The stigma of being an atheist

An empirical study on the New Atheist movement and its consequences

In 1963 the sociologist Erving Goffman published a book that has become part of the canon in social psychology, Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity, in which he defined stigma as "an attribute that is deeply discrediting". Those who are stigmatised are "reduced in our minds from a whole and usual person to a tainted, discounted one". Further, "sometimes it [stigma] is also called a failing, a shortcoming, a handicap" and that in extreme cases, a stigmatised person is "bad, dangerous or weak".1 Then there is the issue of "coming out": "To display or not display; to tell or not to tell; to let on or not to let on; to lie or not to lie; and in each case, to whom, how, when and where."2

That atheists are stigmatised in the United States was dramatically illustrated by the University of Minnesota researchers Penny Edgell and Joseph Gerteis in their frequently cited 2006 article ‘Atheists As "Other": Moral Boundaries and Cultural Membership in American Society’, in which they present data indicating that atheists are much more stigmatised than other historically marginalised groups: "Atheists are at the top of the list of groups that Americans find problematic in both public and private life and the gap between acceptance of atheists and acceptance of other racial and religious minorities is large and persistent. It is striking that the rejection of atheists is so much more common than rejection of other stigmatised groups."3

Margaret Downey began collecting discrimination narratives through the Anti-Discrimination Support Network (ADSN) she founded in 1993.4 Downey has collected hundreds of detailed stories of atheists losing their jobs, facing abusive family situations, being subjected to organised campaigns and even death threats. More recent work by the staff at the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers documents the hostile environment for atheists in the military.

The "New Atheists" are not so new

There has been a "freethinking" movement in the United States for a very long time, even predating the outspoken 19th century orator Robert Ingersoll. Indeed atheists have had many champions over the centuries, from the European thinkers Thomas Aquinas, David Hume and Immanuel Kant and more recently in the United States, Madalyn O’Hair, Michael Shermer and Carl Sagan. The so-called "New Atheists" – Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens (d. 2011) – are but the latest in what is now a more widely publicised movement.

Media attention on atheists in the United States has been on the increase in the last half decade and includes highly publicised debates between believers and non-believers, bus advertisement campaigns, numerous editorials and documentaries. An impressive rise in Internet-based social networking sites specifically for atheists has occurred, most notably Atheist Nexus which in just over the first 14 months attracted well over 15,000 members worldwide and had 1,00,000 unique visitors every month.

Despite all of this attention, there remains in the public mind a very monolithic and negative image of atheists and there seems to be no end in sight to this particular dimension of the culture wars. Ray Comfort, in the ‘Introduction’ to his special 150th Anniversary Edition of The Origin of Species, writes: "It’s rare to find an atheist who doesn’t embrace Darwinism with open arms. Many believe that with creation adequately explained by evolution, there is no need for a god and no moral responsibility."5 This stereotype about non-believers is pervasive and distressingly common among Christians, especially in the American South. The sad fact is that Comfort is but one voice among many working to perpetuate the marginalisation and even demonisation of atheists. That non-believers are decidedly not a homogeneous set of amoral individuals may be obvious to those who are close to this topic but much work remains to more completely address the negative stereotypes.

Recent efforts to describe and more thoroughly understand the non-religious segment of the population in the United States have yielded rich and instructive data. In his 2009 article ‘Profiles of the Godless’, Luke Galen provides a useful survey of this growing body of literature as to the characteristics of atheists: the surveys consistently report that atheists are predominantly male, highly educated and overwhelmingly liberal. My research reported here is intended to expand on this data set so that we may better understand the stigma in order to attenuate it.6


The survey "Coming Out as an Atheist" was live on the Atheist Nexus website ( for four months, from September to December 2008. During the time the survey was up news of its existence spread throughout the Internet on various atheist-oriented websites, blogs and listservs (most notably when it was mentioned by PZ Myers on the Pharyngula site Although the vast majority of the questions were in a forced-choice format, one question was open-ended and over half of the respondents took the time to describe a situation where they had felt some stigma associated with being an atheist.

