The Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project’s new study, “How Americans Feel About Religious Groups” reveals, unsurprisingly, that “Jews, Catholics & Evangelicals [are] rated warmly, atheists and Muslims more coldly,” by Americans.
According to Pew,
Jews, Catholics and evangelical Christians…receive an average rating of 60 or higher (63 for Jews, 62 for Catholics and 61 for evangelical Christians). And 44% of the public rates all three groups in the warmest part of the scale (67 or higher).
Buddhists, Hindus and Mormons receive neutral ratings on average, ranging from 48 for Mormons to 53 for Buddhists. The public views atheists and Muslims more coldly; atheists receive an average rating of 41, and Muslims an average rating of 40. Fully 41% of the public rates Muslims in the coldest part of the thermometer (33 or below), and 40% rate atheists in the coldest part.
This is interesting and it is also at odds with the findings of the Pew Research Global Attitudes Project, released in March, that shows just over half – 53 percent – of Americans believe it is “necessary to believe in God to be moral.” That means almost half – 46 percent – don’t think you need religion for morality. Evidentially, atheists are not disliked because of any apparent lack of morality, or at least, it is not the only reason.
Even so, the study shows, Americans are out of step with the rest of the West in placing so high a dependence on religion for morality.
Pew’s Religious Groups study related that,
Attitudes among religious groups toward each other range from mutual regard to unrequited positive feelings to mutual coldness. Catholics and evangelicals, the two largest Christian groups measured here, generally view each other warmly. White evangelical Protestants give Catholics an average thermometer rating of 63; Catholics rate evangelicals at 57. Evangelicals also hold very positive views of Jews, with white evangelical Protestants giving Jews an average thermometer rating of 69. Only Jews themselves rate Jews more positively.
This is quite different from colonial days, when Jews and Catholics did not find much warmth from their fellow colonials, and Thomas Jefferson thought Evangelicals were “fanatics” and they thought the unconventionally religious Jefferson an “infidel.” Distrust and fear of Catholics by Protestants persisted right up until John F. Kennedy’s election almost two centuries after the proclamation of the Declaration of Independence’s expression of toleration.
Now that Catholic/Protestant relations are warmer, atheists seem to have become the new Catholics. But don’t assume the contempt for atheists is one-sided.
AlterNet’s Dan Arel writes that atheists are “universally disliked by just about every religious group there is” but what he fails to mention is that this contempt is mutual, at least where white Evangelicals are concerned: according to Pew, atheist rate evangelicals at 28 while white evangelicals rate atheists at 25. Atheists also don’t like Mormons (44) and if the overall attitude toward atheists is a cool 41, atheists can’t complain much because their attidue toward Muslims is only 44, just north of the overall rating of Muslims at 40.
But it’s not only religion. As we can see, non-religion can birth some pretty negative attitudes as well. And let’s face it: Richard Dawkins was not the best ambassador for atheism. His forums seethed with hatred for religion when I joined, hoping vainly for some useful dialogue between the none and the many.
This is really not surprising given the approach of the so-called “new atheism” which is that “religion should not simply be tolerated but should be countered, criticized, and exposed by rational argument wherever its influence arises.” New atheists, at least, have no right to complain of the intolerance of religious people if they are not willing to exhibit tolerance themselves.
Interestingly, given Dawkins’ well-known contempt for religion, he doesn’t even get religion right, which makes you wonder if some of his hatred, at least, might be based on false premises. In Religion’s Misguided Missiles (September 15, 2001), he said, “Religion teaches the dangerous nonsense that death is not the end.”
This is not true. Historically, afterlife has not been the end-all of all religions and Abrahamic monotheism should not be allowed to stand-in for religion in general, even if it is the atheist’s bogeyman.
Another New Atheist, Christopher Hitchens, has also done poorly by atheists by saying such gratuitously stupid things as, “Since it is obviously inconceivable that all religions can be right, the most reasonable conclusion is that they are all wrong.” This is, of course, not at all true. The fact that not all religions can be right does not preclude the possibility that one or more of them is right.
As Chris Hedges wrote at AlterNet back in 2008, “The New Atheists embrace a belief system as intolerant, chauvinistic and bigoted as that of religious fundamentalists.”
Might this be a clue, at least in part, as to why atheists in general are held in such low regard?
We all have ideologies and worldviews and we are not always sufficiently tolerant of views different from our own. This is human nature since people tend to fear that which they do not understand. Many of us who espouse non-conventional views have experienced this first hand. It is something we must all be careful of. After all, toleration is not agreement. Tolerating means being willing to accept things we not only do not agree with, but things we might think wrong, and that offend us on some level.
Dan Arel, lamenting negative attitudes toward atheists wrote on AlterNet the other day that “Religious tension is nothing new in America. Hatred between religions, distrust and downright anger are the everyday norm for anyone with a television set or access to the Internet.” He should not have ignored the hatred of non-religion.
The religious tensions of today are reflections of far older tensions, and Dawkins is certainly not wrong in saying the U.S. lives in a “theocratic Dark Age.” But blaming all members of a group for the sins of a few is, again, exactly what organized religion has done in the past – and been justly criticized for by atheists.
There have been, and continue to be, Christians who are tolerant and loving. Atheists, then, should be careful about their own degree of contempt for believers, because believers come in all shapes and sizes and not all of them hate atheists.
In the final analysis, there is a whole lotta contempt going around, and not just against atheists, but by some atheists towards the religious amongst us. I don’t want to say everyone does it, but a lot of people do it, and it is as dangerous to lump all religious people together as it is all atheists.
In the end, I find it puzzling as to why any atheist who holds religion in contempt would complain because religions hold atheists in contempt. There are a great many people out there who need to be taking a good hard look in the mirror.
Hrafnkell Haraldsson, a social liberal with leanings toward centrist politics has degrees in history and philosophy. His interests include, besides history and philosophy, human rights issues, freedom of choice, religion, and the precarious dichotomy of freedom of speech and intolerance. He brings a slightly different perspective to his writing, being that he is neither a follower of an Abrahamic faith nor an atheist but a polytheist, a modern-day Heathen who follows the customs and traditions of his Norse ancestors. He maintains his own blog, A Heathen’s Day, which deals with Heathen and Pagan matters, and Mos Maiorum Foundation www.mosmaiorum.org, dedicated to ethnic religion. He has also contributed to NewsJunkiePost, GodsOwnParty and Pagan+Politics.