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Atheists in North America



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M if not most of the research on atheists and atheism over the last few decades has
focused on atheists in the United States and Western Europe (though see Zuckerman
 , and the other chapters in the Global Expressions section of the Oxford Handbook
of Atheism , for some recent e orts to broaden this research). As a result, the picture
many people have of atheists is really the picture of atheists in these regions. While this
essay includes the US in its coverage of North America, it also attempts to broaden that
picture to the rest of North America, including Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, and
Central America. Unfortunately, there is very limited data on atheists in most of the
countries in the Caribbean and in Central America. As a result, while we start with a
brief description of rates of atheism (or non-religion where atheism has not been enu-
merated), our focus in the bulk of this essay is on the three most populous countries in
North America—Canada, the US, and Mexico—as there are data on atheists for each of
these countries.
We begin with a broad overview of the numbers of atheists in North America, then
focus on the characteristics of atheists in the countries where such information is avail-
able. We then turn to issues of discrimination and identity development, before con-
cluding theessay.
P E
Table. lists all of the sovereign nations in North America along with correspond-
ing percentages of nonreligious people and atheists, where available. Due to data limita-
tions, we were forced to use multiple approaches to determine whether or not someone
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was nonreligious. In some countries, this was based on the percentage who reported
that religion is not an important part of their daily life, whereas in other countries it was
based on reporting no religious a liation (see the notes in Table. for more details).
We included the nonreligious because the percentages of twelve countries’ populations
of atheists are unavailable.  e estimates in Table. indicate that close to  per cent of
people in North America either do not identify as religious or do not consider religion
important in their lives.  at is close to million people. Atheists are a much smaller
but not insigni cant portion of the North American population, with  per cent indi-
cating they are such.  at translates into about million people.  e country with the
highest percentage of atheists is Canada, with . per cent of the population reporting
non-belief in theWVS.
Given the large number of countries where the percentage of atheists is missing, we
recalculated the numbers in Table. assuming that less than  per cent of each of the
missing countries’ populations were atheists (based on the fact that most of these are
Caribbean nations, and atheists make up about  per cent of the populations in those
Caribbean nations for which we do have data). Even so, those estimates do not sub-
stantially change the numbers in Table. as the largest countries (US, Mexico, and
Canada) are represented in the table. Adding estimates for the countries with no data
increased the number of atheists in North America by less than million.  us, despite
missing estimates for almost half of the countries, we believe the numbers in Table.
are a fairly accurate estimate of the number of atheists in North America.
S P
While we were able to  nd estimates of the number of atheists in eleven countries
in North America, su cient data to analyze the characteristics of those atheists is
only available for the USA, Canada, and Mexico in the World Values Survey (WVS).
Tables . and . present descriptive statistics comparing atheists to theists.
Atheists—i.e., those answering ‘no’ to the questions ‘Do you believe in God?’—are, on
average,  to years younger than non-atheists.  e di erence in the average number
of children atheists have varies by country.  e smallest di erence is in Mexico, where
atheists average . children and theists average .. In Canada, atheists average .
to theists’ .. In the US, atheists average just . kids to the theists’ .. In all three
countries atheists are substantially more likely to be male than are theists, averaging
about  per cent male, to theists  per cent female.
eists are more likely to be married (~ per cent) in all three countries than are
atheists ( per cent in Canada;  per cent in the US;  per cent in Mexico). Atheists are
more likely to cohabit, though the di erences are not as wide as one might imagine, with
the biggest di erence in Canada (theists  per cent; atheists  per cent) and the small-
est in the US (theists  per cent; atheists  per cent). Atheists are more likely to be single
and never married in all countries by wide margins. Kosmin etal. () noted that the
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di erence in age accounts for a good portion of the di erences in marital status, which is
likely true here:atheists are younger and have had less time to marry and have children.
However, not all of the di erences are due to age, as indicated by another di erence
between atheists and theists:atheists are substantially more likely to say that marriage is
an outdated institution. In Canada,  per cent of atheists say marriage is outdated, but
only  per cent of theists do.  e numbers are similar in Mexico, but both atheists and
theists in the US are more fond of the institution of marriage, with just  per cent of US
atheists saying marriage is outdated and  per cent of theists.
In all three countries atheists are more likely to be employed than are theists, but
these di erences are also largely due to age. Atheists are less likely to be retired and more
likely to be students due to their youth. Atheist women are less likely to stay home to
Table38.1 Percentage nonreligious and atheist by North American country
Country Population
Nonreligious Atheists
% Number % Number
Antigua and Barbuda 86754 5.8 5032 b - - e
Bahamas, The 330000 2.9 9570 b - - e
Barbados 284589 20.6 58625 b - - e
Belize 321115 9.4 30185 b - - e
Canada 34541000 57.0 19688370 a 10.8 3730428 d
Costa Rica 4468000 19.0 848920 a 0.5 22340 c
Cuba 11239363 35.0 3933777 c 7.0 786755 c
Dominica 72660 6.1 4432 b - - e
Dominican Republic 10090000 13.0 1311700 a 7.3 736570 d
El Salvador 6857000 16.0 1097120 a 0.6 38399 d
Grenada 110000 - - e - - e
Guatemala 13354000 9.0 1201860 a 0.4 53416 d
Haiti 9719932 1.0 97199 b - - e
Honduras 7106000 15.0 1065900 a 0.5 35530 c
Jamaica 2847232 20.9 595071 b - - e
Mexico 112322757 25.0 28080689 a 4.4 4942201 d
Nicaragua 5603000 15.0 840450 a 0.5 28015 d
Panama 3343000 11.0 367730 a 0.5 16715 c
Saint Kitts and Nevis 51300 - - e - - e
Saint Lucia 173765 4.5 7819 b - - e
Saint Vincent and the Grenadines 120000 - - e - - e
Trinidad and Tobago 1310000 9.0 117900 c - - e
United States 308745538 34.0 104973483 a 4.1 12658567 d
Total 533097005 30.8 164335834 4.3 23048937
a Gallup Reports, 2009–2010, <> ; Per
cent reporting ‘no’ to the question, ‘Is religion an important part of your dailylife?’
b CIA World Factbook.
c Zuckerman2006.
d World Values Survey—1999–2005; question, ‘Do you believe in God?’ (f050).
e not available.
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raise children. In Canada, atheist women are nearly as likely to be stay-at-home-moms
(.per cent) as are theistic women ( per cent), but in the US (atheists . per cent; the-
ists . per cent) and in Mexico (atheists  per cent; theists  per cent), the di erences
are substantially larger.
Subjective or self-evaluations of social class in all three countries suggest di er-
ences in social class between atheists and theists, but these di erences are minor.  e
researchers who conduct the WVS use various criteria to create a more objective meas-
ure of social class but the di erences are still relatively insubstantial, with just the dif-
ference in Canada being signi cant; atheists are more likely to be of higher social class
in Canada than are theists.  e di erences in the US and Mexico are not signi cant.
