“Coming from Kansas I’ve realized that this must be one of the worst states to be an atheist in the nation. Churches in Kansas are like Starbucks around the rest of the country: they’re everywhere, and everyone goes to them. When you first meet people it’s not odd for them to ask which church you go to or what religion you are. As an atheist, I’ve often lied and said I was Christian or that I didn’t belong to one church.
This is out of pure survival. I just wanted to avoid the dirty looks and disgusted words that pour out of my new Christian acquaintance. Of course, this doesn’t happen every time. There have been many moments where I shared my beliefs and my new friend acted very Christ-like. Those are the best encounters. I’ve been an atheist for quite a few years, and some of my closest friends still don’t know.”
When I put out a call for submissions for my book, Atheists in America, this was one of the first essays I received. It is a quote from Brittany Friedel’s piece “An Atheist in the Bible Belt” and when she wrote it, Brittany was a psychology major at a small Methodist college in Kansas. Although I completed my graduate studies outside of the bible belt, at a large public university, parts of her narrative paralleled my own experiences as an atheist (someone who does not believe in a god/gods or any supernatural beings) psychology doctoral student.
Training to be a psychologist – understandably – requires students to take a slew of coursework on therapy skills. In one of these courses, Career Counseling, we were discussing strategies that might help alleviate anxiety for a therapy client who was nervous about finding a job. Other students in the class volunteered a number of reassuring statements they would share with their client, including canned phrases such as “everything will work out as it should” and “trust in the universe.”
Though I was much more shy and mild-mannered in graduate school than I am now, I found that hearing these phrases pushed my discomfort to such a level that I had to say something. Raising my hand, I calmly asked, “But wouldn’t clients who are non-religious react poorly to statements like that?”
Other students in the class looked puzzled and asked what I meant.
Turning red and stammering, I continued, “Well… it just seems that if you aren’t religious or spiritual, ‘trusting in the universe’ is not a very reassuring concept, you know?”
At that point, one of my classmates who seemed slightly ruffled by my comment, turned to me and said “Melanie, you’d have to be a capital-A atheist to have a problem with those statements.”
“Well, I am.”
“Atheist? Really? But… you’re so nice.”
That same student stared at me blankly for a few seconds, and then skeptically remarked, “Atheist? Really? But… you’re so nice.”
At that moment, in that class, I realized just how stigmatized atheist people are in the United States (US). This stigma runs so deep that even in a large, public university amongst psychology doctoral students – who are, by the way, notoriously liberal and open-minded – it was completely acceptable to believe that being nice and being atheist were mutually exclusive identities to hold.
Pushing it further, if people do not believe atheists are nice, doesn’t it naturally follow that they are perceived as mean?
It turns out that the answer to that question, at least in the US, is yes. In 2003, philosophy of education professor Robert Nash defined Atheophobia as the fear and loathing of atheists that permeates American culture, and examples of this attitude persist at all levels of societal exchange.
As a snapshot, national polls from 2014 found that roughly half of Americans (1) believed that living a moral life was impossible without a belief in God, (2) would disapprove if a family member married an atheist, and (3) would be unlikely to vote for a presidential candidate who was atheist. To make matters worse, being an atheist was seen as the least desirable trait a presidential candidate could have – even worse than cheating on a spouse or using marijuana.
Being atheist may even cost you your life
The problem with prejudicial views and stigma, however, is that these beliefs motivate behavior. Thus, atheists experience both interpersonal discrimination (slander, social ostracism, coercion, verbal attacks, violence, property damage) and structural discrimination (denial of opportunities, goods and services) by those who hold atheophobia. In some countries, being atheist may even cost you your life, as seen by the recent murders of secular bloggers in Bangladesh.
At Teachers College, Columbia University my graduate students and I set out to further understand how experiencing stigma may impact atheists in the United States. To do this, we administered a questionnaire to several thousand atheist individuals and asked them to rate how frequently they were treated as if they were immoral, ostracized, made to feel ashamed, and/or asked to conceal their atheism. We found that the more participants experienced this atheophobic maltreatment, the higher their levels of psychological distress and social isolation were. Thus, experiencing stigma for being atheist has real ramifications for mental health.
Drawing parallels from my work with other stigmatized populations (e.g., people of color, LGBTQ individuals), I know that being involved in a community of likeminded people who share your identities is crucial to mental health. One way for atheists to assuage some of the stigma that they feel is to get involved with communities for humanists and nonbelievers such as Society for Ethical Culture, Sunday Assembly, OASIS, and other local organizations. Reflecting on Brittany Friedel’s story and my own, I wonder how these moments of marginalization would have felt with the presence of a supportive, atheist community at our backs.
In her narrative from Atheists in America, Pam Zerba wrote, “People who join Pennsylvania non-believers will often talk about how free they feel, how wonderful it is not to have to edit what you say, to hear others say all the things you’ve thought… It’s not that we’re obsessed with religion and talk about nothing else.
Even when we share stories about our kids, or swap recipes, that internal editor doesn’t have to be switched on, and that is an enormous relief. It is our intellectual home, the place where we can be ourselves without apology.”
I’m hopeful that through continued awareness-raising, we’ll reach a point in the US where nice and atheist are no longer seen as mutually exclusive.
 Nash, Robert J, (2003.) Inviting Atheists to the Table: A Modest Proposal for Higher Education, Religion & Education, 30,1.
 Political Polarization in the American Public: How Increasing Ideological Uniformity and Partisan Antipathy Affect Politics, Compromise and Everyday Life, Pew Research Center, June 12, 2014. http://www.people-press.org/files/2014/06/6-12-2014-Political-Polarization-Release.pdf, Accessed 11/16/15.
Melanie Brewster is an Assistant Professor of Psychology and Education at Columbia University and earned her Ph.D from the University of Florida. Her research focuses on marginalized groups and examines how experiences of discrimination and stigma may shape the mental health of minority group members (e.g., LGBTQ individuals, atheists, people of color). Dr. Brewster also examines potential resilience factors, such as bicultural self-efficacy and cognitive flexibility, that may promote the mental health of minority individuals. Her first book, Atheists in America, was published in 2014 by Columbia University Press. She tweets about atheism, queer issues, and academia @melysebrewster