A Survey of Atheists


A Survey of Atheists; Atheists Stigmatized 

Duane McClearn

July, 2020

    Some several years ago, Tom Arcaro, of the Department of Sociology, and I, of the Department of Psychology, put together a survey to be answered by self-identified atheists. Approximately 8,ooo people answered from around the world; about half of those were from the US. I will refer to this survey from now on as the Big Survey. 
     The purpose of the survey was to gauge the views of atheists on issues of religion and their place in society. For respondents in the US, that meant to a large extent asking how it felt to be a non-believer in a largely religious society.
     I will concentrate on one survey item here. The item asked:

  Do you feel any social stigma related to your atheism?

The response possibilities, and the percentage of respondents answering each, were as follows:

1. I feel no social stigma related to being an atheist. (13.6%)
2. I feel a slight social stigma related to being an atheist. (33.2%)
3. I feel a moderate social stigma related to being an atheist. (31.7%)
4. I feel a strong social stigma related to being an atheist. (21.5%)

Respondents were invited to make follow-up statements about ways in which they felt that they had been stigmatized because of their atheism.  Many of the statements made by the respondents were telling and poignant. In this essay I include only statements made about problems that arose with family relationships..  

       Many of my family members have excluded me from contact as they are uncomfortable that I do not believe in their (or any) deity.

     –Respondent 1279, a 38-year-old, male, adjustor, in Wisconsin


     I’m already generally stigmatized among my family because I’m an atheist and no longer hide that fact in my private life. I have been cornered and confronted by multiple family members telling me I’m smarter than that, or that I’m going to hell, or that I’ll grow out of it.

     –R 1213, a 27-year-old, male educator, in Pennsylvania


       The religious in my extended family are no longer welcoming at all.  I’m shunned by them at reunions.  My mother has nearly zero interest in my children despite daily interaction with her religious grandchildren.

     –R 1255, a 34-year-old, male, computer programmer, in Ohio


     I come out of fundamentalist Christianity, so my family views my atheism as meaning that I have turned my life over to the Devil. My presence is viewed as dangerous to them.

     — R 1937, a 25-year-old, female, graduate student, in Oregon


       My family disowned me after finding out that I am an atheist.  My life is better for it, I just wish it would’ve happened sooner.

     –R 2349, a 39-year-old, IT technician, in Texas


       Well, I “came out” as an atheist when I was 14.  My entire father’s side of the family disowned me.  Other than that, I live and work in a university environment where such things are irrelevant.

     –R 2411, a 26-year-old, male, biologist, in Texas


       My Mother asked me not to be a member of her family anymore.

     –R 3572, a 34-year-old, 911 dispatcher, in Kentucky


    My parents disowned me. I was homeless for a few months.

     –R 723, a 25-year-old, female, intermittently employed, in South Dakota


     I was perpetually harassed for months and eventually disowned by more than half of my family when I was found to be an atheist.

— R 3148, a 21-year-old, female, engineering student, in Indiana


     I’m no longer allowed to babysit my young cousins because I might “corrupt” them.

— R 3385, a 26-year-old, male, accountant, in Michigan


     About a year ago,  I spoke with a good friend about this survey. She is a practicing Catholic. She was surprised and skeptical that there is actually any stigma associated with being an atheist. I assured her that there was. The few respondents highlighted here show how seriously their atheism can be (and is) taken by family members. Being “disowned” or turned out of the house is no small thing. Many are made to feel unwelcome in other ways. The few examples put forth here are a small percentage of the number that indicated problems with their families due to their beliefs (or, rather, lack of beliefs). On a positive note, many respondents, such as R2349 above, are happy that they “came out” as atheists.

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