Friday, June 23, 2006

Silly me.

by Drek

Regular readers of this blog may remember a while back when I posted on a study suggesting that atheists are among the least liked groups in the United States. At the time this study hadn't yet been released yet so I attempted to give a preview of its findings using the GSS.

This post resulted in a set of companion posts from Kim and Tom that further discussed the issue. Yet, despite all of our analysis, we remained ignorant of the true contents of the original study. As I am no stranger to ignorance (as readers of my blog can confirm) this did not particularly bother me, but I suspect Kim and Tom have somewhat higher standards. So, I feel the need to revisit that old post now that the actual study has been published.*

So what does this study (Edgell, Gerteis & Hartmann. (2006) "Atheists as Other." American Sociological Review. 71(2). 211-234.) have to say? Was my earlier paranoia justified? Well, as it turns out, yes. If anything the analysis in my earlier post dramatically underestimated things.

In my original post I used a willingness to curtail certain civil rights (i.e. the right to speak publicly, to have a book in a library, and to teach. It should be noted that the question identifies "anti-religionists" rather than atheists per se, but it was the best I could do) of atheists as a measure of dislike for them. At that time I noted that while 85.9% of GSS respondents would not curtail any, approximately 3.6% would curtail all three. By comparison the equivalent figures for homosexuals were 89.7% and 3.2%. So, in short, it looked like more people wanted to cut atheist civil rights than homosexual civil rights. Moreover, there are more people who wouldn't curtail any homosexual civil rights than there are people who would choose not to reduce atheist civil rights. That is, indeed, a sobering thought.

Now, the Edgell et al. article doesn't use these measures, so their analyses are not precisely comparable to my own,** but their questions are quite interesting. They primarily examine two items, phrased in their instrument as follows:

(1) "Now I want to read you a list of different groups of people who live in this country. For each one, please tell me how much you think people in the group agree with YOUR vision of American society- almost completely, mostly, somewhat, or not at all?"

(2) "People can feel differently about their children marrying people from various backgrounds. Suppose your son or daughter wanted to marry [a person in a given category]. Would you approve of this choice, disapprove of it, or wouldn't it make any difference at all one way or the other?" [Pg. 217]

As you can see, these two questions deal with whether or not a group is seen as somehow belonging to a broadly-defined common culture, and whether or not there is marital prejudice against, or for, a particular group. So what did Edgell et al. find?

Well, they found that atheists are not popular folks. Fully 39.6% of the respondents answered that atheists did NOT AT ALL share their vision of American society. As a comparison, the percentages answering the same way for Muslims*** and Homosexuals were, respectively, 26.3% and 22.6%. If we look at how people responded for recent immigrants it gets even more absurd as only 12.5% said that they did not at all share the same vision of American society. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, that's right: three times as many people think atheists don't share a common vision of U.S. society, as folks who have just arrived in this country. Based on that, I think we can conclude that most folks would view my co-blogger the TDEC [the Total Drek European Correspondent, recently arrived in America —Ed.] as more American than me.

But it doesn't stop there- there remains the question about marriage. How does that turn out? As it happens- even worse. Fully 47.6% of the respondents indicate that they would disapprove if their child wanted to marry an atheist. That is, nearly half of those surveyed would disapprove if their child wanted to marry an atheist. Again, for comparison, Muslims and African Americans,**** earn the same response from only 33.5% and 27.2% of the population.

As I said before, my analysis if anything understated things. While it may be that relatively few people want to seriously restrict atheist civil rights, that doesn't mean that we're particularly liked by the rest. All this naturally leads to another question: who are these people who so dislike atheists? In my earlier post I argued that:

...they are relatively poorly-educated, older, disproportionality unlikely to be white, and female with relatively low household incomes. They are mostly Christian, especially Protestant, and attend church much more frequently than average.

If we throw all of this into a logistic regression model using atheist hating as our dependent variable, though, we find that only three things are significantly related to the likelihood of hating thy neighbor. These are education level (which reduces the likelihood and is significant beyond the .001 level), Protestant faith (which increases the likelihood and is significant beyond the .05 level), and frequency of religious attendance (which increases the likelihood and is significant beyond the .001 level).

This perhaps matches up with our commonsensical ideas, but how does it jibe with Edgell et al.? Actually, it matches up only semi-well with their superior work. They find (as do I) that being relatively poorly educated is associated with a greater chance of rejecting atheists, and that being female does not appear to have an effect. Being African American, however, does make it more likely that a person will reject atheists. This latter finding is reflected in my descriptive statistics, but not in my (admittedly crude) regression analysis.

In terms of religious identification, their analyses confirm mine. Greater levels of religious involvement, being a conservative protestant, and believing that god determines the life course are all positively associated with rejecting atheists. None of this should come as a surprise.