However, there is a signi cant di erence in country-adjusted educational attainment in
all countries, with atheists being  per cent to  per cent more likely to have achieved
upper levels of education than theists.
In all three countries, atheists are more likely to live in metropolitan locations than
are theists. In Canada,  per cent of atheists live in cities with more than  peo-
ple, while just  per cent of theists do. In the US the comparable numbers are  per
cent for atheists and  per cent for theists, and  per cent for atheists and  per cent for
theists in Mexico.  e urban landscape appears to be conducive to atheism across North
Politically, atheists are more liberal than theists, though not substantially so. On the
 point scale used by the WVS (=le /liberal; =right/conservative), atheists average
about . points more liberal in Canada, about . points more liberal in the US, and
about . points more liberal in Mexico. We examined di erences in views between
atheists and theists on one political issue in the interest of seeing how the liberal/con-
servative divide in uences attitudes regarding various topics.  e question asked
whether or not the government should actively work to reduce pollution. Di erences
between atheists and theists were signi cant, but not particularly large. Both groups are
fairly evenly split, but generally favour government involvement in all three countries,
Table38.2 Averages for Atheists and Theists on Speci c Characteristics in
Canada, USA, andMexico
Canada USA Mexico
Atheist Theist Atheist Theist Atheist Theist
age 39.78 45.79 38.30 43.86 32.42 36.04
number of children 1.26 1.99 0.93 1.94 2.00 2.47
political views; 1=left, 10=right 5.12 5.60 4.98 5.83 5.21 6.48
satisfaction with life; 1=dissatis ed,
10=satis ed
7.45* 7.88* 7.15* 7.69* 7.28 7.77
religious attendance; 1=more than
once a week; 8=never
7.29 4.58 6.81 3.72 6.19 3.18
* p < .01 (for all other values, p < 0.01)
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Table38.3 Percentages of Atheists and Theists with Speci c Characteristics in Canada, USA, andMexico
Canada U.S. Mexico
n=1650 χp-value
n=2577 χp-value
n=6865 χp-value
male 64.3 46.3 65.8 48.2 67.6 49.7
female 35.7 53.7 23.17 .001 34.2 51.8 13.09 .000 32.4 50.3 33.48 .000
Marital status
married 40.9 56.3 38.2 55.9 33.2 53.2
cohabiting 14.1 10.3 6.4 5.3 10.9 6.0
divorced 2.5 4.9 10.0 9.1 6.1 2.0
single, never married 34.3 18.0 41.70 .001 41.8 21.0 30.61 .000 42.8 31.8 70.42 .000
Marriage outdated
disagree 56.7 80.5 82.2 90.1 52.1 79.2
agree 43.3 19.5 56.91 .000 17.8 9.9 6.89 .009 47.9 20.8 116.90 .000
full time 50.0 45.2 51.8 50.4 40.3 34.9
part time 8.9 9.6 15.2 10.6 16.8 11.3
self employed 5.3 5.2 1.8 5.0 10.5 11.2
retired 13.7 21.5 12.5 15.4 1.6 2.8
housewife 6.8 8.0 0.9 8.5 8.3 23.8
students 7.9 3.4 8.9 2.5 16.8 10.3
unemployed 7.4 6.5 16.58 .020 8.9 6.3 31.56 .000 5.4 5.4 55.73 .000
Social class (subjective)
upper class 0.0 1.1 2.7 1.8 2.4 1.8
upper middle class 35.4 29.5 32.7 35.9 24.3 18.6
lower middle class 29.7 34.0 30.9 27.9 40.2 41.8
working class 29.2 31.8 30.9 31.7 18.3 15.9
lower class 5.6 3.7 7.06 .133 2.7 2.8 1.16 .885 14.8 22.0 7.57 .109
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Canada U.S. Mexico
n=1650 χp-value
n=2577 χp-value
n=6865 χp-value
low 24.9 32.9 36.7 37.9 19.2 35.8
medium 29.3 32.0 36.7 35.0 34.6 33.8
high 45.9 35.1 8.82 .012 26.5 27.1 0.06 .969 46.2 30.4 4.05 .132
lower 18.8 25.8 15.2 18.7 26.0 43.1
middle 42.6 48.6 25.0 35.5 42.4 40.3
upper 38.6 25.7 15.59 .001 59.8 45.9 8.56 .014 31.6 16.6 33.89 .000
Size of town
<2000 9.1 14.6 1.0 4.8 5.8 10.3
2000–5000 3.0 5.5 2.0 5.1 15.4 12.5
5000–10000 6.1 9.8 3.9 5.0 2.3 5.7
10000–20000 1.5 3.0 6.9 11.0 1.5 4.0
20000–50000 6.1 7.7 13.7 17.7 2.7 5.5
50000–100000 7.1 6.1 16.7 11.8 2.7 4.8
100000–500000 12.1 13.2 17.6 19.7 19.2 22.2
>500000 55.1 40.1 20.33 .005 38.2 24.8 16.76 .019 50.4 35.0 39.15 .000
Government reduce
Agree strongly 26.9 28.0 25.5 24.9 12.3 24.8
Agree 33.5 35.3 25.5 32.0 33.8 31.6
Disagree 29.9 32.0 37.3 37.7 45.4 32.6
Strongly disagree 9.6 4.7 8.73 .033 11.8 5.5 4.05 .256 8.5 11.0 11.56 .010
Men better politicians
Agree strongly 4.3 4.7 2.9 5.7 19.0 15.0
Table38.3 Continued
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Canada U.S. Mexico
n=1650 χp-value
n=2577 χp-value
n=6865 χp-value
Agree 10.8 17.4 16.3 22.1 36.9 26.8
Disagree 48.9 50.1 51.0 54.8 31.5 37.5
Strongly disagree 36.0 27.8 8.40 .038 29.8 17.3 11.95 .008 12.5 20.6 14.48 .010
Think about purpose of life
often 45.5 53.3 30.3 52.5 35.3 37.1
sometimes 31.8 31.4 46.8 34.3 35.0 34.0
rarely 11.1 11.9 14.7 10.4 23.3 22.2
never 11.6 3.3 30.76 .000 8.3 2.8 27.01 .000 6.5 6.7 0.52 .914
Raised religious
no - - 56.7 16.3 42.2 15.2
yes - - 43.3 83.7 64.07 .000 57.8 84.8 117.60 .000
Con dence in churches
a great deal 1.6 22.3 2.7 40.6 15.5 48.5
quite a lot 12.4 43.6 9.1 38.1 19.3 29.3
not very much 45.1 25.9 53.6 17.5 25.6 16.8
none at all 40.9 8.1 261.60 .000 34.5 3.8 332.50 .000 39.6 5.4 601.50 .000
Opinion on scienti c
will help 58.8 51.5 61.5 59.3 40.5 47.1
will harm 14.4 20.7 14.7 17.2 24.2 22.7
some of each 26.8 27.8 5.20 .074 23.9 23.5 0.47 .793 35.3 30.1 5.57 .062
Life has no meaning
Agree 12.9 10.5
Disagree 86.1 87.2
neither 1.0 2.3 1.25 .534
Believe in reincarnation
no 95.9 54.0
yes 4.1 46.0 65.10 .000
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Canada U.S. Mexico
n=1650 χp-value
n=2577 χp-value
n=6865 χp-value
Belief in god/spirit
personal god 15.7 59.3
spirit or life force 18.0 33.2
don't know 18.0 5.5
no spirit or god 48.3 2.0 419.10 .000
Pre-school child suffers with working mom
Agree strongly 13.6 27.5
Agree 41.7 51.8
Disagree 39.8 18.7
Strongly disagree 4.9 2.0 33.86 .000
Women want a home and children
Agree strongly 9.9 21.4
Agree 28.7 41.4
Disagree 48.5 32.6
Strongly disagree 12.9 4.6 29.30 .000
Source:WVS 2008
Table38.3 Continued
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with the exception being atheists in Mexico, who lean slightly against government
involvement. In both Canada and the US, more atheists strongly disagree with govern-
ment involvement (in Mexico more atheists ‘disagree’), suggesting atheists, while more
liberal than theists, are also more libertarian.  is is supportive of previous research
describing atheists ( Geissbühler ).
