David Mercer, top, a former minister, talks about rethinking the way people relate to and interact with believers while speaking in Polk County in central Florida. Photo courtesy of Atheist Community of Polk County

New report finds nonreligious people face stigma and discrimination

(RNS) — For more than 35 years, Jayrod Garrett’s life was immersed in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

He fondly remembers going on a missionary trip to Hawaii, participating in a scouts program and making lifelong friends. He also recalls how hurt he felt when a church leader didn’t believe him when a group of kids called him the N-word or how tough it was grappling with the church’s stance against gay marriage.

In 2016, after years of feeling conflicted, Garrett left the church.

Now, he identifies as an atheist.

He has adopted a new set of ideals, acknowledging that “meaning comes from making a difference” and that “people are more important than beliefs.”

But life as an atheist isn’t any less complicated.

Jayrod Garrett. Courtesy photo

Leaving the church affected his relationship with his brother, who remains in the LDS faith and whose wedding he couldn’t attend because he was no longer in the church. Living in Utah, he has seen how much easier it can be for Mormons to get hired for certain jobs. It’s also sometimes difficult to talk about his beliefs, which are often misunderstood.

“I think of the life I lived before and how I tried to navigate things, and even now I long for that simplicity, because it was very simple to live that way,” he said. “It is much more complex and challenging to live without someone telling you what your beliefs need to be.”

Garrett is not alone.

A new study, dubbed “Reality Check: Being Nonreligious in America,” has found that nonreligious people face discrimination and stigma, conceal their nonreligious identities, and largely see themselves as atheists and humanists. The report will be publicly released May 5.

The report, produced by the nonprofit American Atheists — a national civil rights organization that seeks to achieve religious equality for all Americans — is the culmination of a survey of nearly 34,000 nonreligious people living in the United States.

More than three-quarters of participants identify "very much" with the terms nonreligious (79.6%), atheist (79.4%) and secular (75.1%). Others strongly identify with the terms freethinker (64.9%), humanist (64.6%) and skeptic (61.4%).

“Identification with Nonreligious Identities” Graphic courtesy of American Atheists

More than half (57.1%) say their primary non-religious identity is atheist.

Few (6.9%) say their primary non-religious identity is agnostic.

Most were raised Christian: either in Protestant (54.7%) or Catholic (29.9%) households. One in seven (14.3%) grew up in nonreligious households.

The survey finds that nonreligious people care about maintaining secular public schools, are against religious exemptions that allow for discrimination, and believe in access to abortion and contraception, among other things.

Alison Gill, the American Atheists’ vice president for legal and policy, says the report gives nuance to the identities of those who are nonreligious.

Alison Gill. Photo by Josiah Mannion

“This is a community that is often invisible. People don’t often talk about their beliefs even in nonreligious communities,” said Gill, one of the report's authors.

Within the first eight hours of the survey going live, more than 10,000 people filled it out, Gill said. They initially hoped to at least get a total of 5,000 participants. Many also took the time to write in responses detailing instances of discrimination they’ve faced.

“It just goes to show how much this was needed and how much people feel like they really need to get these stories out,” she said.

The report shows that participants often report negative experiences, due to their nonreligious identities, in social media (58.3%) and within their families (54.5%).

Survey participants also report issues at school and work. 

"Nearly one-third (29.4%) of survey participants who attend school or who have children attending school reported having had negative experiences in an educational setting because of their nonreligious identity," according to the report. "More than one in five (21.7%) employed or recently employed survey participants reported negative experiences in employment because of their nonreligious identity."

The survey asked participants to rate how religious their local community is. Just under half (44.1%) of survey participants say they are from "somewhat religious" communities, while about a third (29.8%) are in "very religious" communities. Those in more religious communities report feeling more out of place. 

"The experiences of nonreligious people vary dramatically in different parts of the United States," according to the report. "While nonreligious beliefs may be casually accepted in states like California and Vermont, nonreligious people living in states like Mississippi and Utah have markedly different experiences."

