The number of disbelievers is growing, but they remain America's least trusted minority. Why?
How many atheists are there?
It depends on your definition of the term. Only between 1.5 and 4 percent of Americans admit to so-called "hard atheism," the conviction that no higher power exists. But a much larger share of the American public (19 percent) spurns organized religion in favor of a nondefined skepticism about faith. This group, sometimes collectively labeled the "Nones," is growing faster than any religious faith in the U.S. About two thirds of Nones say they are former believers; 24 percent are lapsed Catholics and 29 percent once identified with other Christian denominations. David Silverman, president of American Atheists, claims these Nones as members of his tribe. "If you don't have a belief in God, you're an atheist," he said. "It doesn't matter what you call yourself."
Why are so many people leaving religion?
It's primarily a backlash against the religious Right, say political scientists Robert Putnam and David Campbell. In their book, American Grace, they argue that the religious Right's politicization of faith in the 1990s turned younger, socially liberal Christians away from churches, even as conservatives became more zealous. The dropouts were turned off by churches' Old Testament condemnation of homosexuals, premarital sex, contraception, and abortion. The Catholic Church's sex scandals also prompted millions to equate religion with moralistic hypocrisy. "While the Republican base has become ever more committed to mixing religion and politics," Putnam and Campbell write, "the rest of the country has been moving in the opposite direction." As society becomes more secular, researchers say, doubters are more confident about identifying themselves as nonbelievers. "The collapse of institutional religion in the first 10 years of this century [has] freed so many people to say they don't really care," said author Diana Butler Bass.
How are nonbelievers perceived?
Most polls suggest that atheists are among the most disliked groups in the U.S. One study last year asked participants whether a fictional hit-and-run driver was more likely to be an atheist or a rapist. A majority chose atheist. In 2006, another study found that Americans rated atheists as less likely to agree with their vision of America than Muslims, Hispanics, or homosexuals. "Wherever there are religious majorities, atheists are among the least trusted people," said University of British Columbia sociologist Will M. Gervais. As a result, avowed atheists are rare in nearly all areas of public life. Of the 535 legislators in Congress, for example, only one — Rep. Pete Stark (D-Calif.) — calls himself an atheist. Few sports stars or Hollywood celebrities own up to having no religious faith.
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