The Clumpy Geography Of Atheism

Ilya Somin has been blogging about hostility towards atheists over at the Volokh Conspiracy. When the University of Minnesota study came out a couple of weeks ago, many atheists saw it as confirmation of their status as a persecuted group. Yet, based on my own experience, I see very little hostility toward atheists, even when I lived in redstate Virginia. Usually, it's the other way around: I more commonly see militant atheists going out of their way to belittle believers. But that's just my experience; plural of anecdote not data, etc.

Another thing that strikes me is how isolated populations of atheists can be. Given that the study showed that only 3% of the US population are atheists, and given that they tend to be found in large numbers in certain settings like science, academia, and urban centers, it's likely the case that atheists and theists are geographically quite separated.

Share this

There must be more atheists

There must be more atheists than that. Just like a lot of people are libertarians but don't identify as such because they aren't politically-minded, there must be lots of people who are passive atheists, i.e. people for whom the god thing just isn't part of their existence.

Yeah, much of the supposed

Yeah, much of the supposed hostility toward atheists is very shallow in nature. If you ask religious people what they think of "atheists" in the abstract, at best they're going to think of people like Richard Dawkins and at worst they'll be thinking of, say, Lenin. So it's no surprise that this negative schema leads them to espouse a negative opinion of "atheists" in the abstract. But when push comes to shove they don't really invest a whole lot in that verdict; if they were to find out that a longtime friend was an atheist, most people wouldn't suddenly stop talking to him because of that.

Randall, I wouldn't be so sure of that. Even most people who aren't devoutly religious in the conventional sense still tend to be superstitious and have some vague God-notion (e.g. one of my ex girlfriends who wasn't "religious" but still expressed a belief in angels), and I would count that as operationally theistic.

Matt, This reminds me of


This reminds me of people's opinions of gays and most other non-ethnic minorities.

I wonder if the study was

I wonder if the study was able to control for disincentives to self identification as an atheist. For example, how many would admit atheism to a pollster when churchgoing family members are present?

First of all I am of the

First of all I am of the very firm opinion that there are really two groups of Atheists: those who when asked say "I am an Atheist" and those who respond with whatever nominal faith they were raised with/in. While maybe the first group really is below 5% I suspect that the second group, people who really don't believe in the spirit in the sky but who are unwilling to self-identify as Atheist (for a whole host of reasons the least not being fear of the other person's reaction) is a pretty big number.

I am a self-identifyer. As such I have had the pleasure of meeting dozens of people who also do not believe, make no bones about it either way, but who if asked by a person of faith would respond with a reflexive "I am x (catholic, luthern, methodist, jewish, etc.) Some even go to church from time to time. This can be either as a way to integrate with the community, for another family-member's sake, or out of reflex.

Second. Self-identifyers (like myself) do denigrate people of faith (strong faith, mind you) because we think that they are idiots. People of faith pretty much never bother with Atheists because they never meet any. This does not mean that they don't respond poorly when actually confronted with one (I have had the displeasure) but they hardly ever do. Having said this, these people meet non-believers all the time but since the vast majority put forth their nominal faiths as an identity, the true believers never know that they are in the presence of a non-believer.

My wife is also atheist but will reflexively respond "Luthern" when asked, presumably bcse it is the polite thing to do.

Matt, You're new here,


You're new here, fella. Don't get too big for your britches just yet.

What I mean is, I think Garth supports my contention. People are raised to think that they should belong to some church or other and so that's what they say, even if in between polls it never crosses their minds to really go to one.

If you think about it, most

If you think about it, most peoples religion has very little to do with what they actually believe. My granddad went to church for 40 years, never really believing in god, then one day he suddenly decided he didn't need to any more, and started telling people he was an atheist.
I think most people primarily go to church because its a social group that they're part of, and only secondarily because they're practicing their faith.
If people ask me what religion I am, I say episcopalian, because thats how I was raised, but they ask me if I believe in god, I say sometimes, or that I just don't have a strong opinion about it. I go to church about once a year at christmas, because it makes my mom happy, but the rest of the time I can take or leave it.

Travis is my exhibit A.

Travis is my exhibit A.

Steve, Yes, I think it


Yes, I think it applies to a lot of beliefs people claim to hold. Even passionately espoused beliefs can be remarkably shallow.


Me britches fit just fine guv, though I appreciate your concern for my comfort. :cool:

A problem with talking about religion is that there are multiple layers to it, and people (even me) tend to overemphasize the doctrinal/philosophical level when IMO that's comparatively unimportant. Philosophically it's easy to demarcate atheists and theists: you're a theist if you're ontologically committed to a God, otherwise you're an atheist. But the full picture is richer and messier than that.

Religion is in a large part a social phenomenon, but like all culture its roots are cognitive. There's considerable evidence to suggest that god-belief is a sort of Type I error in our agency-detection mechanism, which would also explain superstitiousness among those who don't espouse a particular creed. Which is what I meant by calling the set of people you allused to "operational theists" -- they may not subscribe to any particular creed, and may even technically be "atheists" in the aforementioned philosophical sense, but that doesn't make them atheists in a psychological sense.

I think using opinions on

I think using opinions on inter-group marriage as a metric for intolerance is not valid. Just because someone doesn't want their child to marry an atheist does not mean they are intolerant of atheists. BTW, I'm a strong atheist and igtheist depending on the religion.