Some Numbers on Atheists
It has often been noted that atheists are, as a group, not particularly popular. A variety of polls and research studies have shown that the general public, most of whom are believers in God, view atheists in a quite unfavorable light. A primary reason is that they think that atheists, lacking a belief in God, must therefore suffer a lack of morality (insofar as believers tend to view God as the source of morality). Further, many believers see atheists as being psychologically maladjusted. After all, if belief in God is, in their estimation, so obviously warranted and the foundation of correct thinking and right behavior, then it stands to reason that atheists must be lacking in mental health. Not surprisingly, many atheists feel unfairly stigmatized. They claim that the negative assumptions of the general public (believers, in particular) are simply not justified.
Rarely addressed are the views of atheists on these matters. The survey research headed by Tom Arcaro has uncovered some interesting findings about what atheists think about religious believers. The comments made in this essay take into account the responses of the subset of the American respondents, who numbered a bit over 3,800, or about half of the total number of respondents.
One item on the survey asked, “How do you view the morality of religious believers compared to the morality of atheists?” Over 55% of the respondents indicated that believers are either somewhat less or much less moral than atheists. A bit less than half (44%) indicated that believers and atheists were equally moral. Less than ½% said that religious believers are more moral (either somewhat or much more) than atheists. In other words, a staggering 99.5% of the respondents indicated that atheists were either equally moral or more moral than believers. Atheists are clearly not neutral in the issue of their morality. It would appear that whatever misgivings believers have about the morality of atheists, atheists themselves return the sentiment in spades (although no doubt for different reasons).
And what about the role of religion in the world? Arguments have been made about the relative weight of good deeds done by religion (helping the poor, succoring the ill, etc.) and the bad ones (the misdeeds of the Spanish Inquisition, wars of conquest in the name of God, and so on). An item on the survey dealt with this issue directly. It asked, “How do you view the net impact of religion in the world?” Here the results were even more lopsided than in the previous question. A huge majority (87%) of respondents viewed religion, overall, as a moderate or strong force for bad in the world. A mere 11% viewed religion as roughly equally good and bad. And a paltry 2% indicated that religion was a force for good in the world.
What about the perceived psychological well-being of religious believers? A further question on the survey asked, ”What is your view of the comparative psychological health of believers in God and atheists?” Over half (56%) answered that believers are either somewhat or substantially less psychologically healthy than atheists. About 39% said that believers and atheists are equally psychologically healthy. Only 4% indicated that religious believers are more psychologically healthy than atheists. Thus, atheists overwhelmingly think of themselves and each other as being at least as psychological healthy as believers.
Another question on the survey was, “Do you feel any social stigma related to your atheism?” Only 14% percent indicated that they felt no social stigma. Thus, the overwhelming majority (86%) said that they personally felt some degree of stigma (the options being slight, moderate, and strong social stigma). A bit over half (53%) felt moderate to strong social stigma associated with their atheism.
In sum, atheists view themselves generally to be at least as moral as believer and at least as psychologically healthy. They view religion generally to be a force for bad in the world. And indeed they do feel themselves as unfairly stigmatized.
One might ask: Are the respondents who see believers as substantially less moral than atheists also the people who view religion as a strong force for bad? Are they the same people who indicate that believers are substantially psychologically less healthy than atheists? And are those who indicated feeling personally stigmatized for their atheism more or less likely to view religion less favorably than those who feel less stigmatized?
Preliminary statistical (correlational) analyses of the American respondents have provided answers to these questions. In brief, it was found that the respondents who viewed religion or believers the most negatively for one question also viewed them most negatively for the other questions. Also, the respondents who felt most stigmatized were, on average, most likely to hold religion and believers in lowest regard. The findings were quite robust, from a statistical point of view.