It isn’t unusual to hear from certain circles of the country these days that there is a determined effort by certain other circles of the country to attack the Christian religion.
The atheists, or ‘secularists’ as they are often derogatorily called, behind this attack are rarely named and don’t seem to have much in the way of organization or an explicit agenda, but that hasn’t stopped many outspoken Christians from being quite vocal about the ways in which they think they are being victimized.
The goals of these secularists seem hazily defined, but the examples of success often cited include the removal of mandatory prayer from public classrooms (never mind that there is nothing that stops any individual student from praying as much as he or she wants) and the recent dispute surrounding the Pledge of Allegiance.
It seems that these outspoken religious leaders are worried that secularists are turning religion into a private, not a public, practice, thereby attempting to remove it from American life altogether.
But a new study by the University of Minnesota Department of Sociology, soon to be published in the American Sociological Review, reveals quite a different picture about whether Christians or atheists are the freest to profess their beliefs without fear of consequence. In fact, the study finds that atheists are the group Americans as a whole tend to distrust the most, even more than Muslims and homosexuals. (Not that it would be better if Muslims or gays were the most distrusted group.)
The study found, for example, that nearly half of Americans would disapprove if their child wanted to marry an atheist (compared to about one-third for Muslims and about one-quarter for African-Americans), and that many respondents see atheists as ‘self-interested individuals who are not concerned with a common good,’ and who ‘reject the basis for moral solidarity and cultural membership in American society altogether.’
What this seems to say, if anything, is that even though some Christians might feel that atheists are waging a war on Christianity, it hasn’t enjoyed any degree of success.
The results of this study could potentially be taken in another way, though—the increased distrust of atheists might stem in part from the recent controversial issues which have put some atheistic individuals squarely in the public eye.
The publicity surrounding the 2002 decision by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals rendering the Pledge of Allegiance unconstitutional and the controversy last winter (mostly perpetrated by commentator Bill O’Reilly) that the true meaning of Christmas was under attack by these secularists could not have helped the image of atheists in the eyes of the vast majority of God-fearing Americans.
In other words, while the study indicates that atheists are the group most likely to be discriminated against (in belief if not in practice), it might also indicate that most Americans are buying into the idea of atheists attempting to make this country an entirely irreligious one.
And this creates a deeply troubling situation for agnostics like myself, as well as other decent nonbelievers, because while we would very much like to be considered full citizens and participate in American public life, we cannot attempt to improve our public image without confronting the distrust and prejudice most Americans seem to have toward us, and any attempts to do so would probably be immediately judged as yet another attempt to secularize the country—and so it creates a vicious circle.
The study found that ‘negative views about atheists are strong,’ but that ‘survey respondents were not, on the whole, referring to actual atheists they had encountered.’
Since there simply aren’t that many atheists in the country