Pew study shows acceptance of atheists is low but gradually increasing

When you’re at the bottom, you can only go up. That seems to be what is happening with attitudes toward atheists in the United States, according to a recent Pew Research Center study.

Americans continue to rate atheists more negatively than positively but atheists have edged up slightly above Muslims and Mormons in terms of favorability ratings. Only 20 percent of Americans have favorable opinions of atheists, and more — at 24 percent — hold unfavorable opinions. Muslims command slightly less favor at 17 percent, with 22 percent unfavorable, and Mormons 15 percent positive and 25 percent negative. What may be surprising, given concerns about growing anti-Semitism, is that Americans express the most favorable feelings toward Jews, who receive the highest plurality — 35 percent — of favorable ratings and lowest unfavorable ratings at 6 percent.

Most Americans are neutral overall about religions, however.

Not surprisingly, Pew found that people tend to rate their own religious group positively. So Pew adjusted findings to examine how people rate religious groups other than their own. The most significant revelation is that among Americans who are not born-again or evangelical Protestants, the balance of opinion toward evangelical Christians is negative (32 percent unfavorable vs. 18 percent favorable). Evangelical Christians are among the most negatively rated religious groups by people outside that group. Likewise, “the balance of opinion is negative in the case of Mormons,” Pew cites, with a quarter holding very or somewhat unfavorable views.

Also not surprising in our religion-deferential nation is that public attitudes toward Jews, Catholics and mainline Protestants are relatively warm, including by people with other identities. About four-in-10 Americans (41 percent) do not express an unfavorable view toward any group studied in the survey. Roughly one-quarter express a negative view of just one group, with atheists and evangelical Christians most likely to be singled out.

Showing the importance of meeting people from outside your religious identity is the finding that acceptance grows when you are personally acquainted with members of another religious group. Pew found that nearly nine-in-10 Americans know someone who is Catholic, a group that received 34 percent favorable ratings, just under Jews.

In the case of atheists, “A rising share of Americans (75 percent) also personally know an atheist,” Pew found, compared to 65 percent in 2019. Americans are less likely to personally know a Muslim or Mormon.

Atheists express overwhelmingly negative feelings toward evangelical Christians but are also more negative than positive toward Catholics, mainline Protestants, Mormons and Muslims. “The negative feelings are mutual when it comes to Protestants and Catholics, who give atheists net negative ratings,” Pew states. Jews are the only group to get a positive rating on balance from atheists, and they also are more likely to express positive rather than negative views toward atheists.

This favorability effect, however, doesn’t extend to evangelical Christians. “The balance of opinion toward evangelical Christians is negative both among those who know someone who is an evangelical Christian (-11 percentage points) and among those who do not (-19 points),” Pew reports. Only 18 percent of non-“born again” or evangelical Protestants feel positive toward them, while 32 percent have very or somewhat unfavorable feelings.

“If evangelical Protestants generally would be less intent on pushing their religion on others by law, I predict their favorability ratings would improve,” says FFRF Co-President Dan Barker, a former evangelical himself. Barker vows that FFRF will keep promoting nonbelievers as “friendly neighborhood atheists” in the hope that acceptance will keep improving.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with almost 40,000 members and several chapters across the country. FFRF’s purposes are to protect the constitutional principle of separation between church and state, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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