization that works with cults. I suppose I knew how people interact with me personally, in the past and now. Even if I wouldn’t say atheist because I didn’t know, people were angry and upset. I was also argumentative and angry so I don’t know. After “practicing tolerance” for a number of years, I find I get into more in depth conversations and build better relationships with religious people if I am very, very gentle. “Yeah, I don’t know. I have a lot of questions and have been questioning everything for a long time. Do you think that there might be anything that the religion might be wrong about? Oh, would you care for a Werther’s Original? So, you wouldn’t interpret that literally then?”

          I think maybe a good idea is to have all different religious and non-religious groups gather for team building activities. There are companies/summer camps etc. that host those types of things. For example, everyone stands in a circle and reaches out with one hand to someone across, and then reaches out to a different person with the other hand. Then, they have to untangle as a group without letting go to form a single circle. Maybe something like that might help. Religious people might be harsh about atheism, but I think it’s important to at least try and be kind to religious people. It’s like teaching a kid how to tie his shoes. Patience and encouragement are helpful. Asking someone to rethink their worldview is similar. They just need a little help. Thanks again for all of the articles.

          1. Cheers Liz.

            In NZ we’re lucky in that we don’t really have a problem with the different groups getting along. As with our very low levels of racism, I think it’s because we’re so small that we basically have to all get along or nothing would ever get done. Different groups aren’t big enough to separate themselves from the rest of society, so there’s less chance that people don’t know someone from the different groups. There are a lot more “nones” here too: 41.9% at the last census (2013). That’s more than any religious group, though less than Christians as a total. (We’ve just had another census, and I expect that number to have risen.)

  8. There are the exit polls from presidential elections since 2000, with figures for “no religious affiliation”:

    The unaffiliated were slightly behind ‘Jewish’, and about even with ‘Hispanic Catholic’, in pro-Clinton/anti-Trump voting – and I think voting for Trump is the most obvious ‘alt-right’ trait. Better than ‘other faiths’, and way in front of ‘White Catholic’ and ‘Protestant/other Christian’ (and the “white, born-again/evangelical” vote was horrendously pro-Trump).

    The most pro-Democrat unaffiliated vote was for Obama in 2008, but it’s been pretty steady.

  9. “…donations of individuals to charity (though I suspect that many of this is to religious charities)”

    IIRC, when a Mormon donates $100 to his or her church, a grand total of about $2 goes to a genuine charity on average, and $98 to the church’s general coffers. Maybe it’s a bit better, but a waste of time to look it up.
    The $2 is certainly a percentage vastly below 50%. The general coffers of course finances those young stiff-shirts-ties running all over the world making nuisances of themselves.
    But I’ll bet it’s a $100 tax deduction

    1. If I have my facts right, it’s basically the same for the CofE in the UK: pretty well all the regular (gift-aid eligible) donations go towards clergy pay and pensions, upkeep of the real estate, and admin costs, especially their hugely expensive and grasping lawyers. If they want any money for real charitable purposes, such as famine relief or development aid, they have to mount additional fund-raising drives. And their “church” schools are almost entirely taxpayer-funded. It’s a con-trick, which we in the UK somehow carry on conniving at. Unfortunately, there don’t seem to be any votes in it for any party that would dare to call it out.

      1. Let me know if you have any successes (or setbacks) as we here in Canada (especially in Ontario) have lots of us who want to get rid of our religious schools (mostly Catholic, but the constitution is read as allowing Protestant as well).

  10. All of what Zuckerman writes may be true, but it doesn’t matter to someone like Stedman. Stedman’s problem is that all atheists aren’t veering as hard left as he is, which means they might as well be called “Alt-Right.”

    1. Actually, I wouldn’t say that is Stedman’s issue.

      Stedmman was essentially on the losing end of the ‘framing’ wars, essentially agreeing with Chris Mooney that the “New Atheists” were just too mean and that we should be more accommodating towards bullshit and lies by people who are ostensibly our allies on other topics.

      To be fair that is maybe a harsher way of putting it than what he’d actually say, but it is pretty much what it all rounded out to.

      The whole thing flopped, basically because the most popular speakers and leaders were the ones saying “Balls to that”.

      Of course now there is the whole big split within atheism over free speech, whether it is okay to violently assault someone for disagreeing with you and whether we should be more dedicated to being good little leftists or just basically honest.

      Which means that the likes of Stedman are getting a shot at resurrecting that old argument while everyone is busy with shit that wasn’t settled almost a decade ago.

      1. I would agree with all that, but I think what I said is a way of summarizing that thought process for Stedman. For people like Stedman, supporting true free speech (“even people who ideologically oppose you and you find reprehensible still have the right to speak, and that right should be offended) is not “humanistic” or something a “good” atheist would believe. For people like Stedman, being willing to tolerate BS from, say, Islam, means being a “good” atheist who believes in social justice. For people like Stedman, supporting groups that are willing to use violence for ostensibly left-wing causes is the “right” thing to do, and if you don’t believe in supporting them, you’re Alt-Right.

        I agree with your assessment of him, but I think that assessmen is just a good summary of what I said.

