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Gallup Polls & Other Surveys on American Attitudes Towards Atheists

Over 40 Years of Research Show Atheists Are Despised, Distrusted

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The 2006 University of Minnesota study made a lot news about its revelation of how atheists are the most despised minority in America, but this wasn't news to atheists — it was just the most recent in a long series of surveys showing that Americas are very bigoted and prejudiced against atheists. For as long as organizations have been asking Americans about atheists, Americans have been responding that they wouldn't treat atheists as equals to theists and Christians.

A 1999 Gallup poll conducted to determine Americans' willingness to tolerate a Jewish president (Joseph Lieberman was the Democratic candidate for Vice President at the time). Here are the percentages of people saying they would refuse to vote for "a generally well-qualified person for president" on the basis of some characteristic; in parenthesis are the figures for earlier years:

    Catholic: 4% (1937: 30%)
    Black: 5% (1958: 63%, 1987: 21%)
    Jewish: 6% (1937: 47%)
    Baptist: 6%
    Woman: 8%
    Mormon: 17%
    Muslim: 38%
    Gay: 37% (1978: 74%)
    Atheist: 48%

Gallup has been asking people about whether they would vote for atheists for president for quite some time. Here are the numbers who have said "no" over the years:

    February 1999: 48%
    August 1987: 48%
    April 1983: 51%
    July 1978: 53%
    December 1959: 74%
    September 1958: 77%
    August 1958: 75%

It might be argued that there is some cause for hope here, since the number of Americans who would refuse to vote for someone solely on the basis of being an atheist has dropped from 75% to "merely" 48% over the course of 40 years. It's not much hope, though. First, the numbers of Americans whose prejudice would prevent them from voting for members of other minorities has dropped much farther much faster over the same period of time. Second, the numbers of those prejudiced against atheists hasn't really dropped in the past couple of decades — almost all the progress was made between 1959 and 1978.

Finally, other studies and surveys indicate that prejudice against atheists is going back up. A March, 2007 survey done by Newsweek shows that 62% of people would refuse to vote for any candidate admitting to being an atheist. Republicans were, predictably, the most bigoted at 78%, followed by Democrats at 60% and independents at 45%. Among those surveyed, 47% claimed that America is more accepting of atheists than in the past. I wonder where they got that idea? The only positive results from this survey were that 68% of the people felt that atheists could be moral — but this begs the question of why people won't vote for atheists.

In 2003, the Pew Research Center conducted a poll on "religion and public life" which asked people about their attitudes towards a variety of groups, including atheists. People's opinions of atheists break down:

    Very Favorable: 7%
    Mostly Favorable: 27%
    Mostly Unfavorable: 19%
    Very Unfavorable: 33%

So, only 34% of Americans have at least a mostly favorable attitude towards atheists; 52% have a mostly unfavorable or worse attitude. Opinions about people who are not religious are better:

    Very Favorable: 9%
    Mostly Favorable: 41%
    Mostly Unfavorable: 19%
    Very Unfavorable: 14%

So, 50% of Americans have at least a mostly favorable attitude towards the irreligious and just 33% have a mostly unfavorable (or worse) attitude towards them. Compare these figures with attitudes towards Muslims:

    Very Favorable: 9%
    Mostly Favorable: 38%
    Mostly Unfavorable: 19%
    Very Unfavorable: 12%

Muslims are thus regarded a bit worse than the non-religious, but much better than atheists. Attitudes towards "Muslim Americans" were even better than this. All of these attitudes translated into whether people are willing to vote for a person for president. Here are the percentages of Americans who, according to this Pew Research Center survey, would refuse to vote for someone based on the relevant characteristic:

    Catholic: 8%
    Jewish: 10%
    Evangelical Christian: 15%
    Muslim: 38%
    Atheist: 50%

The 50% who would refuse to vote for an atheist is higher than the 48% who answered the same in a 1999 Gallup survey, suggesting that perhaps attitudes towards atheists are getting worse. These overall American attitudes are largely, but not entirely, the product of Christian attitudes. A 1995 study done by Barna revealed that the prejudice and bigotry of born-again Christians towards atheists was almost universal, but still very high among non-Christians.

Here are the numbers of born-again Christians who regard the impact of these groups as negative:

    Islam: 71%
    Buddhism: 76%
    Scientology: 81%
    Atheism: 92%

Here are the numbers of non-Christians who view the impact of the same groups as negative:

    Islam: 24%
    Buddhism: 22%
    Scientology: 30%
    Atheism: 50%

There is a large drop for each group, but the drop for atheists is smallest and the final number of people who remain prejudiced against atheists is significantly higher than for every other group — so much higher, in fact, that non-Christians are more prejudiced against atheists, relatively speaking, than they are against the other groups. Born-again Christians are more prejudiced in absolute terms, but they are generally more prejudiced against everyone.

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