The LGBTQ community, African Americans, Latinos and ex-Muslims report experiencing added layers of discrimination and stigma due to their race or their religious upbringing, according to the report.

A large number of Latinos (61.6%), for example, say they've had negative experiences for being nonreligious within their families. That's compared to the 54.2% of non-Latino participants who reported the same.

The report also finds that while almost one-third (31.4%) mostly or always concealed their nonreligious identity from their immediate family, the rate went up to 42.7% when it involved extended family. Nearly half hid their nonreligious identity among people at work (44.3%) and people at school (42.8%).

Rebecca Ray, second from right, and Atheist Community of Polk County volunteers offer free hugs at Polk Pride’s Pride in the Park 2019 in central Florida. Photo courtesy of Atheist Community of Polk County

Rebecca Ray of Polk County, Florida, said she felt a need to conceal her identity as an atheist. Ray volunteers at her kids’ school and has observed how religious some teachers are. She said she feared her identity could affect her children's education.

Ray, who was raised Jehovah's Witness, and her wife co-founded the Atheist Community of Polk County, which recently incorporated into a nonprofit. The group meets at the local library and hosts speakers such as a Planned Parenthood representative to detail how comprehensive sexual education is in their county. They’ve done charity drives for children and families who are homeless. They also adopted a stretch of roadway to clean on a regular basis.

“People just assume the only good morals you can ever learn are from the Bible,” Ray said.

Arlene Ríos shares a similar story.

Ríos, who grew up culturally Catholic, grappled with identifying as an atheist later in life. She felt it carried a negative connotation.

“The word atheist was just too ugly,” said Ríos, 43.

As she explored nonreligious labels, she realized the importance of making it clear she didn’t believe in God, but she believed in the humanity of people. Now, she identifies as an atheist humanist.

Ríos found it challenging coming out as a nonbeliever. Her sister, who was a Jehovah's Witness, took the news particularly hard and stopped talking to her for some time. They've since then mended their relationship, but Ríos sought therapy to cope with the aftermath.

Arlene Ríos, left, organizes meetups with other nonreligious Latinos in Southern California's San Gabriel Valley. Photo courtesy of Arlene Ríos

A Navy veteran, Ríos happened to give up her religion while she was stationed in Guantanamo Bay. Upon her return to the States, she let her friends believe she was still Christian.

“I guess I was afraid to come out to them,” Ríos said. “I was also afraid they would treat me differently.”

Ríos now organizes meetups with other nonreligious Latinos in Southern California's San Gabriel Valley. 

“A lot of people assume everybody is a believer, especially in the Latino community,” she said.

Ríos says they get about one new person joining every month. She doesn’t require people to RSVP online because that may out their nonreligious activities to their family and friends. She makes sure to ask permission before taking and publicly posting photos of the group.

“Sometimes families won’t accept it. There will be infighting with families,” she said. “I don’t want the group to be a cause of that.”

“Negative Experiences and Discrimination” Graphic courtesy of American Atheists

Ríos says it’s common for others to think that “we’re bad people, that somebody hurt us in our life (and) that’s why we don't believe in God.

"People that know me kind of get confused," she added. "I think they think that I'm confused."

To Gill, the author of the report, documenting these experiences is crucial because it highlights disparities that should be addressed.

The report details how people experience heightened rates of loneliness and depression due to discrimination and the stigmatization nonreligious people have faced. 

One in six (17.2%) survey participants was likely to be depressed, while one-quarter (25.6%) often experienced one or more indicators of loneliness and social isolation, the research shows.

Those who participated in the survey also report that family rejection negatively affected their educational and psychological outcomes.

Among those who are 25 and older whose parents were aware of their nonreligious identity, nearly half of participants with very unsupportive parents did not complete a four-year degree (46.1%), compared to about one third (32.4%) of participants with very supportive parents.

Just like with other marginalized groups facing stigma, these issues “can have a detrimental impact and create negative outcomes," Gill said.

“If we want to make sure we have a society that’s thriving, we have to make sure that we’re treating everyone equally,” she said.