We also examined di erences in attitudes between atheists and theists towards gender
equality.  e question we used asked whether participants think men make better poli-
ticians than do women. Given the generally more liberal views of atheists, we thought
atheists would be more likely to disagree with that statement than were theists in all
three countries, but that was not the case. In Canada and the US, atheists were more
likely to disagree, and signi cantly so, but the di erences were not particularly large. In
Mexico, however, the reverse was the case as atheists in Mexico were more likely to agree
that men make better politicians (. per cent) than were theists (. percent).
In Canada and the US, atheists think about purpose and meaning in life less fre-
quently than do theists, but there is no di erence in Mexico. Atheists also report slightly
lower satisfaction in life than do theists in all three countries, about a  per cent di er-
ence on a  point scale. While the di erence is signi cant, and the fact that it is uniform
across all three countries suggests it is a real di erence, the di erence is quite small.
Other research suggests that di erences in happiness between the religious and nonre-
ligious are typically only found in countries where nonreligious individuals are minori-
ties ( McClure and Loden  ), which is the case in all three of these countries and in all
of North America. Minorities are subject to heightened levels of discrimination, which
can reduce life satisfaction and health. We address discrimination against atheists in
greater detail later in thisessay.
Finally, we examined a couple of items that explore religiosity. Table. shows that
atheists are substantially less likely to attend religious services than are theists. Atheists
are also more likely to have been raised nonreligious than are theists, with  per cent
of atheists in the US saying they were, but just  per cent of theists saying they were. In
Mexico,  per cent of atheists were raised nonreligious and  per cent of theists were.
( is question was not asked of Canadian participants.) Atheists also report much less
con dence in churches than do theists. Close to  per cent of atheists in all three coun-
tries report no con dence at all in churches, while just  per cent to  per cent of the-
ists report no con dence. Previous research has suggested that declining con dence
in religion may be a factor in declining religiosity.  ese data are consistent with that
In summary, then, atheists in Canada, the US, and Mexico are young, predominantly
male, single or married, employed full-time or students, highly educated but not neces-
sarily wealthier, live in large cities, are politically liberal, and are irreligious.  ese are
characteristics of atheists that have been found in prior research ( Caldwell-Harris  ;
Hayes and Mcallister  ; Hayes  ), though many of those studies focused on the
US and Western Europe.  at the same is true in Canada and Mexico suggests these are
likely characteristics of atheists in most countries in North America.
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L   A   US
As this essay has suggested, a much clearer picture of the socio-demographic charac-
teristics of atheists in North America has developed in recent years. Yet, considerably
less research has concerned itself with the experiential dimensions of atheism.  at is,
there is not as clear a picture of the subjective and lived-experience of actual atheists—
their lifestyles and perspectives, the nature of their interactions with theists and fellow
atheists, the content of their daily social, cultural, and political concerns, their family
dynamics and relationships with others, and the social psychological and emotional
aspects of being an atheist.  e balance of this essay discusses our current understand-
ing of the qualitative aspects of life as an atheist. While we have thus far examined athe-
ists in North America broadly, we now turn toward a focused discussion of the US. We
do so only because there is very limited research on atheists in North America outside
of the US. We begin with a brief historical sketch of atheism in US history. We then
review some of the most recent qualitative studies of atheists, and elaborate on a few
of the key social and psychological dimensions of the actual lives’ and experiences of
atheists.  e ways in which people ‘arrive’ at atheism may vary, along with the in uence
and relationship that their atheism has on other aspects of life. As the process through
which people come to claim atheism is important for the identity itself, and for the later
experiences in life as an atheist, the identity formation process of becoming an atheist is
treated  rst, followed by an identi cation and discussion of what seem to be some of the
most salient social psychological aspects of life as an atheist in the United States, with
a particular emphasis on the discrimination perceived and experienced by atheists in
A  US H ()
Atheists do not  gure prominently in the early history of the US, but freethinkers—
i.e., deists, agnostics, and otherwise skeptical individuals—certainly do.  is is almost
certainly because there were so few atheists prior to the mid s ( Cady  ), when
atheism became a much more defensible philosophical position. Even so, freethinkers
were in uential in the history of the US. While many Americans today are unaware of
the in uential role such individuals played at key junctures in US history, more recent
research has highlighted the in uence of freethinkers (Jacoby ).  omas Je erson,
omas, Paine, and many other founding fathers were freethinkers who played promi-
nent roles in the Revolutionary War and the creation of the US government.  eir
perspectives guided the construction of a Constitution for the US that does not draw
upon divinity. Je erson was also key in developing the idea of a ‘wall of separation’
between church and state that is enshrined in the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights.
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Freethinkers like William Lloyd Garrison led the charge toward emancipating slaves
and ending slavery. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, and Susan B.Anthony, who
led the  rst wave of the feminist movement, were all freethinkers. Robert Ingersoll, one
of the greatest orators of the th century, publicly identi ed as an agnostic and criti-
cized religion regularly. Yet, throughout the th and th centuries, and possibly still
today, labeling someone as an ‘atheist’—as was attempted with both  omas Je erson
and Abraham Lincoln by their political foes—was an e ort to malign someone’s charac-
ter (Jacoby).
