KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Josh Stewart differs from most atheists. He’ll tell you there is no God.
But when he gets together with other faithless folks in the Kansas City Atheist Coalition, they color code their name tags. One hue for those who are proudly public about their beliefs, another for whom photographers are asked to avoid.
“It is an issue,” said the 31-year-old Westport resident and coffee shop worker. “They’re worried how their boss or their family or somebody else might react. It’s not always good.”
Even in anonymous surveys, atheists tend to keep their views secret.
“There’s a lot of atheists in the closet,” University of Kentucky psychologist Will Gervais, whose research suggests their numbers are undercounted, told Vox. “If they knew there are lots of people just like them out there, that could potentially promote more tolerance.”
Yes, America is becoming steadily less religious.
Fewer parents raise their children in the church. Those kids grow up less likely to worship. It’s not just that more people self-style their faith outside sect or denomination — although that’s happening, too. More people reject faith in the supernatural entirely.
Yet even as their numbers grow, researchers continue to find atheists a particularly unpopular lot.
Americans, pollster Gallup reports, would vote for a Catholic, a woman, an African-American, a Jew, a Mormon, a gay or lesbian person, an evangelical Christian or a Muslim — in that order — before they’d consider an atheist president. Only socialists ranked in less regard.
Sociologists and researchers define an atheist as someone who doesn’t believe in God. Yet even in anonymous telephone interviews, people are a third as likely to accept the label as to concede the belief. Said one researcher: “They’re hiding it.”
A research group surveyed Americans in 2004 and again in 2014. The numbers remained virtually unchanged and declared a clear preference for the faithful over the irreligious.
A quarter of those surveyed thought atheists didn’t share their values. More than a third said atheists held a different vision for the country. A third said they lacked a moral center. Nearly half don’t want their children to marry an atheist.
A recently published study based on 2,000 interviews suggested that a quarter of Americans or more are atheist – multiples of what other surveys have found.
Gervais and fellow University of Kentucky psychologist Maxine Najle posed a list of innocuous statements – “I own a dog,” “I enjoy modern art” – and asked how many of the declarations applied to a respondent. Then they put the same statements to another group but added the statement, “I believe in God.”
By comparing the results, they concluded that 26 percent of the U.S. population doesn’t believe in God. Previous surveys in 2015 by Pew and Gallup asked directly about the belief in God and found the number of atheists at between 3 and 11 percent.
“Obtaining accurate atheist prevalence estimates may help promote trust and tolerance of atheists – potentially 80 million people in the USA and well over a billion worldwide,” the study said.
“Anti-atheist sentiment is still really high,” said Penny Edgell, a sociologist at the University of Minnesota. “That doesn’t decrease with exposure, doesn’t change as the number of atheists grow. That stigma is why there could be quite a few people out there who don’t identify as atheist.”