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It’s late in 2016 and we still neither like nor trust atheists

Monday, November 28, 2016
posted by Douglas Keene

atheist-update-2016We’ve written about atheists here (and how unpopular they are in North America) a number of times. The first time was in 2010 when we wrote an article in The Jury Expert because we were so taken aback by the level of vitriol we’d seen in a blog post describing a new research article on atheists. We found the level of vitriol reserved for atheists hard to believe but, when we went to the literature, it was a consistent theme for decades.

It is hard to believe six years has passed since we wrote that article, but the authors of the original research article have published an update ten years later. Despite some religious groups improving their images in the eyes of the public in the last decade, the level of dislike for atheists has remained (although they are now statistically tied with Muslims) as “most disliked”.

In their ten-year update (drawing from the 2014 version of the nationally representative survey they used for the first article in 2003) the researchers tell us about how attitudes have not changed toward atheists and that the negativity toward atheists also colors perceptions of those who describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious”. Here are a few quotes pulled from the new article that illustrate some of their findings.

While Muslims have surpassed atheists as the least-accepted group, Muslims and atheists still receive the most negative evaluations compared to all other groups in 2014, as they did in 2003.

…moral concerns about atheists are, in fact, relatively common in American society; for example, over a third of Americans (36 percent) either somewhat agree or strongly agree that atheists “lack a moral center”.

…it seems that the term “atheist” denotes a cultural category that signifies a general and diffuse sense of moral threat.

…public distrust of atheists is primarily motivated by cultural values, and private distrust of atheists is motivated by cultural values and private religious beliefs, but both effects are substantially mediated by respondents’ moral concerns about atheists.

Moral concerns about atheists have consequences for how Americans perceive the overall decline of religious affiliation. Overall, the spiritual but not religious (SBNRs) are more favorably perceived than are atheists; beliefs that atheists are immoral increase negative sentiment toward SBNRs.

Our analyses show that anti-atheist sentiment in the United States is persistent, durable, and anchored in moral concern. A substantial percentage of Americans see atheists as immoral, and are therefore significantly more likely to say that atheists do not share their vision of America and to disapprove of their son or daughter marrying an atheist.

Overall, atheists are still seen as “other” and devalued for having fewer morals than those with religious beliefs which may be weak but are not a complete repudiation of religiosity. The FBI has just released a report that hate crimes against Muslims are up by 67% in 2015 so (given that this survey was completed in 2014) Muslims are probably even more unpopular now.

From a litigation advocacy perspective, it behooves us to pay special attention to atheists and Muslims involved (even as non-party witnesses) in jury trials. In the effort to overcome “otherness” regarding atheism, there are testimony topics that might be helpful. Atheists are thought of in terms of what they don’t believe, leaving open the question of what they do believe. Of course the answer to that is as diverse as the population, but it is a potentially positive association, rather than a negative one. Also, given the recent presidential elections and the aftermath protests and demonstrations, we would do well to pay special attention to bias against any party to litigation who is not White, and possibly also not male.

Only time will tell if the slightly more than ⅓ of the US electorate that elected Donald Trump will be emboldened in the deliberation room to actively and openly express discrimination toward parties of color. In the meantime, prepare witnesses and clients to espouse universal values and be vigilant to hidden (and not so hidden) biases whether anticipated or complete surprises.

Edgell, P., Hartmann, D., Stewart, E., & Gerteis, J. (2016). Atheists and Other Cultural Outsiders: Moral Boundaries and the Non-Religious in the United States. Social Forces, 95 (2), 607-638 DOI: 10.1093/sf/sow063

Image taken from article itself

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