All forms of data collection present unique challenges and problems, including the use of the Internet. Nevertheless, the data obtained in this study do provide insight into the lives of the self-identified atheists who completed the survey. These are individuals who: a) have access to the Internet, and b) feel comfortable enough in their atheism to seek out communities online where they could speak with similar individuals. Although findings from this study may not be generalised to all atheists, research by Nadine Koch and Jolly Emrey suggests that Internet research conducted on marginalised populations may have more generalising power than previously thought.7 For example, they found that demographics for gay/lesbian samples obtained from Internet communities mirrored gay/lesbian population demographics. Furthermore, demographics of those participating in the survey were nearly identical to those who chose not to participate. And the psychologist Sam Gosling and his colleagues, after an extensive study on Internet-based research programmes, concluded: "Evidence so far suggests that Internet-based findings are consistent with findings based on traditional methods."8 Research supports the possibility that there is a strong social desirability bias – people are more honest when they don’t have to interact with the real person – in telephone surveys and that more valid results may indeed be yielded by online surveys.9


The population represented in this survey of 8,200 respondents looked very similar to other survey populations of atheists10: many more males (74 per cent) than females, highly educated (62 per cent with college or graduate degrees), overwhelmingly white and very liberal (42 per cent). Though most (71 per cent or 5,398) of the respondents were from the US, the survey was completed by significant numbers from around the world (29 per cent or 2,218) and thus allows some suggestive comparisons.

Respondents were offered nine options: Atheist, Agnostic, Humanist, Bright, Freethinker, Sceptic, Naturalist, Non-believer and Other, in answer to the question: "Which word below do you most often use to identify yourself?". The overwhelming majority – 71 per cent – responded with "atheist". This result remained roughly steady when controlling for gender, age and geographic location. Interestingly, there was no close second place in terms of the preferred label, with none of the remaining options attracting much over five per cent of the responses. Of note is that in answer to the question: "How comfortable do you feel being labelled an atheist?", people from the United States were far less comfortable being labelled an atheist (54 per cent) as compared to those in, for example, western Europe (73 per cent).

The remaining 29 per cent however are spread over scores of different terms. Many respondents indicated that what they call themselves depends on the social context. Although many had very serious and thoughtful alternatives such as: "rationalist", "critical atheist", "antitheist", "teleologist", "non-theistic Reconstructionist Jew" or "Gnostic atheist", others had more whimsical responses such as "Pastafarian" and "Anti-Christer." One that perhaps captures the essence of this entire semantic struggle answered "midway between atheist and agnostic, waiting for atheist to lose its social stigma". Herein lies the crux of the problem. The stigma.

The stigma associated with being an atheist

In response to the question: "Which best describes your realisation that you are an atheist?", 19 per cent of those from the US indicated: "I have always known" compared to 33 per cent from the UK and 39 per cent in western Europe. For most atheists (56 per cent), this realisation was a gradual process over months or years.

In answer to the question: "How often did you attend religious services when you were growing up?", the data indicates that 64 per cent of those from the United States attended a house of worship at least a few times per month. Religious service attendance was much lower for those in other nations, with only 33 per cent of western Europeans indicating they went to services that often. Results for other nations include Canada 52 per cent, UK 43 per cent and Australia 45 per cent. While only 15 per cent of those from the US indicated they never went to religious services, the numbers are higher for other nations: Canada 21 per cent, UK 29 per cent, western Europe 27 per cent and Australia 15 per cent.

In response to the question: "Do you feel any stigma related to your atheism?", the data indicate a dramatic difference between the US and other western nations. While only 16 per cent of those from the US indicated they felt no social stigma related to their atheism, the numbers were much higher in other nations: Canada 38 per cent, UK 68 per cent, western Europe 68 per cent and Australia 56 per cent. On the other end of the response scale, the numbers tell the same story: 18 per cent of those from the US indicated they felt a strong social stigma related to being an atheist compared to only 5.8 per cent in Canada, two per cent in the UK, one per cent in western Europe and three per cent in Australia.

The survey’s most visceral responses addressed the assumption that atheists have no morals. Indeed the stories tell of atheists not just being seen as amoral but decidedly immoral. One woman from the Bible belt wrote: “Many times I’ve been told: ‘What stops you from going out and killing people?’!!”