Starting in the mid to late s, individuals increasingly began to identify as athe-
ists, as did Robert Owen—the founder of the Smithsonian Institution and an early
advocate for birth control—and Ernestine Rose, a Polish Jewish atheist who worked
tirelessly for women’s rights but who has largely been forgotten because of her atheism
(Jacoby ). Even though a few individuals openly identi ed as atheists during this
time period, atheism was not particularly popular—except perhaps among elite scien-
tists in the early th century ( Leuba  ). However, the rise of communism and the
Cold War—which was indelibly linked with atheism—substantially altered the land-
scape for atheists in the US. To be an atheist between  and  in the US was to
invite criticism and, for a period during the s, even prosecution as a Communist
sympathizer by ultra right-wing ideologues like Senator Joseph McCarthy. Some schol-
ars have suggested that the view of atheist as ‘other’ (discussed in greater detail later
in this essay) may be the result of the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union
( Bullivant  ). As two diametrically opposed super powers, every characteristic that
made these nation-states distinct was emphasized.  e US had a capitalist economy; the
Soviet Union had a communist one.  e Soviet Union was atheist; the US was Christian.
As a result, self-identifying atheists during the Cold War, like Madalyn Murray O’Hair,
were much maligned by themedia.
At the conclusion of the Cold War in the late s and early s, the status of
atheists in society appears to have changed somewhat. Statements by Presidents dove-
tailing the end of the Cold War and today illustrate this. George H.W. Bush said in
 that he didn’t think atheists ‘should be regarded as citizens’ of the US ( GALA
Interim  ), but by , incoming President Barack Obama recognized the exist-
ence of nonreligious Americans in his inauguration speech. As the utility of ‘other-
ing’ atheists and aligning them with communism has declined as an important aspect
of American identity, there appears to have been a corresponding upsurge in the
percentage of Americans who are leaving religions and identifying as atheists.  e
recent spate of books advocating atheism and criticizing religion as a result of terrorist
attacks against the US and other Western countries in the early s appears to have
emboldened and organized atheists.  e number of atheist-friendly secular groups
on college and even high school campuses has seen a dramatic increase in the last
few years, and conferences organized for the freethought community are increasing
in size and frequency. Despite these changes, atheists in the US remain a marginal-
ized minority, and developing a coherent, a rming identity as an atheist remains a
di culttask.
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A I D
Scholars of multiple disciplines have for some time taken interest in studying what
might broadly be called ‘apostasy’, and much of what we have known about the identities
of the non-religious has been framed within this literature.  is has included examin-
ing the deconversion or disa liation processes people undergo as they leave behind a
former religious identity. For example, Ebaugh ( ) wrote about Catholic nuns who
le their convents, and a host of other studies have examined the process of disengaging
with a variety of religious organizations and rejecting formerly held religious beliefs (see
Smith  ; Zuckerman ).
Although the relevance of the apostasy literature may broadly and inferentially apply
to some within the category of nonreligious, there have fortunately been several more
recent studies, o en situated within this literature, that have examined explicitly the
process by which individuals come not only to leave or eschew religion, but to positively
reject religious beliefs and explanations of the world, and to self-identify as an athe-
ist (see Smith  ). Amajor theme from the interview-based research that addresses
this question  nds that many atheists simply could not make themselves believe in the
supernatural or in the religious narratives that espouse this. Hunsberger and Altemeyer
( ) found that their subjects, despite their religious socialization, concluded they
were unable to believe in a god or accept the idea of the supernatural.
Fitzgerald’s ( ) study analyzed atheist identity formation from an identity-career
path perspective. She argues that, in combination with important social environmental
factors (religious/nonreligious socialization processes, peer networks, political envi-
ronment) the intellectual and cognitive factors of individuals play a prominent role in
their becoming atheists; that o en claiming the identity results ultimately because it is
seen as being most consistent with their intellectual commitments, view of reality, and
critical views of theism and religion. When, where, and how people come to adopt an
atheist identity has to do with the speci c relationships between both the social environ-
ment and the cognitive-intellectual propensities of individuals.
Smith ( ) o ers an identity model which describes the process of becoming
an atheist. He found that persistent doubt and a penchant for scepticism and criti-
cal thought did indeed play an important role in the adoption of atheism. However,
Smith emphasizes the socially acquired or even ‘achieved’ nature of an atheist iden-
tity.  at is, rather than treating the identi cation with atheism as simply a ‘given’ for
those whose worldviews happen to coincide de nitionally and technically with the
term ‘atheist,’ he illustrated the interactional processes one undergoes as they choose
to voluntarily adopt the label ‘atheist’ despite the negative stigma against it.  e
generic identity model Smith o ers includes four basic stages:()the starting point/
the ubiquity of theism, ()questioning theism, () rejecting theism, and, ()com-
ing out as an atheist. Each of these unfolds within the social psychological contexts
of everyday social interaction. Like other researchers, Smith argues that a variety of
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environmental, social psychological, and cognitive factors combine, and are at play in
the process of becoming an atheist. Early religious upbringing, regional setting, social
networks and associations, and educational attainment are discussed as some of the
most signi cant.
One problem with the incipient literature on atheist identity development is that stud-
ies have not yet adequately dealt with individuals who identify as atheist and were raised
in secular or atheist families.  ere is the question, then, as to whether the current iden-
tity models, which are primarily based on data from subjects who were once religious
or believed in a god, are applicable to these ‘always atheist’ individuals. It might be that
those who have not undergone the same process described above, and whose atheism
is not an ‘issue’ in the same sense that it is for the formerly religious, do not experience
the same identity processes.  is problem is partly methodological:the recruitment of
self-identi ed atheists in the qualitative research is likely to bring in those with stronger
motivation to share their stories of becoming atheist—stories that o en involve their
movement from theism to atheism. Additionally, since American surveys estimate
that between  and  per cent of adults profess belief in a god or supreme being ( Pew
Forum  ), and given what research suggests about religious socialization in the con-
text of the US, it is no accident that many of the atheists studied at some point in their
lives held a belief in god, or came from some kind of religious background. In short,
based on the currently available analyses of atheist identity development, we are not yet
able to demonstrate empirically whether those who grew up without religion or belief
in god undergo a fundamentally di erent identity process as they come to use the label
K D  L   A
Although the literature that can inform our understanding of life as an atheist in the US
is still in its infancy, there are a couple of salient themes that arise from, and crosscut the
extant qualitative studies that can be identi ed as key social, psychological, and political
dynamics of life as an atheist in America. First is the substantive issue of morality.  e
second is the experiential dimension of an important tension that exists for many athe-
ists in the US.  ird is discrimination.
