Atheists are disliked — but new data shows interfaith dialogue can help

Atheists are rightfully concerned about stigma. Pew's latest poll is evidence that we've got some ground to cover before we're socially accepted—and we should consider interfaith dialogue as a means of doing so.

For the last two weeks of July, Faitheist is being guest hosted by Sarah Jones, Communications Associate for Americans United for Separation of Church and State. The piece below is written by Jones; the views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of her employer.

An interfaith meal packing and dialogue event at the Humanist Community at Harvard.

An interfaith meal packing and dialogue event at the Humanist Community at Harvard. Photo courtesy of HCH.

Last week, the Pew Research Center released its latest look at religion in the United States. The poll, which measured positive and negative feelings toward a variety of religious and nonreligious groups, reveals that atheists and Muslims are tied as the least favorably viewed belief traditions in the United States.

According to a “feelings thermometer,” the two groups are rated the “coldest” by respondents. Jews, Evangelicals and Catholics, however, are rated “warmest,” with minority groups like Hindus and Buddhists hovering somewhere in the middle.

The results aren’t an aberration. A 2012 Gallup poll showed that overall, Americans are least likely to vote for either an atheist or Muslim as president; the two groups were tied for the dubious honor. Two years later, it seems that things haven’t changed much. But Pew’s poll provides some additional data that indicates these social attitudes are beginning to shift.

Younger Americans tended to rate atheists (and Muslims) much more highly than their elders did. Among Americans aged 18-29, the two groups were tied for 49% favorability. Their grandparents weren’t quite as positive; 34 percent of Americans aged 65 and up approved of atheists, and 32 percent approved of Muslims. Pew posits that this is likely because there are fewer Christians in the younger generation, and based on what we already know about the Nones, that seems like a reasonable argument.

But although respondents ranked their own groups most highly, they were also more likely to report having positive feelings toward other religious traditions as long as a friend or relative belonged to them. A Mormon may certainly prefer Mormonism, but he’s also more likely to think warmly of atheism if he actually knows an atheist.

Break the data down a bit further, and it’s obvious: Prejudice is often fed and sustained by ideological insularity. And atheists aren’t immune from it themselves. As a group, atheists gave their lowest ratings to Evangelical Christians, Mormons and Muslims. With the exception of Evangelical Christians, low ratings for Mormons and Muslims also correlated to a lack of familiarity with those groups. (Interestingly, agnostics reported warmer feelings toward the same groups, as did those who identified themselves as “nothing in particular.”)

Two conclusions can be gleaned from this data: One, atheists should be encouraged that younger adults are more tolerant of religious diversity. And two, familiarity destroys contempt.

The latter is a claim that interfaith activists have been making for decades. But despite this, atheists are still divided over the use of engaging in interfaith dialogue. Many consider it an irrelevant exercise: If religious beliefs are objectively false, there’s nothing to be gained from interacting with people of faith. Others take issue with the term itself, on the basis that “interfaith” erases nonreligious people. But whatever you choose to call it, the practice of building relationships with members of different belief traditions has clear benefits for everyone involved.

And while it’s true the plural of anecdote is not data, my own experiences with interfaith dialogue seem to support that conclusion. As a de-convert recovering from religious abuse, interfaith work didn’t seem like a natural fit and giving it a chance felt like a risk. But it’s a decision I’ve never regretted. I’ve found that I’m often the first atheist a person of faith has encountered. (Off the Internet, at least). More often, I’m the first de-convert they’ve encountered. It’s a chance to humanize the process of de-conversion—and explain nonreligious perspectives—to individuals who’ve only ever heard second-hand accounts of both.

Dialogue is reciprocal by nature. Atheists who engage in interfaith work also learn about the lived practices of religious belief, which isn’t something you necessarily glean from a textbook or an online forum. It’s much easier to dismiss all Muslim women as oppressed victims, or all queer Christians as misguided fools, if you don’t know anyone from either category. Once you do, it becomes unmistakably obvious that religious experiences are as complex as your own and that you don’t need to agree about God in order to have conversations about more important issues. That’s particularly important, given that atheists repeatedly tie with a religious group—Muslims—in measures of social favor.

Atheists are quite rightfully concerned about facing stigma for their beliefs. Pew’s poll is evidence that we’ve got some ground to cover before we’re socially accepted. But as we contemplate ways to eliminate that stigma, we should consider interfaith dialogue as a means of doing so. It might not be the only solution to the problem, but evidence is growing that it’s a viable path to acceptance.

Sarah Jones

Sarah Jones. Photo courtesy Jones.

Sarah Jones is the Communications Associate for Americans United for Separation of Church and State. Prior to joining AU, she volunteered for Femin Ijtihad, where she researched Islamic law and women’s rights. She holds a Master of Arts in Postcolonial Culture and Global Policy from Goldsmiths, University of London, and tweets at @onesarahjones.