In response to the question: "In general, how stigmatised do you feel atheists are in your culture?", the contrast between the responses from those in the US were dramatically different from those in other nations. The choice "not stigmatised at all" generated only two per cent of those from the US compared to 14 per cent from Canada, 46 per cent from the UK, 52 per cent from western Europe and 33 per cent from Australia. On the other end of the scale, 55 per cent of the US respondents indicated that atheists were "very stigmatised" compared to only 17 per cent from Canada, four per cent from the UK, three per cent from western Europe and four per cent from Australia. One of the most consistent patterns related to stigma was within the US. On every question, the four regions used for comparison – Bible belt, Midwest, West and North-east – the percentages for each response remained in the exact same order through all measures.

Social repercussions of being identified as an atheist

Three questions in the survey asked the respondent to predict the repercussions should they be identified as an atheist. These questions were all phrased as follows: "Do you feel that there would be any social repercussions if people in your [workplace/family/local community] found out that you were an atheist?" The results indicate significant differences between the US and other nations in all three scenarios.

While 57 per cent of those respondents from the US felt there would be at least minor repercussions in the workplace, only 12 per cent of those from western Europe felt that way. The other nations are as follows: Canada 35 per cent, UK 15 per cent and Australia 24 per cent.

While 61 per cent of those respondents from the US felt there would be at least minor repercussions in the family, only 20 per cent of those from western Europe felt that way. The other nations are as follows: Canada 46 per cent, UK 22 per cent and Australia 27 per cent.

While 68 per cent of those respondents from the US felt there would be at least minor repercussions in the local community, only 18 per cent of those from the UK felt that way. The other nations are as follows: Canada 48 per cent, western Europe 22 per cent and Australia 31 per cent.

When examining this data set broken down by region within the US, the pattern mentioned above again manifests itself. In all three scenarios, it is the Bible belt and the Midwest where the repercussions proved to be the most severe. It is with the family where there is the most fear of repercussions, with both the Bible belt and the Midwest in double digits predicting major repercussions. That females comprised only 25 per cent of the respondents to this survey certainly raises some important questions beyond the scope of the present article. There has been little research on how the stigma of being an atheist varies by gender. The present data suggest that being an atheist is more difficult socially for females than for males. In the present data, females differed somewhat from males: they were slightly younger on average and significantly more liberal, with 53 per cent reporting themselves as "very liberal" compared to 38 per cent of the males.

In response to the question: "Do you feel any social stigma related to your atheism?", 78 per cent of the females reported at least slight stigma as compared to 69 per cent of the males, indicating that the stigma is moderately greater for a female. Restated, while 20 per cent of the females said they felt no social stigma, 30 per cent of the males put themselves in that category.

While 46 per cent of the females believed there would be no social repercussions if people at their workplace found out they were atheists, 55 per cent of the males felt the same, indicating that more females than males feared at least some workplace repercussions.

The data with respect to social repercussions if family found out they were atheist are very similar to those found regarding the workplace: 41 per cent of the females felt there would be none while 50 per cent of the males reported the same.

Though the national and regional differences regarding perceived stigma are interesting, I think there is a greater need for deeper research into its gendered nature.

"And God Bless America!"

Atheists are marginalised and made to feel uncomfortable when a major political official ends her/his speech with "and may God bless America" or when grandmother asks "who is going to say grace?" before a holiday meal.

In two survey questions: "Which best describes how you feel in more intimate social situations where religion is invoked (for example, a pre-meal prayer with family or friends)?" and "Which best describes how you feel in public gatherings where religion is invoked (for example, when a speaker refers to god or says a prayer)?", the results were dramatic. Respondents indicated overwhelmingly that they felt at least a slight discomfort in both situations: 79 per cent of all respondents were uncomfortable in intimate social situations and 82 per cent felt discomfort with regard to public settings.

The vast majority (86 per cent) of the females reported feeling at least slight discomfort while a slightly smaller – but possibly statistically significant – percentage of the males felt the same way (76 per cent). Fifteen per cent of the females reported feeling no discomfort while 24 per cent of the males reported feeling no discomfort.