M o r a l i t y
Morality has been a central theme of both the polemical/philosophical and
social-scienti c literature on atheists. It is of particular relevance in the US context. As
Edgell etal. () argue, there exists a socially constructed moral and cultural bound-
ary between theists and atheists.  eist America does not accept atheists as full members
of the moral community, viewing them as an essential ‘other’. As noted above, atheists
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are one of the most distrusted minority groups in the country.  ere is an assumption
that atheists do not share the same moral outlooks as the rest of ‘believing’ society.  is
basic moral assumption no doubt plays a signi cant part in the heavily stigmatized sta-
tus of atheism. But as suggested earlier, the view that atheists do not share in the moral
vision of America is not based on peoples experience of, or interactions with, actual
atheists ( Edgell etal.  ). It seems, rather, to be a collective assumption about the
relationship and connection between religion and morality.  e symbolic and moral
boundaries—the essential ‘otherness’ of atheists in the US—is more than just of topical
relevance. As Smith ( ) argues, morality is o en part and parcel of the construction
of an atheist identity itself.  at is, the ‘othering’ processes theists engage in with regard
to atheists goes both ways. Atheists, in an e ort to sustain a sense of moral identity,
engage in symbolic and moral boundary construction.  is o en translates into athe-
ists not only defending themselves as moral and good citizens, but in some sense being
the carriers of a more genuine morality—one that is not based on assumptions about
supernatural reward and punishment.  us, one particularly important aspect of life as
an atheist in the US involves constructing, defending, and de ning morality vis-à-vis
Experiencing Both Freedom and Alienation
As researchers have begun to collect and analyze data from the accounts of atheists
themselves, it is clear that many atheists in the US experience both a social and cog-
nitive tension.  is tension is suggested already by the morality issue, and the earlier
discussion of the social stigma of atheism.  e current qualitative research reveals a
narrative among atheists which indicates an ambivalence regarding one’s atheist iden-
tity.  is is not an ambivalence between theism and atheism, or even about the mean-
ing of atheism for its adherents, but a felt, or emotive ambivalence about experiencing,
sometimes simultaneously, both a sense of intellectual/cognitive freedom on the one
hand, and a sense of otherness, or alienation within one’s own society on the other. All
of the interview studies suggest that the adoption of the atheist label is usually not sim-
ply a statement about one’s unbelief, but rather a meaningful, articulated, and impor-
tant component of one’s self-concept. As Smith ( ) argues, atheism can even come to
occupy the upper stratum of an individual’s identity hierarchy (Stryker ), becoming
a critical aspect of theself.
For many, proclaiming atheism in the US is not a decision one makes lightly.  e social
tension and/or possible alienation is not just an abstraction—something experienced
within ‘society’. Apparent in the accounts of atheists is the notion that it is experienced
in concrete social situations, and in the context of everyday interaction. Indeed, as the
research described throughout this essay suggests, atheists may experience a fraction-
ing or even loss of important relationships with family and friends, or face discrimina-
tion in the workplace or in the political sphere ( Hammer etal.  ). Yet, the negative
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consequences of claiming atheism in American society do not prevent some from
adopting the identity.
D  A
As noted above, atheists only make up  per cent of the US population.  ey are not
a conspicuous, powerful, or well-organized social group. However, a brief review of
the literature on people’s perceptions of atheists would lead one to believe atheists
are a deviant minority group that poses a threat to society. (On the subject of preju-
dice and discrimination, see also Karen Hwang’s ‘Atheism, Health, and Well-Being’
In , a national survey of United States residents indicated that . per cent
believe that atheists do not share their vision of American society, and . per cent
would discourage their children from marrying an atheist ( Edgell etal.  ). In
fact, atheists were rated lower than all the other stigmatized groups assessed, includ-
ing homosexuals, Muslims, and recent immigrants. In , a Gallup poll found that
 per cent of US residents would refuse to vote for an otherwise quali ed atheist
candidate for president ( Gallup  ). What is it about atheists that people  nd so
When asked to describe the characteristics of atheists, people volunteer adjec-
tives such as elitist, pitiful, aggressive, judgmental, rebellious, joyless, ignorant,
unstable, hedonistic, and immoral (e.g., Edgell etal.  ; Harper  ). Recently, a
nationally-representative sample of US adults was asked to read a short description
about a fellow participant (‘Jordan’), and to rate Jordan along several dimensions (i.e.,
foolish—wise, cold—warm, immoral—moral, etc.). Jordan was given, on average, a 
per cent lower score on the evaluation when identi ed as an atheist versus a theist ( Swan
and Heesacker  ). Likewise, data from the National Survey of Black Americans found
that respondents described nonreligious individuals as less open, less friendly, and more
suspicious in comparison to religious individuals ( Ellison  ). In short, prejudice
against atheists appears consistently across studies.
What Forms Does Perceived Anti-Atheist
As of this writing, almost all studies reporting data regarding perceived anti-atheist
discrimination have taken a qualitative approach. In a study of end-of-life-preferences
for atheists, several participants reported being subjected to unwanted prayers and
proselytizing by hospital sta ( Smith-Stoner  ) which, while a ‘mild’ form of dis-
crimination, is still perceived to be discriminatory by many atheists. Hunsberger and
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Altemeyer’s ( ) study of American atheists found that the majority of the  study
participants reported some form of social exclusion or harassment on the basis of their
atheism. Another study of freethinkers living in the southern US revealed that most of
the  participants had stories of discrimination, including accounts of shunning by
family and harassment in the workplace ( Heiner  ). In her analysis of  in-depth
interviews with atheists, Fitzgerald ( ) found that all of her participants felt person-
ally stigmatized, recounting stories of denied employment, denigration from family
members, and threats from community members, among other events. Lastly, the par-
ticipants in Simonson’s investigation of how atheists make meaning of discrimination
‘identi ed a number of forms of discrimination including death threats, loss of dating
relationships, loss of friendships, shunning by family, social media harassment, social
ostracism, subject to proselytizing, threat of divorce/losing child custody, and verbal
harassment’ (:).
Building upon these qualitative investigations, Hammer et al. () used a
mixed-method design to systematically explore the forms and frequency of discrimi-
nation reported by  self-identi ed atheists living in the United States. Participants
were asked to indicate how o en in their lifetime they had experienced each of  dif-
ferent forms of discrimination because of their atheism. Ninety- ve per cent of the sam-
ple reported experiencing slander (e.g., verbally harassed or disrespected) at least once,
while  per cent reported coercion (e.g., asked to renounce their atheism),  per cent
reported social ostracism (e.g., rejected, avoided, isolated, or ignored by family),  per
cent reported being denied opportunities, goods, or services (e.g., denied employment,
promotion, or education opportunities), and  per cent reported being the victim of a
hate crime (e.g., physically assaulted).
In summarizing the  ndings of the study, Hammer and colleagues made note of the
wide variety and considerable prevalence of discrimination reported by the atheists in
the sample. However, they warned that their  ndings could not be assumed to general-
ize to all atheists living in the US for two reasons. First, in recruiting only self-identi ed
atheists, the  ndings cannot be assumed to re ect the experience of those who do not
believe in a god but choose not to adopt the label ‘atheist’. Second, the self-reported
frequencies of each form of discrimination were derived from a sample of athe-
ists recruited via internet convenience sampling.  us, without data derived from a
nationally-representative study, it is not possible to determine the true prevalence of
perceived anti-atheist discrimination.
How Prevalent is Perceived Anti-Atheist Discrimination?
