Atheists are the most despised and distrusted minority in the United States. Americans are more prejudiced and bigoted against atheists than any other group. This isn't a subjective perception of atheists, it's a fact that is reinforced by every study done on the subject. The reasons given for this bigotry are varied, but they are all also generally incorrect in their portrayal of atheists. Atheists are thus hated more for what people attribute to them than for what they really are.
In 1987, Republican presidential candidate George H. W. Bush was asked by Robert Sherman, a reporter for the American Atheist news journal, if he recognized the "equal citizenship and patriotism" of atheists in America. Bush responded: "No, I don't know that atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered as patriots. This is one nation under God." This answer has become iconic in expression of American, religious, and Christian bigotry towards atheists.
In February, 2000, Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore was asked if he would be bothered if an atheist were elected president. Gore responded: "No it would not. I think that it would depend on who the person was, of course. But do I believe that someone can have an understanding of our Constitution (and) a true spirit of tolerance without affirming a particular and specialized belief in God? Yes I do. I think that it is incumbent upon anyone who affirms a respect for tolerance."
These answers, one from a conservative Christian and Republican and the other from a liberal Christian and Democrat, represent two opposite ends of the spectrum of attitudes towards atheists: one is prejudiced, intolerant, and bigoted; the other is tolerant, open, and welcoming. Fortunately, Gore's response demonstrates that not all Christians are intolerant of and prejudiced against atheists. Unfortunately, far more Americans agree with the bigoted attitude of Bush than the tolerant attitude of Gore.
Such bigotry and prejudice towards atheists are not a recent development. In her book Sleeping with Extra-Terrestrials: The Rise of Irrationalism and the Perils of Piety, Wendy Kaminer cites research from the 1980s showing that Americans believed that freedom of worship "applies to all religious groups, regardless of how extreme their beliefs are," but only 26% of Americans agreed that "freedom of atheists to make fun of God and religion" in public "should be legally protected no matter who might be offended."
Since 71% agreed that atheists who "preach against God and religion" should be denied access to civic auditoriums, it seems clear that making fun of God and religion wasn't the problem offending people by openly denying God and religion was. Thus religious theists, including Christians, should be free to promote their beliefs no matter how extreme they are but atheists should not be free to respond, whether by being critical of religion or simply by promoting a nonreligious, non-theistic perspective, because that is offensive to religious theists.
This same research found that only 59% thought that gay liberation groups should be denied access to the same auditoriums to promote gay rights. Remember, this was the 1980s when acceptance of homosexuality and gay rights were much lower than today, but even then gay rights and gay liberation movements were regarded with more tolerance and less prejudice than atheists being critical of religion or promoting a non-religious, non-theistic view of life.
Various surveys done since then display in detail just how bigoted and prejudiced Americans are towards atheists, especially when compared to American attitudes towards other groups: