Column: In God we (dis)trust: The impossible plight of the American atheist population

By Lally Gartel

I love it when a reputable university study proves something I complain about anecdotally. Before, when I would exclaim hyperbolically “man, everyone hates atheists,” I didn’t actually know it was true. But it is truer than even I would have thought.

In April of this year, a group of researchers at the University of Minnesota sociology department released a study of the most distrusted minorities in the United States. In 2,000 randomly placed phone calls, the researchers posed statements such as “I would disapprove if my child wanted to marry a member of this group” and asked the respondents to choose from a list of various minorities.

Atheists consistently came out on the top of the disapproval ratings, followed (roughly in this order, depending on the statement) by Muslims, homosexuals, African Americans, Hispanics, Jews, and recent immigrants.

As the study’s abstract puts it, “we demonstrate that increasing (American) acceptance of religious diversity does not extend to the nonreligious … “

That is not entirely surprising, but on the other hand, it is unexpected considering the racially and ethnically volatile history of the United States. Still, this is a Christian country, and from the Puritan work ethic to the witch burnings, in God we trust.

In 1987, about a year before he would become president, George H.W. Bush responded to a question about atheists at a Chicago press conference: “I don’t know that atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered patriots. This is one nation under God.”

Well if the leader of the free world doesn’t trust atheists, I should not be so appalled that the rest of America does not either.

But why is this true? Why do we distrust atheists more than Muslims, who, according to a recent Gallup poll, we think should carry special religious/ethnic identification cards? The answer lies in a particular assumption that has to be made by the religious majority concerning what it means to be an atheist. In 2002, the Pew Research Center conducted an excellent poll hinting at why atheists are so mistrusted.

This Pew study showed that over 58 percent of Americans think that belief in God is necessary to be a moral person. This is precisely why, when asked which group “does not at all agree with my vision of American society,” almost 40 percent of Americans pick atheists from a long list of minorities. Clearly, a society of morally incapable people would be a bad thing.

The amount of convoluted logic it takes to link immorality to atheism is immense. The truth is that, from Plato to Sartre, secular moralists have succeeded in making completely non-religious moral systems which function, in terms of the adherents’ actions, as well as or better than religious systems. It doesn’t take much research to find out how many Catholic popes, priests, and how many Christians in general have committed completely immoral acts. It takes even less effort to find religious people in general that could, would and do commit acts like this on a regular basis. We’ve seen, particularly as of late, how violence and religion can easily go hand in hand.

So both religious and non-religious people are capable of evil. The main thing to keep in mind is that, much like Plato discovered some 2500 years ago, there is no religious morality without secular morality. Without secular (that is, atheist) moral precepts, the theists among us would be forced to say that morality is simply whatever God says it is. If that’s true, then religious morality is no more objective or righteous than any other moral system.

The sole fact that God is powerful or mighty does not make God’s choices objective moral truths; God’s omnipotent prowess gives God no more power to decide right and wrong than a well-armed dictator. Theists should, at the very least, not distrust atheists. They should applaud atheists for the reasonable foundations for any moral system at all.