Why Don’t Americans Like Atheists?

In a recent opinion piece in the Washington Post, atheists Gregory Paul and Phil Zuckerman ask, “Why do Americans still dislike atheists?” The authors are perplexed on the subject since darn it, atheists are smarter, nicer, and more successful than anyone else, so what’s not to like?

What they seem to miss of course is the recent trend for New atheists to denigrate all non-atheists as dumb, deluded and dangerous. Call me dense, but it would seem that if someone claims everyone who doesn’t share their views is stupid, insane and hazardous to civilization then they are unlikely to win any popularity contests. Ever.

Of course, if atheists were as smart as the authors make them out to be, they would have figured this out by now, wouldn’t they?


10 Responses to Why Don’t Americans Like Atheists?

  1. Nate says:

    It is a good point. Atheists are still a pretty small minority, at least what I call “practicing atheists”. Meaning there are a lot of people that don’t believe in God, but they don’t have much to say on it other than if you asked, they would answer no. The “practicing atheists” on the other hand, are worse than the guys that knock on my door every Saturday.

    It’s the simple case, as you point out, that a few ruin it for the group. The smaller the group, the more pronounced the effect is. Atheists aren’t especially un-liked, but any means. At least no more so than other small groups with loud, insulting, obnoxious members.

  2. Mike D says:

    Can you provide a single quotation of any of the major “new atheists” – Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens, Harris, Coyne, Grayling, etc. – in which they denigrate believers on the whole* as insane, hazardous, dumb, stupid, etc.? Because I’ve heard some believers complain about this pretty vocally, but they never seem to provide any actual, y’know, examples.

    I don’t think believers are dumb, and that’s despite the fact that belief is correlated with lower intelligence and lower academic achievement than atheism (it’s correlative, not causal). I certainly don’t think that religious scientists like Francis Collins or John Polkinghorne are stupid, dumb, or any of the other pejoratives you listed.

    In fact, in my experience, it’s theists who denigrate the intellect of nonbelievers; and I’ve at least offered one example in my own blog, which I finished with this rejoinder:

    But remember Isaac Newton: He gave us the laws of motion, the laws of optics, universal gravitation, and differential calculus. He was also an alchemist. You can be very smart in general, and very right about many things, and still hold misguided beliefs about certain things.

    The fact is, criticizing religion is taboo, and simply raising the topic with the same tenor which we apply in discussions of a myriad of controversial topics is enough to arouse the ire of the devout. But unfortunately, there’s not really any nice way to tell someone that their most cherished beliefs are nonsense.

  3. Mike D says:

    *I say “on the whole” because any reasonable regardless of faith (or lack thereof) can agree that there are plenty of dumb, deluded, dangerous people out there who happen to be religious. So, you can’t just lazily quote PZ Myers insulting Ken Ham and say “See! Atheists denigrate believers!” Your post implies that atheists denigrate believers on the whole, not just specific nutcases.

  4. jackhudson says:

    “Well, do we know of any comparable examples, where stupid ideas have been known to spread like an epidemic? Yes, by God! Religion. Religious beliefs are irrational. Religious beliefs are dumb and dumber: super dumb. Religion drives otherwise sensible people into celibate monasteries, or crashing into New York skyscrapers. Religion motivates people to whip their own backs, to set fire to themselves or their daughters, to denounce their own grandmothers as witches, or, in less extreme cases, simply to stand or kneel, week after week, through ceremonies of stupefying boredom. If people can be infected with such self-harming stupidity, infecting them with niceness should be childsplay.”

    Richard Dawkins, Atheists for Jesus

    “[Religion] is capable of driving people to such dangerous folly that faith seems to me to qualify as a kind of mental illness.”
    — Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene

    “I think that religion is the most dangerous and divisive ideology that we have ever produced. It is also the only ideology that is systematically protected from criticism, both from within and without.”— Sam Harris

    “It is difficult to imagine a set of beliefs more suggestive of mental illness than those that lie at the heart of many of our religious traditions.”— Sam Harris, The End of Faith p. 182

    “Religion is poison because it asks us to give up our most precious faculty, which is that of reason, and to believe things without evidence. It then asks us to respect this, which it calls faith.”
    -— Christopher Hitchens, god is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything

    “True, you don’t have to be religious to be crazy, but it helps. Indeed, if you are religious, you don’t have to be crazy in the medically certifiable sense in order to do massively crazy things.”— Daniel Dennett, Is religion a threat to rationality and science?

    Need More?

  5. Justin says:

    I’m also working on my hyperlink tagging abilities, lol.

  6. Jack, the New Atheism push-back only has gained traction over the last five years or so.

    This does nothing to explain the overall fear of atheists in America over the last 250 years.

    Also, atheists “being mean” is not an explanation for the general attitude of atheists since it is only recently that atheists could be publically vocal about religion. It just doesn’t relate to the actual attitudes or why they develop, seemingly, only among religious believers and not other secular groups.

    Also, your criticism seems to miss the point that Greg and Phil were specifically making–that atheists on the whole tend to be better behaved, more highly educated, etc. Having a few discourteous atheists here and there doesn’t explain why all the genuinely nice atheists are treated with the same ire and scorn.

  7. Justin says:

    1. Also, your criticism seems to miss the point that Greg and Phil were specifically making–that atheists on the whole tend to be better behaved, more highly educated, etc. Having a few discourteous atheists here and there doesn’t explain why all the genuinely nice atheists are treated with the same ire and scorn.

    One perusal of the comment sections on PZ Meyers or Richard Dawkins’ sites (and 1,000 other sites) says otherwise (in fact it screams otherwise). Maybe the argument is that atheists don’t get into legal trouble as often, and that’s open to debate and quite a different thing than the claim that atheists are given a bad name by a relative few. The claim that atheists are better behaved is questionable.

  8. Mike D says:


    None of the examples you cite support your original argument. You fail to acknowledge the difference between the criticism of particular beliefs as delusional, foolish, etc., and the derision of believers one the whole as stupid, dangerous etc., as you claimed in your original post. If you’re going to offer a valid counter-argument, you need to be able to make the distinction between criticism of ideas and criticism of people – because in every single quote above, it is the idea, not the person, that is being criticized. And, as I’ve already pointed out with my Newton example, even very intelligent people can hold to foolish or misguided beliefs.

  9. jackhudson says:

    So, just to be clear – you contend one can hold as the operating principle of one’s life a dumb, delusional and dangerous belief and not actually be dumb, delusional or dangerous?

    If that is the case, the beliefs themselves wouldn’t seem particularly dangerous, or delusional (as they don’t cause someone to you know, be either dangerous or delusional) and while they may be ‘dumb’, so what – lots of dumb beliefs may held by intelligent persons and not be particularly in need of a movement to oppose them.

    I mean Hitchen’s idea that he could drink and smoke to his heart’s delight with little concern for the consequences of such activities was the pinnacle of stupidity, but the decision was his own to make.

    Of course, if you think none of the above comments is derisive of believers as a whole, then I really have to wonder what a person would have to say to be derisive. For example, imagine I said,“True, you don’t have to be liberal to be crazy, but it helps. Indeed, if you are a liberal, you don’t have to be crazy in the medically certifiable sense in order to do massively crazy things.”

    Are you saying that wouldn’t be derisive of liberals as a whole? Really!?

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