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.