The stories of stigma

Nearly 4,200 respondents offered written responses to the prompt: "Please provide an example of a social situation where you experienced stigmatisation because you are an atheist". These narratives provide perhaps the richest information yielded from the data and clear patterns emerge, clarifying and deepening the sketch provided by the quantitative numbers from the forced-choice questions. Perhaps the most visceral responses addressed the assumption perpetuated by Ray Comfort and others, namely that atheists have no morals. Indeed the stories tell of atheists not just being seen as amoral but decidedly immoral.

One woman from the Bible belt wrote: "Many times I’ve been told: ‘What stops you from going out and killing people?’!!" A middle-aged female noted: "My six-year-old son was cornered in first grade by three other six-year-olds who screamed at him: ‘You will believe in Jesus!! You will believe in Jesus!!’ Not so good."

A young male confessed: "My wife told me that I’m caught in Satan’s grip and confessed that after I de-converted, she considered leaving me. I believe the only reason she didn’t is because she’s financially dependent on me." Another described: "I’ve had people literally, physically back away from me upon hearing I am atheist. My children were told to run away from our evil home."


Many more examples could be cited from the data but the tone and pattern are clear. The stigma associated with being an atheist, especially in the American Bible belt, is real, pervasive and oppressive. It is affecting the lives and livelihoods of many. But just how many? A recent survey by Trinity College in Connecticut found that 15 per cent of Americans claim they adhere to no religion, making them the fastest growing group of believers – or rather, non-believers – in the US. The Trinity College American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) also found that the number of people who self-identify as "non-religious" is growing in every state. Data from the Pew Forum US Religious Landscape Survey appears to support the ARIS data.

According to several estimates, there are many more non-believers in the US other than historically marginalised groups. Yet this highly stigmatised group has no protection from discrimination and there are still laws on the books in six states prohibiting non-believers from holding public office, including my own home state, North Carolina.

Is a future where atheists in the US are not stigmatised possible? Work done to minimise or eliminate stigma by other historically marginalised groups such as homosexuals, HIV-positive individuals and others with physical challenges such as epilepsy has had mixed success. The social movement referred to by some as the "New Atheism" is focused among other things on the de-stigmatisation of atheism. It is hoped that research data such as presented here will contribute to useful dialogue on this problem.

Archived from Communalism Combat, June 2012. Year 18, No.166 – Cover Story
 This article was published in Skepticmagazine in January 2010.


1 Goffman, Erving, 1959, Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity, Englewood Cliffs, NJ, Prentice Hall, p. 5.

2 Ibid, p. 42.

3 Edgell, Penny and Gerteis, Joseph, 2006, ‘Atheists As "Other": Moral Boundaries and Cultural Membership in American Society’, American Sociological Review, 71, p. 230.

4 Downey, Margaret, 2004, ‘Discrimination Against Atheists: The Facts’, Free Inquiry, June 1, pp. 41-43.

5 Comfort, Ray, 2009, ‘Special Introduction’ to the 150th Anniversary Edition of The Origin of Species, Alachua, Fl, Bridge-Logos, p. 39.

6 Galen, Luke, 2009, ‘Profiles of the Godless: Results from a survey of the non-religious’, Free Inquiry, Aug/Sept 2009, pp. 41-45.

7 Koch, Nadine and Emrey, Jolly, 2001, ‘The Internet and Opinion Measurement: Surveying Marginalised Populations’, Social Science Quarterly, 82, pp. 131-138.

8 Gosling, Samuel, et al, 2004, ‘Should We Trust Web-Based Studies?’, American Psychologist, 59, pp. 93-104.

9 Presser, Stanley and Stinson, Linda, 1998, ‘Data Collection Mode and Social Desirability Bias in Self-Reported Religious Attendance’, American Sociological Review, 63, pp. 137-145.

10 Shermer, Michael, 2000, How We Believe: The Search for God in an Age of Science, New York, Henry Holt; Hunsberger, Bruce and Altemeyer, Bob, 2006, Atheists: A Groundbreaking Study of America’s Nonbelievers, Amherst, NY, Prometheus Books.




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