In this paper I will assess anti-atheist bias, then explore some of its historical and psychological roots and conclude on a positive note, observing that things are changing even as I acknowledge the enormity of the sources of this insidious form of prejudice.
The State of Anti-Atheist Prejudice
When during class recently, a mourning mother linked the violent killing of her son to the lack of religion in our society, it reminded me that atheists are still the most hated minority in America and that the stereotype of atheists as amoral, or immoral, persists unchallenged even in academia and in many cultural spaces. The most shocking aspect of this revelation is that Protestants, Catholics and Muslims are particularly over-represented in the prisons, particularly because of violent crimes, whereas only 0.21 of inmates were atheist (Federal Bureau of Prisons, 1997).
According to a University of Minnesota Study on American Attitudes Towards Atheists & Atheism (Austin Cline, 2013), 39.6% of those surveyed said that atheists "do not at all agree with my vision of American society", a much higher percentage than Muslims, recent immigrants, gays and lesbians, or any other hated minority. 47.6% said they "would disapprove if my child wanted to marry an atheist", a much higher percentage than all other categories. The study cites:
Some respondents associated atheism with illegal behavior, like drug use and prostitution: "that is, with immoral people who threaten respectable community from the lower end of the social hierarchy." Others saw atheists as "rampant materialists and cultural elitists" who "threaten common values from above -- the ostentatiously wealthy who make a lifestyle out of consumption or the cultural elites who think they know better than everyone else."
Prejudice against atheists is so prevalent that many, perhaps most, atheists avoid the label and prefer, instead, to say that they're humanists or non-religious. It's understandable that people who embrace philosophy instead of religion and human values, rather than religious values, would want to call themselves humanists. This is a legitimate choice, even if it gives a nod of assent to an ill-informed consensus in our society.
Does the Stereotype Hold Up?
People in deeply religious societies are oftentimes routinely denied basic human rights. Saudi Arabia denies women even the right to drive. Uganda almost passed a Kill the Gays bill recently. Afghani and Pakistani girls who attend schools have to fear for their lives. An atheist should expect to be executed in many Muslim lands. Nigeria is plagued daily by the most barbaric and obscene Christian-Muslim conflict, as well as killings of witches and slaying of children by their own Christian parents and pastors for witchcraft. In heavily secularized and peaceful Sweden, a recent wave of rapes is tied to recent Muslim immigrants who feel that if women aren't modestly dressed, they deserve to be raped.
Atheists are happier and saner than theists. A report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) found that Danish people, the majority of whom are atheists, are the happiest among 40 countries that were studied. Other developed countries with high standards of living exhibit similar rates of disbelief, including Sweden where only 23 percent of the citizens say they positively believe in a God.
The statistical link between prevalence of religion and societal dysfunction in human societies is more than demonstrated in census data. Gregory Paul has published several peer-reviewed papers on this, including The Chronic Dependence of Popular Religiosity upon Dysfunctional Psychosociological Conditions (Evolutionary Psychology Journal) and his brilliant, Cross-National Correlations of Quantifiable Societal Health with Popular Religiosity and Secularism in the Prosperous Democracies, which was published in the Journal of Religion and Society. In it, he found:
“... high rates of belief in and worship of a creator correlate with higher rates of homicide, juvenile and early adult mortality, STD infection rates, teen pregnancy, and abortion in prosperous democracies. Higher rates of non-theism and acceptance of human evolution usually correlate with lower rates of dysfunction, and the least theistic nations are usually the least dysfunctional.”
The Global Peace Index (GPI) measures nations' levels of peacefulness or violence. Statistical data related to the U.S. states reveal similar correlations between religiosity and high crime rates, teen pregnancy rates, school dropout rates, etc. where the more secular states invariably exhibit more societal health than the more religious states. Prison and divorce statistics also shed light on the prevalence of societal dysfunction in religious communities. Atheists are much less likely to divorce than Christians and Jews.
Deep Historical Roots
The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.” They are corrupt, their deeds are vile; there is no one who does good. - Psalm 14:1
In addition to the Bible's vilification of non-believers, the Quran exhibits a persistent, repetitive, paranoid belligerence against infidels. But we must not forget that non-Abrahamic religions have also exhibited intolerance for the infidel: Socrates was executed after a democratic vote in Athens for corrupting the youth and failing to honor the gods of the city.
Gods are psychological artifacts created by communities to exert the pressure to conform. They have often been used to delineate the boundaries of collective identities, so that it has been seen as anti-social to exit the hypnosis and the consensus imposed by the ruling classes by questioning their existence.
Enrique Barrios once said that each person lives in the universe that he's capable of imagining. When he instituted the one official religion of the Roman Empire, Constantine wanted the world to be able to imagine having to live under nothing but absolute power as the unavoidable destiny of the human race. He criminalized and persecuted all non-Christians, just as the Christians had previously been persecuted: a retaliatory program was disguised as divine justice. Dissent was henceforward forbidden. Monotheism constituted a totalitarian cosmology and facilitated and justified a totalitarian regime in Rome, "on Earth as it is in heaven".
The destruction of the library of Alexandria is pivotal in the history of how atheists became pariahs. Science might have helped to justify questioning superstitious ideas, but now science was banished. After the burning of the library of Alexandria, all the scientific knowledge that had existed in antiquity was lost and Europe entered the Dark Ages. It is now known that Eristothanes, a Greek philosopher from Alexandria whose scrolls were most likely destroyed when the library was vandalized, had accurately estimated the circumference of the Earth by measuring shadows at noon in different parts of Egypt. We also have evidence that ancient Egyptians had known of the Americas from coca that has been found in mummies in Egypt: coca plants only grow in the Andes.