Fortunately, such empirical data is available from the  American Religious
Identi cation Survey (ARIS; Kosmin & Keysar  ).  rough the use of random
digit dialled telephone interviews with  adult respondents, the ARIS assembled
a nationally representative dataset which includes questions about belief in God and
religious identi cation.  e database also includes data from a silo (subset) of those
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who self-identify as having ‘no religion’ (n=). Respondents in this silo were asked
an additional question about discrimination:‘In the past years, have you personally
experienced discrimination because of your lack of religious identi cation or a liation
in any of the following situations’:in your family; in your workplace; at school or college;
in the military; socially; in volunteer organizations orclubs.
Drawing upon ARIS data, Cragun etal. () found that  per cent of those who
report no belief in god and  per cent of self-identi ed atheists reported experiencing
discrimination in at least one context.  e researchers sought to explain self-identi ed
atheists’ higher rate of reported discrimination by suggesting that self-identifying as an
atheist increases others’ perception of one’s outgroup status, which results in increased
discrimination ( Kaiser & Pratt-Hyatt  ). In line with this reasoning, Hammer and
colleagues () found that the atheists in their sample who (a)reported that their athe-
ism was an important part of their personal identity (b)were ‘out’ about their atheism
to more people, and (c)grew up with stricter familial religious expectations reported
experiencing more frequent discrimination. In combination,  ndings from these two
studies suggest that perceived anti-atheist discrimination is both prevalent and diverse
in its manifestation.
How do Atheists Cope with Perceived Anti-Atheist
Given the prevalence and variety of perceived anti-atheist discrimination, how do athe-
ists cope?  rough his analysis of interviews with  atheists, Simonson () identi ed
several cognitive and behavioural mechanisms atheists used to cope with discrimina-
tion:engaging in constructive dialogue to increase the awareness of the o ender, empa-
thizing with theists’ perspective (e.g., feeling of obligation to save souls), practicing
non-resistance (e.g., choosing not to argue or  ght), reclaiming words and stereotypes
intended to in ict pain, perceiving events of discrimination as opportunities to grow
and persevere, advocating for atheists by ‘coming out’ to combat negative stereotypes,
becoming a more informed atheist through reading atheist literature, and drawing upon
social support systems in times of di culty. Likewise, many of the  atheists in Smith’s
( ) study of atheist identity development noted that coming out publicly as atheists
led to feelings of liberation, satisfaction, and con dence. eir responses suggested
that these positive feelings made enduring any resultant stigmatization a worthwhile
and meaningful task. Drawing from interviews with  atheists, Fitzgerald ( ) writes
that atheists o en use a stigma management strategy wherein they selectively decide
whether to conceal or disclose their atheism to a given individual based on a number of
factors such as the nature of their relationship with the individual, the individual’s reli-
gious beliefs, and the valence and intensity of the individual’s likely reaction.  ese athe-
ists talked of ‘passing’ as theists, using alternative and less stigmatized labels, purposely
disclosing to make a political statement or educate others, and openly disclosing then
challenging theists to justify their beliefs, among other techniques. In summary, atheists
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appear to use a variety of strategies to cope with their stigmatized identity and make
meaning of the discrimination directed towardsthem.
F R  L  
More qualitative research on American atheists is needed to better understand, not just
the identity processes of those who reject religious/theist identities, but also those who
had no religious identity or belief in god to begin with. Zuckermans ( ) analysis of
Scandinavian atheists might o er some clues as to what the atheist identity processes of
those who never had much interest in religion or god might look like, but until a similar
analysis in the American context takes place, we must hold o on any empirical claims
regarding this particular subset of atheists.
e identity formation models o ered thus far have primarily emphasized process ,
rather than structure . at is, the focus has been on the social psychological and inter-
actional processes one moves through as they come to claim atheism.  is is one area
which more quantitatively oriented studies may wish to address. What role do broader
social structures and variables such as race, class, and gender have on individual atheist
identities? Connecting the context and in uence not just of the micro-socialization pro-
cesses but of major institutions such as education, religion, family, the political struc-
ture, and economic forces would be an invaluable contribution to our understanding of
atheist identity development and life as an atheist generally.
Another area of research that would further illuminate the identities and experiences
of American atheists involves the collective identity construction and maintenance of
the identity, as well as the relevant social movement elements involved in contemporary
atheist organizations. We know from the extensive sociological and psychological litera-
ture on identity that neither personal nor social identities occur or persist without their
social and interactional contexts.  us, as Smith ( ) and Cimino and Smith ( )
argue, examining the organizational dynamics in which atheist identities are validated
and  nd social support would help  ll important gaps in the social scienti c literature
on atheists. For instance, what e ect has the ‘new atheist movement’ had on contempo-
rary atheist identities? Has it o ered a more concrete organizational structure in which
atheists  nd identity validation and social support? Has it made atheism in America
more socially acceptable? What is the role of the media, and of the political and eco-
nomic structure on atheists and their organizations?
While the existing research illustrates that prejudicial attitudes toward atheists
does sometimes translate into discrimination, there are a number of additional ques-
tions that warrant further investigation. How does perceived discrimination a ect
the physical and mental health of atheists, and what are the protective factors which
moderate the impact of this discrimination? How do these dynamics di erentially
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function for atheists of colour, gay and lesbian atheists, women atheists, and atheists
with other intersecting identities? In regards to the ongoing religion-health debate
( Hwang etal.  ; Sloan  ), how does anti-atheist discrimination relate to the dif-
ferences in well-being between atheists and theists posited by some social scientists
(e.g., Hall etal.  )? What interventions would be e ective in reducing anti-atheist
Finally, as more knowledge is accumulated about atheists in the US, research should
begin to address how atheist identity development and the lives of atheists are di er-
ent from, and similar to, the identities and lives of atheists in other North American
Unfortunately, data on atheists in North America outside the United States is quite lim-
ited.  is essay presents data on rates of non-religion and atheism for every country in
North America where such data is available. It also presents more extensive data on the
characteristics of atheists—and how they contrast with theists—in the US, Canada, and
Mexico. Data and research limitations restricted discussion of prejudice and discrimi-
nation against atheists, the lived experiences of atheists, and the identity development of
atheists to the US. Future research should extend the above  ndings to other countries
within North America, especially in light of the fact there are, as of , over million
atheists in North America.
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... For instance, across all three countries atheists are less likely to be married than theists and tend to have fewer kids (see Figures 4 and 5). However, American atheists are more likely than both Canadian and Mexican atheists to claim that marriage is still a highly valued institution (Cragun, Hammer, and Smith 2013). ...
... One of those forces that researchers are turning their attention to is secular socialization (Cragun et al. 2013;Merino 2011;Theissen 2016). What happens when young adults with no religious preference begin to have children? ...
... Where religiosity is strongest, greater bias against the nonreligious is expected. In Canada, where there is generally thought to be more widespread secularity, overt prejudice and discrimination against nonbelievers of various stripes appears less prevalent (Cragun, Hammer, and Smith 2013). One-at least symbolic-indication of this comes from a 2007 Gallup poll that found 32 percent of Canadians would not vote for a prime minister who is an atheist, compared to 53 percent of Americans who would vote against a president who was an atheist (Altemeyer 2010). ...