        Of course, you are free to disagree 🙂 It’s not as if I’m definitely right and you’re definitely wrong.

  11. My opinion is that ethically atheists are approximately equal with members of most religions. It is true that they display (on average) the traits described in the post, but some of these traits have a back side. My observation is that atheists include almost all Ctrl-Leftists and SJWs. These are militant, intolerant and very noisy groups. Their presence explains why not all outsiders appreciate atheists as more tolerant than believers. (BTW, why do so many Americans think that they are more bigoted than other Western nations?)

    I am also not sure that being less nationalistic is always good. To me, this is an example of the tendency of atheists to be strongly individualistic and to live their lives for themselves. It explains also the unwillingness of atheists to sacrifice for a cause (of which charity is just one manifestation) and the higher suicide rate. I fear that atheist-dominated societies are, for that reason, unsustainable in the long run.

    1. There is a natural tendency to think of every minority group as “militant, intolerant and very noisy” unless they are completely out of sight. Our gut feeling may tell us that they are “not normal”. It is often just our natural xenophobia holding sway. Sometimes we just have to fight that urge with rational thought.

      1. Paul,
        I think our gut feeling is right in this case. To me, these far-leftists resemble the communists, who were also predominantly atheists. Actually, at the time when communists took over my country, there were few other overt atheists.

    2. I find your reasoning odd here. Scandinavian nations seem to be doing quite well and have arguably the most robust and highly developed social safety nets in the world. I wouldn’t call that sacrificing for a cause per se, but others might. Regardless, I don’t see how this could imply that such societies are less sustainable in the long run. There is plenty of data (and Jerry has highlighted much of it) to show that more atheistic societies tend to be more functional.

      Moreover, I don’t buy the claim that atheists are less charitable. Legally, as has been pointed out above, tithing qualifies as charity, but I don’t think it meets the spirit of the term. Charity should be something totally voluntary, so tithing to remain in good-standing with your church doesn’t qualify; it’s quid pro quo. If you could adjust for this in an analysis, then I would start to pay attention to the numbers.

      I also take issue with the idea that more individualism explains the higher suicide rate. There are alternative explanations that I think are more reasonable. For example, if you think you’ll end up in hell by committing suicide, then you’ll tend not to do it.

  12. There are different things mixed together.

    atheists as a demographic.
    atheists who discuss their non-faith online.

    Stedham cites George Hawley who says that the Alt-Right is more likely composed of younger men, who are less religious than the average. The Alt-Right is often described as a movement that is largely online.

    Add that the YouTube “debunking” scene (i.e. atheism-skepticism) tends to attract a younger male audience, too. And consider that right wing atheists exist, even if they have a smaller share. We can reasonably assume that right wing atheists will not exactly fit in with the Republican or typical conservatives.

    There might be a larger faction of Alt-Right atheists, and we might see a Simpson Paradox there (I might be wrong). I don’t find a contradiction between these assertion that online atheism in such corners features a notabicable Alt-Right influence (which it does), and the overall tendency of atheists of being overwhelmingly liberal (from Zuckerman, but also agrees with my impression)

    As I wrote last time, and tweeted at him, too, he’s dishonest about blaming Sam Harris or Richard Dawkins etc for the Alt-Right. That’s preposterous. The women in atheism angle is also dubious, and informed by woke ideologues.

  13. Just noticed that PZ Myers is really upset at this poll. And he thinks everyone here is a “Slime Pitter”.

    That makes at least two New Racists who I;ve seen crying over this poll. Lol. PZ, and Peter “Humanisticus” Ferguson.

    1. People actually getting angry when facts don’t conform to what they’ve decided is true…

      How sad to have people like this call themselves “skeptics.” I guess “skeptical” means refusing to accept any fact that doesn’t say what you want, no matter how obvious or repeatedly confirmed. PZ and Ferguson are two of the most pathetic people around. I can’t imagine what it’s like to whine and be angry all day, every day, all the while being convinced that you’re one of the world’s greatest minds and it’s just that nobody recognizes it. PZ and Ferguson’s behavior requires egos the size of Donald Trump’s. The anger only gets worse the longer their influence wains and the circle of people willing to listen to and tolerate them gets smaller and smaller. Their ever-shrinking audience (how much smaller can it get?) must feel like a noose tightening around their senses of self-worth.

      PZ actually thought that he was becoming one of the top thought leaders in atheism just a few years ago, and I’m not ashamed that his clear anger and disappointment in what people rightly think of him, and his impotent rage over it, gives me great schadenfreude. All he’s been doing for years now is helplessly lashing out, his only validation coming from a small group of nobodies who are willing to sooth him by telling him he’s right and good. His little circle-jerk has become so small that the only time anyone pays attention to him is when he either says something so asinine it’s a joy to mock him for it, or he makes a stink of disagreeing with reality and everybody decides its worthwhile to have a little laugh over it.

      I know this was mean, but it wasn’t even one tenth as mean as what PZ writes about anyone who he considers to be the “bad guys.” When it comes to people like him, I really do enjoy watching them flail about in an attempt to regain some semblance of dignity.

Leave a Reply