Q. Atheist actor and writer Ricky Gervais is working on a new show, Afterlife , which features “an atheist who dies and goes to heaven.” If Gervais hopes to bring cultural acceptance of non-belief to mainstream America, he faces an uphill battle. Polls show that many Americans distrust atheists and nearly half say they would not vote for one. Should it matter whether or not a politician believes in God? As mainstream acceptance of other minority groups grows, will atheists still lag behind?
Call me an optimist, but I think atheists and other nonbelievers are poised for huge growth in public acceptance. We’ve been one of the last groups against whom open discrimination was acceptable; the story’s told well enough by the repeated surveys over the last decade or so showing that fewer Americans would vote for an atheist for president than would vote for a woman, gay or lesbian, Muslim and so on. We nonbelievers have been in the basement, #1 among reviled minorities as other groups have gained ground.
But I think we’re about to follow better-accepted minorities into a new dawn of public acceptance. And I think we’re going to do it the same way the LGBT community did it -- by forcing a sea change in how average Americans perceive our numbers. Think back two or three decades, when public attitudes toward LBGTs began their historic flip -- when we went from a “norm” where most people felt revulsion and suspicion toward homosexuals to a new “norm” where most people expanded their horizons to include LGBTs among the targets of their acceptance. Much of this can be attributed to dogged attention-getting by LGBT activists. There was an organized campaign, actually called “We Are Everywhere,” whose goal was frankly to change public perception of one data point and one data point only: how many LGBTs were out there. Countless LGBTs outed themselves; some campaigners more controversially outed other LGBTs who would have rather kept their orientation a secret. LGBT characters started to show up in sitcoms. But the biggest weapon in this campaign’s arsenal was an endlessly-repeated survey finding that gays and lesbians constituted ten percent of the population.
Ten percent is something of a magic number in minority affairs. If a group constitutes ten percent of us, that group comes to be seen as too big to demonize, too big to marginalize. A minority that represents ten percent of the body public is entitled to a seat at the table; that just seems to be one of the unspoken principles that guide the way average Americans perceive diversity issues. In later years, that ten percent figure attracted a lot of criticism; many observers now concede that it may have overestimated the LGBT population by a few percentage points. But here’s the snapper: True or not, the ten percent figure worked, and today the sea change it helped to drive is almost certainly irreversible. Average Americans no longer think of LGBTs as a tiny coterie of scary people who hang out in bus station rest rooms. They view them instead, accurately, as fellow workers, fellow students, fellow citizens -- you know, as neighbors. And that, I submit, made all the difference.
In an upcoming column in the magazine I edit, Free Inquiry, science-watcher Tom Rees reports on research by University of British Columbia social psychologist Will Gervais. Gervais exhaustively measured “gut prejudice” against atheists. He found that most prejudice against atheists is rooted not in beliefs that atheists are unpleasant, but rather in the perception that they are untrustworthy. (Prejudice against LGBTs skewed similarly in decades past.) Then Dr. Gervais ran more tests.
In one test, subjects were assigned one of three readings: a neutral reading about food, a passage from The God Delusion in which Richard Dawkins argued that supernatural belief is nonsensical, and a text describing the rising number of atheists in the United States. This selection mentioned that among Americans ages 18 to 25, at least 20 percent are atheists. Here’s how Rees sums it up: “For the religious, reading that atheism was rather more common than they previously believed had a remarkable effect: it effectively abolished their distrust of atheists.”
In another test, student subjects read either an essay claiming 5 percent of students at their university were atheists, and another pegging the figure at 50 percent. (The true number was midway between them.) Subjects who read the essay with the inflated figure were significantly more likely to rate atheists as trustworthy than those who had read the deflated figure.
Gervais also noted that in countries where atheism is more openly prevalent in the population, voters -- even religious voters -- are more willing to vote for atheist candidates than they are in the United States. That helps explain why Australia’s Prime Minister and the U. K.’s Deputy Prime Minister reached their high positions even though both are open atheists.
In other words, people who believe atheists are numerous -- in simple terms, people who know they know atheists and know first-hand that many of the negative stereotypes about atheists are wrong -- tend to abandon their prejudices against the nonreligious. That phenomenon worked for LGBTs and it can work for the nonreligious. I think it’s working already.
The numbers are on our side. An influential Pew-University of Akron study pegged the number of atheists, agnostics, and “hard seculars” -- folks who don’t check the box for “atheist” or “agnostic” but live without religion nonetheless -- at 10.7 percent as long ago as 2004. Recent surveys suggest that yes, Virginia, about 20 percent of young people are atheists. About 15 to 16 percent of the general population identifies with no religion (though a third to a half of them are not truly secular). atheist characters are presented in a positive light on TV shows like House, Bones, and The Big Bang Theory, to name only a few. atheist initiatives like billboard campaigns attract unprecedented, often positive, attention in the news media.
Geez, it smells like a sea change!
Call me an optimist, but I think the dark age of public revulsion toward atheists is soon to end.
Tom Flynn | Jul 20, 2011 10:29 AM