Also, philosophies such as Epicureanism (which first proposed the existence of the atom 2,300 years ago) might have helped to question superstition. But later in the sixth century, as the church garnered more power, emperor Justinian closed all the philosophical schools that competed with Christianity, so that the church was guaranteed the complete and most absolute mental slavery of the population.
What we see is a conglomeration of power structures, where the church provided the ideological superstructure. All sorts of supernatural claims were now made available to various dominant castes to justify the established power structures beginning with the most persistent form of slavery, that of womankind. The church used the tale of Genesis, which blames Eve for every evil on Earth, to legitimize women's subjugation and subservience:
I will make your pains in childbearing very severe: with painful labor you will give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you. - Genesis 3:16
Slavery was then extended to anyone else who might be otherized, objectified, and commodified. The church legitimized the institution of slavery, and therefore served the interests (and secured the loyalties) of the ruling classes by securing cheap or free labor:
Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves. You may also buy some of the temporary residents living among you and members of their clans born in your country, and they will become your property. You can bequeath them to your children as inherited property and can make them slaves for life.- Leviticus 25:44-46
Numerous passages in the Old Testament legitimized genocide of foreign nations who worship other gods in order to steal their land, which was a most useful artifice during the colonial period in the Americas. So many structures of power benefited from the Bible throughout history that the ruling class alliances were solidified comfortably under the umbrella of Christendom for centuries. During the inquisition, doctors and lawyers profited handsomely from fees paid during the judicial processes and from the removal of midwives and folk healers in favor of men who studied medicine --after all, midwives were challenging the biblical deity by alleviating the pangs of childbirth, which was God's particular punishment to all women because of Eve's disobedience. All the possessions of the women whose lives were taken for the crime of witchcraft (many of whom happened to be wealthy widows), including their lands, were transferred to the property of the church.
In modern times, the clergy still profits from tithe, from tax exemptions as non-profit institutions even when everyone knows how aggressively for-profit mega-churches really are, and from being above reproach as we saw with the culture of sexual predatory behavior that pervades the Catholic clergy.
Media further silences atheists when it persistently upholds the tenet that an atheist would never be able to win the presidency in our country, in spite of the fact that recent polls indicate that about a fifth of the US population identifies as non-religious and that it's the largest growing segment of society (Pew Forum, 2013).
The Threat-to-Power Theory
All of the above examples of domination justified by religion should serve to explain the threat that atheists represent to power. With systems of power as prevalent and well established as these profiting so handsomely from religion throughout so much of history, the atheists didn't stand a chance. They would not be allowed to burst the bubble that kept so many people in their place and they would be demoralized, hated, and persecuted from all corners.
The Death Denial Theory
But there are also non-historical roots of anti-atheist bias. Research by social scientists on what's being called the death-denial principle demonstrates that, when reminded of their own mortality, people become hostile towards those that are different and attach themselves to that which is familiar. The death-denial principle (Ernest Becker, 1973) proposes that humans try to escape the anxiety, fear, and panic inspired by their own mortality by escaping into fantasies about immortality. The principle explains not just religious fantasies about the afterlife, but many expressions of art, culture, and funerary traditions.
Recent studies by social scientists show that judges give much more severe penalties and that Christians express much more hostility towards Jews, atheists, and anyone who contradicts their fantasies about the afterlife, shortly after they're reminded of their mortality (Patrick Shen, 2003).
And so it seems like much anti-atheist bias has deep psychological roots, and that more of it has more to do with unresolved issues within the person who is prejudiced than with the character of the person who has the decency, the courage, and the intellectual stamina to recognize and admit that he's an atheist.
In this analysis, I have explored the current state of anti-atheist bias and the root of the myth that atheists are amoral or immoral. I've proposed a dual theory of atheists having been throughout history a threat to those in power and to social cohesiveness, plus the psychological roots of this bias in the death-denial principle. Atheists have been at the margins of society for centuries and, as with any form of marginalization, this has required the dehumanization and demoralization of the other.
However things are changing. For centuries, science has continued to render religion irrelevant and revealed its claims to be fraudulent. More recently, the sex scandal and abuses of power within the church have come to light and books like Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion, Christopher Hitchens' God is Not Great, Sam Harris' Letter to a Christian Nation, have all been on the best-sellers list. The rise of political atheism has created a new visibility for atheists, encouraged many to come out of the atheist closet, and feeds the hope that things will change.
Atheist vindication will not be easy, or immediate. Too much stands in the way. But in the information era, ignorance daily invites more ridicule. I wish to close with philosopher Seneca's adage: "Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful".
Cline, Austin. "University of Minnesota study on American attitudes towards atheists & atheism." About.com. University of Minnesota, n.d. Web. 20 Feb. 2013. http://atheism.about.com/od/atheistbigotryprejudice/a/AtheitsHated.htm.
"1997 Federal Bureau of Prisons Statistics." liveleak.com. Federal Bureau of Prisons, 16 July 2009. Web. 20 Feb. 2013. htp://www.liveleak.com/view?i=4b2_1247744705.
“Nones on the rise." pewforum.org. Pew Research Center, n.d. Web. 20 Feb. 2013. http://www.pewforum.org/unaffiliated/nones-on-the-rise.aspx.
Paul, Gregory S. "Cross-National Correlations of Quantifiable Societal Health with Popular Religiosity and Secularism in the Prosperous Democracies." Journal of Religion and Society 7 (2005). Web. 20 Feb. 2013. http://moses.creighton.edu/jrs/2005/2005-11.pdf.
Becker, Ernest. The Denial of Death. 1997 ed. New York: The Free Press, 1973. Print.
Shen, Patrick, prod. Flight from death. Narr. Greg Bennick. 2003. Transcendental Media. Web. 20 Feb. 2013. http://wp.flightfromdeath.com.