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Bloomsbury Religion in North America
... Rather, previous studies of nonreligion have pointed to the ways that people who do not participate in religion are looked down upon in American society (Edgell et al. 2006;Mudd et al. 2015;Wallace et al. 2014). Scholars have also started to observe the fact that nonreligious people are gaining increased attention in the present social context (Baker and Smith 2015;Cragun, Hammer, and Smith 2013), yet these groups still face discrimination (Wallace et al. 2014). In their 2007 study of "freethinkers", a collective label for atheists and secular humanists, Cimino and Smith outline the ways in which these groups construct their collective and individual identities in response to existing in a social context where religious norms and mores still govern much of society. ...
... Since religious institutions (Stack 2015;) -and religious (Urquhart 2015) and nonreligious leaders (Walker 2015) -have started to reproduce cissexism in their discussions of transgender people, it may be time for scholars of nonreligion to pay close attention to the ways that transgender existence intersects with nonreligious identity. This is especially the case since both groups are gaining more visibility (Cragun et al. 2013;) and are still marginalized by religious (Cimino and Smith 2007;Wallace et al. 2014) and cissexist (Serano 2007) norms and expectations. ...
... It is now time to better understand how folks who exist at the specific intersection of being transgender and nonreligious experience their lives in a social context where Christianity and cisnormativity dominate. A deeper comprehension of these dynamics is especially important given the fact that both nonreligious and transgender people are experiencing increased visibility in broader society (Cragun et al. 2013;) and yet still experience multiple forms of marginalization and discrimination (Edgell et al. 2006;Grant et al. 2011). Using the present study as a jumping off point, scholars can and should investigate these dynamics and hopefully produce information that will lead to a more equal world for transgender nonreligious people. ...
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Building on research that points out the specific forms of marginalization that transgender and nonreligious people face in contemporary U.S. society, this exploratory analysis focuses on the experiences of transgender nonreligious people who were raised in religious households. Utilizing interviews with eleven formerly religious, now nonreligious, transgender people I draw out some of the future pathways scholars of nonreligion should take to better account for the lives of transgender nonreligious people in scholarship on nonreligion. Specifically, scholars of nonreligion should begin analyzing transgender nonreligious people’s experiences in religious settings, with family, and with organizations and networks outside of religion. I conclude by discussing the ways this study can shed light on the broader processes by which inequality is reproduced and make suggestions for nonreligious leaders to make room for and listen to transgender people in nonreligious spaces.
... In response, they use different strategies in order to find community and live coherent lives, whenever possible. One of the implications of this study is that non-religious paths of black LGBTQ people are different from the white atheist narratives of men and secular organizations (LeDrew 2013, Smith 2013, Cragun, Hammer and Smith 2013 because of the way race, gender and sexuality intersect with a religious upbringing to create non-religious selves. It is, however, important to disaggregate the LGBTQ community when taking a look at such intersections. ...
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To examine paths to non-religion in the lives of black LGBTQ people, I analyze 10 interviews of black LGBTQ people who were raised Christian. Utilizing an intersectional lens, I conclude that lessons of the Christian home, reinforced in religious school and at church, drew a connection between Christianity, one’s racial and ethnic identity, and heterosexuality in such a way that being LGBTQ was marked un-Christian and foreign, and sometimes associated with whiteness. This further shaped how my participants navigated the urban public sphere, one of the only spheres where they could ‘be LGBTQ’ – some neighborhoods were constructed as Christian, connected to one’s childhood and hostile to LGBTQ people, while others were LGBTQ-friendly, albeit largely white and gentrified. The overall impact of Christianity across multiple spheres influenced which non-religious paths my participants took. One remained with a Christian denomination of her childhood and one remained with a Christian denomination of her mother but not her father. The other eight left Christianity behind, with one choosing a different religion and seven becoming non-religious, holding identities from Unitarian Universalist to atheist. Overall, black LGBTQ people struggle to find acceptance of their LGBTQ identities by people closest to them and acceptance of their racial, ethnic and non-religious identities in largely white and often non-religious LGBTQ spaces. In response, they use different strategies to find community and live coherent lives, whenever possible.
... For instance, Cragun et al. (2012) found that 9 % of people who report their religion as "atheist" later identify as believing in a personal god, and another 5 % believe in a higher power or force. Likewise, Cragun et al. (2013) found that atheists in North America are somewhat diverse, with a variety of attitudes toward political and social issues. In other words, not all atheists exhibit the distinctly irreligious characteristics of New Atheists. ...
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In this chapter I first attempt to discern what proportion of individuals in the US who do not believe in god or a higher power exhibit the characteristics of “New Atheists.” The growing body of literature on New Atheism suggests such individuals have three characteristics: disbelief in the supernatural, reliance on and affinity toward science, and a critical view of religion. Using data from the 2007 Pew US Religious Landscape Survey, I employed a 2-step cluster analysis employing three key questions to determine that between 70 % and 80 % of individuals who report not believing in a god or higher power in the US exhibit the characteristics of New Atheists. The rest of the chapter then examines the demographics of these “New Atheists” in contrast to “other atheists,” the nonreligious, and a variety of religious groups. New Atheists tend to be highly educated, fairly affluent, are disproportionately male, white, and liberal in their politics. Yet, they are not as young as are “other atheists.” The chapter concludes with implications for the growth of atheism in the US based on these demographic characteristics.
... Although qualitative work on atheists remains in the beginning stages, the last few years have produced several studies in pursuit of understanding the sociodemographic correlates of atheism (Baker and Smith 2009;Cragun, Hammer, and Smith Forthcoming); the social and moral boundaries between atheists and theists (Edgell, Gerteis, and Hartmann 2006); the personal identity development of atheists (Smith 2011); how atheists negotiate their identities (Fitzgerald 2003); and how atheists relate to religious family and communities (Ecklund and Lee 2011). Some sociological analyses examine the organizational strategies of atheists (Cimino and Smith 2007). ...
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Based on 45 in-depth interviews, textual analysis, and participant observation with seven different atheist organizations, this article investigates the collective identity work of atheists in the United States. It explores the social psychological and interactional dynamics of atheist organizations as well as how they contribute to the construction and maintenance of atheist identities. I discuss the various strategies atheists employ as they collectively manage a stigmatized identity and negotiate the meaning of their atheism with one another and with the nonatheist public. This is accomplished in part through an analysis of the identity politics and minority discourse contemporary atheists currently engage. In addition, and more broadly, this study explores the relationship between collective identity and social action through an analysis and description of contemporary atheist activism.
