Every single study that has ever looked at the issue has revealed massive amounts of bigotry and prejudice against atheists in America. The most recent data shows that atheists are more distrusted and despised than any other minority and that an atheist is the least likely person that Americans would vote for in a presidential election. It's not just that atheists are hated, though, but also that atheists seem to represent everything about modernity which Americans dislike or fear.
The most recent study was conducted by the University of Minnesota, which found that atheists ranked lower than "Muslims, recent immigrants, gays and lesbians and other minority groups in 'sharing their vision of American society.' Atheists are also the minority group most Americans are least willing to allow their children to marry." The results from two of the most important questions were:
This group does not at all agree with my vision of American society...
Conservative Christians: 13.5%
Recent Immigrants: 12.5%
I would disapprove if my child wanted to marry a member of this group....
Conservative Christians: 6.9%
Lead researcher Penny Edgell said that she was surprised by this: "We thought that in the wake of 9/11, people would target Muslims. Frankly, we expected atheists to be a throwaway group." Nevertheless, the numbers are so extreme that she was led to conclude that they are "a glaring exception to the rule of increasing tolerance over the last 30 years." It's not that bigotry and discrimination against Muslims is appropriate, but at least it's not hard to understand where such attitudes would come from.
Every group except atheists is being shown much greater tolerance and acceptance than 30 years ago. "Our analysis shows that attitudes about atheists have not followed the same historical pattern as that for previously marginalized religious groups. It is possible that the increasing tolerance for religious diversity may have heightened awareness of religion itself as the basis for solidarity in American life and sharpened the boundary between believers and nonbelievers in our collective imagination."
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."
Given the relatively low number of atheists in America, and the even lower number who are public about their atheism, Americans can't have come to their beliefs about atheists through personal experience and hard evidence about what atheists are really like. Furthermore, dislike of atheists doesnt correlate very highly with dislike of gays, immigrants, or Muslims. This means that dislike of atheists isn't simply part of a larger dislike of people who are "different."
Why are atheists being singled out for special hatred and distrust? "What matters for public acceptance of atheists - and figures strongly into private acceptance as well - are beliefs about the appropriate relationship between church and state and about religion's role in underpinning society's moral order, as measured by our item on whether society's standards of right and wrong should be based on God's laws." It's curious that atheists would be singled out for special hatred on the basis of church/state separation which religious theists, including Christians, are usually on the forefront of fighting to preserve separation. It's rare to find a case filed by or supported by atheists which is not also supported by theists and Christians. In fact, I can't think of any off hand.
Although people may say that they consider atheists inferior because atheists don't believe that civil law should be defined according to some group's conception of what their god wants, I don't think that's the whole story. There are too many religious theists who also want civil law to be secular rather than religious. Instead, I think that a much better case can be made for the idea that atheists are being scapegoated the same way that Catholics and Jews once were: they are treated as social outsiders who create "moral and social disorder."
Atheists can't both be lower-class drug users or prostitutes and upper-class elitists and materialists. Instead, atheists are being saddled with the "sins" of American society generally. They are "a symbolic figure" that represent religious theists' "fears about ... trends in American life." Some of those fears involve "lower class" crimes like drug use; other fears involve "upper class" crimes like greed and elitism. Atheists are thus a "symbolic representation of one who rejects the basis for moral solidarity and cultural membership in American society altogether."
That's obviously not going to change, because as long as atheists remain atheists, then won't be theists and they won't be Christians. This means that they won't agree that any gods, much less the Christian god, can serve as the basis for moral solidarity or cultural membership in American society. Of course, neither can adherents of many other religions who either don't believe in gods or who don't believe in the Christian god. As America becomes more religiously pluralist, America is going to have to change and find something else to serve as the basis for moral solidarity and cultural membership. Atheists should work to ensure that this is as secular as possible.