In terms of contextual variables, living in an area where many people are below the poverty line does increase the tendency to reject atheists and living in an area that votes predominantly Democratic reduces this tendency. Surprisingly, though, the rate of religious adherence in the area reduces that tendency, while diversity in the community as a whole increases it. At the same time, specifically religious diversity decreases the tendency to reject atheists. This latter pattern of findings is more difficult to explain, but it should be noted that the effect of community religious adherence is quite small.

Finally, in terms of values, valuing diversity, sympathizing with oppressed groups, belief that all Americans must follow the same rules, and support for the equal treatment of religions are all related to lower tendencies to reject atheists. A belief that civil law must follow god's law is related to a greater tendency to reject atheists.

Taken together, I would say that my analysis generally found the same thing, but in dramatically less detail. Their qualitative data, which I won't reproduce here, seems to show that people simultaneously view atheists as being part of a cultural elite disliked for its snobbishness, and as composing an amoral underclass that preys on regular people. Needless to say, I feel quite flattered.

Edgell et al. arrive at an interesting conclusion: that the cultural identity many Americans utilize includes religion as a sort of unifying element. It is okay to accept different ethnic groups, and religious groups, in this view because everyone believes in some sort of god. Such a view would explain why there is such a strong rejection of atheists: since atheists don't believe in any god, they are therefore incapable of being "real" Americans. What is truly remarkable about this is that even groups whose religions have been portrayed as hateful towards the U.S. (e.g. Islam) are viewed as more worthy of inclusion in American society for the simple reason that at least they believe in god. Such a view is apparent in the words of Star Jones (on whom I have previously remarked) who even after 9/11 argued that an atheist wouldn't be fit to be president since they don't believe in "eternal consequences." I don't want to hash that issue out again, but according to Edgell et al., slightly over 50% of Americans agree with her (pg. 215). Such a statement is remarkable given that it was made at a time when religious belief was thought to have been a significant motivator for the 9/11 attacks. When was the last time we had a wave of atheist suicide bombers?

Perhaps of greater concern, Bethany Bryson (1996. American Sociological Review. 61(5). 884-899.) has provided suggestive evidence that some groups may define themselves by rejecting certain things. Thus, your identity is determined not by what you like, but rather by what you do not like. By the same token, is it not possible that a culture like our own that strives to absorb so much diversity may come to define itself by what it is not instead of what it is? Based on this research, it would seem so. Given the recent battles over intelligent design, faith-based initiatives, and other attempts to mix religion with science and government I think we may be witnessing exactly such a phenomenon. It seems that for many Americans, this society is a melting pot whose cauldron is forged from religious devotion.

I am an atheist and have long prided myself on my regular donation of platelets, on helping my associates and neighbors whenever possible, on obeying the law, and on being honest and direct. I had always thought that these were my contributions to American society. Fellow blogger and atheist Shirley Setterbo is a long-time employee of the U.S. Prison System and is a decent and gentle person. She's tried to inject her compassion not just into the prisons, but into the daily life of those around her. I imagine she viewed these as her contributions to American society. It's a shame, but it's looking like our real contributions may have been providing everyone else with someone to reject, so they can all feel closer together.

Silly us.

* Yes, I know the study has been out for a while now, but I really doubt that everyone who reads this blog (much less stumbles in from the internet) also stays current with the American Sociological Review.

** That is to say, their analysis is better.

*** Keep in mind that this data was collected post-9/11.

**** The sample is representative of the U.S. population, and therefore predominantly white.
Ah yes. I don't have the regressions to back it up, but this is exactly why when I joined a mothers' group when we moved to Ohio, and I discovered that most of them talked a great deal about church, bible study groups, and praying, I kept my mouth tightly shut. No one ever asked, though, of course, since these kinds of folks usually assume that everybody is Christian and that you're praying along with them (I did have one awkward moment when, during a playdate, the hostess said grace over a plate of chicken nuggets, but no one noticed that neither bowed my head nor moved my lips).
If you haven't heard it, the first episode of Freethought Radio featured an interview with Ms. Edgell.

Sorry - forgot the link.
"By the same token, is it not possible that a culture like our own that strives to absorb so much diversity may come to define itself by what it is not instead of what it is?"

This is what I've always thought (and I think some actual sociologists think so too) about racism & whiteness (I'm not a regular reader, so I can only guess that you probably already are aware of this, but I'll prattle on briefly anyway).

Many non-colonial countries are able to create a national identity around a common language and cultural traditions, but people in the US either have to accept total plurality or have to create some kind of imposed commonality.

For many years, in blissful naivete, I thought this commonality was supposed to be our openness, acceptance of differences among people, and commitment to a democratic system with carefully safeguarded civil liberties.

But in recent years I've learned that this commonality is actually considered by many to be our rampant selfishness and consumerism (mislabeled "freedom"), our devastation of the resources of the planet (talked about as "our way of life"), our religiosity, or whiteness itself--and that intolerance of whatever lies outside this commonality is a key part of forming an identity around something so amorphous.

Just my two cents...
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