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In this article, we examine moral identity construction among nonreligious people. Based on 30 in-depth interviews with nonreligious Americans unaffiliated with secular movement organizations, we analyze some ways nonreligious people may utilize their experiences with religion in society to define nonreligion as a sign of value, worth, and character. Specifically, we demonstrate how our respondents drew upon their childhood and current experience with religious others to construct nonreligous moral identities by (1) defining religion as concerned with conformity and obedience rather than morality, (2) highlighting prejudicial assumptions religious people promote about nonreligious people, and (3) characterizing interactions with religious people as a mechanism that led them to seek meaning in their lives from other sources. In conclusion, we draw out implications for understanding (1) the social construction of nonreligious moral identities and (2) some ways current religious norms may serve as a pathway to nonreligion.
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Nonreligious people (those without a religious affiliation) and atheists (individuals without a belief in a god) make up a sizable proportion of the world’s population. In this chapter I provide definitions for the various terms used in the sociological study of nonreligion and atheism. I then examine findings regarding the characteristics of nonreligious people and atheists. I summarize research findings on the reasons why people leave religion and/or adopt an atheistic worldview and examine the growing body of research exploring the pervasive prejudice and discrimination against atheists, in particular, and the nonreligious in the US and around the world. I conclude with some suggestions for future areas of research related to the sociology of nonreligion and atheism.
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The 1990s was the decade when the The 1990s was the decade when the The 1990s was the decade when the The 1990s was the decade when the "secular boom" occurred "secular boom" occurred "secular boom" occurred "secular boom" occurred ----each year 1.3 each year 1.3 each year 1.3 each year 1.3 million more adult Americans joined the million more adult Americans joined the million more adult Americans joined the million more adult Americans joined the ranks of the Nones. Since 2001 the annual ranks of the Nones. Since 2001 the annual ranks of the Nones. Since 2001 the annual ranks of the Nones. Since 2001 the annual increase has halved to 660,000 a year. increase has halved to 660,000 a year. increase has halved to 660,000 a year. increase has halved to 660,000 a year. In terms of Belonging (self In terms of Belonging (self In terms of Belonging (self In terms of Belonging (self----identification) 1 identification) 1 identification) 1 identification) 1 in 6 Americans is presently of No Religion, in 6 Americans is presently of No Religion, in 6 Americans is presently of No Religion, in 6 Americans is presently of No Religion, while in terms of Belief and Behavior the while in terms of Belief and Behavior the while in terms of Belief and Behavior the while in terms of Belief and Behavior the ratio is higher around 1 in 4. (Fig.
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Decades of opinion polling and empirical investigations have clearly demonstrated a pervasive anti-atheist prejudice in the United States. However, much of this scholarship relies on two critical and largely unaddressed assumptions: (a) that when people report negative attitudes toward atheists, they do so because they are reacting specifically to their lack of belief in God; and (b) that survey questions asking about attitudes toward atheists as a group yield reliable information about biases against individual atheist targets. To test these assumptions, an online survey asked a proba- bility-based random sample of American adults (N = 618) to evaluate a fellow research participant (“Jordan”). Jordan garnered significantly more negative evaluations when identified as an atheist than when described as religious or when religiosity was not mentioned. This effect did not differ as a func- tion of labeling (“atheist” versus “no belief in God”), or the amount of individuating information provided about Jordan. These data suggest that both assumptions are tenable: nonbelief—rather than extraneous connotations of the word “atheist”—seems to underlie the effect, and participants exhibited a marked bias even when confronted with an otherwise attractive individual.
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This study explores the identity formation process of self-avowed atheists in the context of American culture. Drawing on data collected from participant observation and 40 individual indepth interviews with atheists in Colorado, four stages of atheist identity development are presented: the starting point/the ubiquity of theism, questioning theism, rejecting theism, and "coming out" atheist. I argue that an atheist identity is an achieved identity, and one that is constructed in social interaction. Focusing on the interactional processes and narrative accounts of participants, I discuss the process of rejecting the culturally normative belief in God, and the adoption instead, of an identity for which the "theist culture" at large offers no validation. This research illustrates how identification with atheism in America becomes an important aspect of self for those who adopt this label. Further, it makes a qualitative contribution to our incipient understanding of the subjective experience and identities of actual atheists, as well as the dynamics of irreligion and unbelief in America — an area of inquiry within the sociolgy of religion that is in need of further development.
The organized atheist and secular humanist movements have long operated under the premise of secularism progressing in American society. In the last two decades, however, progressive secularism has come under increasing criticism. This article examines how atheists and secular humanists—collectively, “freethinkers”—have responded to the failure of secularism to become a dominant force in the United States and how they have rethought their role and strategy from that of acting as the secular vanguard to assuming a subcultural identity and engaging in defensive competition in order to find a place in American society. They have done so by adopting three strategies: (1) creating a niche for secular humanism among the unchurched and “secular seekers”; (2) mimicking and adapting various aspects of evangelicalism, even as they target this movement as their main antagonist; and (3) making use of minority discourse and identity politics.
The Northern Ireland problem is usually characterized as a sectarian conflict between the Protestant and Catholic communities. All other religious affiliations are either ignored or subordinated to these two major groupings. As a result, little attention has been devoted to the social and political differences stemming from other forms of religious identification, notably religious independence, or those who claim no religious affiliation. Using the 1991 Northern Ireland Social Attitudes Survey, this paper provides recent empirical evidence to challenge this conventional wisdom. We conclude that religious identification in contemporary Northern Ireland is not simply a Catholic versus Protestant dichotomy. The analyses reveal a small but still significant group of religious independents who differ from the two communities not only in terms of a range of religious beliefs and practices, but also on abortion, sexual morality, partisanship, confidence in institutions, and the influence of religious leaders in politics. While the short-term significance of this group is negligible, its long-term significance may be substantial.
Framing this paper is the question: what research problem and hypotheses suggested by symbolic interaction theory give promise, if pursued, of significantly advancing the sociology of the family? The problem delineated revolves around the concepts of identity and commitment. After explication of a set of premises and needed refinements in concepts basic to symbolic interaction theory, a number of hypotheses are offered. These purport to account for the position of identities in a salience hierarchy and tie identity salience to role performance. Finally, it is noted that these hypotheses could profitably be studied in the research setting of responses to first pregnancy
This study explores the relationships between religiosity and interpersonal friendliness and cooperation using data from the 1979–80 National Survey of Black Americans (NSBA). Results indicate that respondents who engage in frequent devotional activities (e.g., prayer, Bible study) are reported to be more open and less suspicious, and more enjoyable to interview, than their less-religious counterparts in post-hoc ratings by NSBA interviewers. In addition, respondents for whom religion serves as an important source of moral guidance are also viewed as friendlier, more interested, and more open than those for whom this aspect of religion is less salient. Other aspects of respondent religiosity (e.g., church participation) are unrelated to these post-hoc interviewer assessments. Findings are discussed in terms of (1) religious role-taking processes and (2) the internalization of religious norms concerning interpersonal kindness and empathy, although several alternative explanations are also considered. A number of implications and directions for future research are identified.