Many people hide their lack of religious beliefs on surveys. When people are asked their religious affiliation, even in anonymous questionnaires, only about 3% report being an atheist. When people are asked if they believe in god, about 11% say “no.” Pew Forum research using more detailed questions about religious beliefs has shown that about 22% of people are non-religious. Because of so much prejudice against disbelief in god, many people are not comfortable being honest about it. We know that many things considered socially undesirable (drug addiction, mental health issues, etc.) are underreported.
A more subtle research technique has people report how many items in a list apply to them without disclosing which ones apply. That method found that 26% of Americans do not believe in god. In a study of people in one Ohio county about 40% said they attend church regularly, but only 19% were counted in church on several non-holiday Sundays.
Will Gervais at the University of Kentucky conducted research published in the journal Social, Psychological and Personality Science. He found that people assume untrustworthy faces are atheists, and a majority of people think atheists are morally undependable. Many seem to think a person cannot be good without god. They are more likely to view someone who has done something immoral or criminal as an atheist than as religious. Research by others found that 35% of Americans would disapprove of their child marrying a Muslim, while 48% would disapprove of their child marrying an atheist. There is significantly more stigma against atheists in America than in most other Western countries. Six states (AR, NC, SC, MD, MS, TN, and TX) still have constitutional restrictions on atheists holding public office. Although such restrictions are overridden by the US Constitution, they reflect an attitude that has changed very slowly. A 2015 CNN poll found that 40% of voters would refuse to vote for an atheist candidate. In child custody cases, many judges prefer parents who go to church regularly over those who don’t. Discrimination is even more likely from family and friends than other sources. The more devoutly religious the family the more severe the discrimination.
Phil Zuckerman, has an excellent essay on “Atheism, Secularity, and Well-Being: How the Findings of Social Science Counter Negative Stereotypes and Assumptions.” Most secular nations have much lower rates of teen pregnancy, STDs, abortion, child abuse, homicide, and other violent crimes, as well as lower rates of poverty, obesity, and unemployment than the US and other religious countries. And the more religious states in the US have the highest rates of those same social problems. Moral behavior tends to be better when it is based on reason rather than antiquated dogma, and people reach the highest levels of moral development when they know their behavior has real-world consequences rather than mythical future consequences that can be eliminated by simply declaring a belief in a god. Forgiving sins just by claiming a belief (cheap grace) may actually encourage further misbehavior.
Atheists and other secular people have strong morals and values. They are less nationalistic, prejudiced, anti-Semitic, racist, dogmatic, ethnocentric, close-minded, and authoritarian than religious people. Atheists are much more supportive of gender equality and gay rights and much less supportive of war, torture and capital punishment.
So, atheists are very moral and are much more common than some would think. They also tend to be younger and more highly educated than the general population. How can we change the completely inaccurate biases about atheism? One way would be simply to be more open about our atheism. If people knew how often they interact with atheists, their prejudices would be reduced. Having personal contact with groups who are discriminated against has reduced that discrimination and prejudice toward virtually all those groups. It’s time for atheists, freethinkers, and all nonbelievers to be more open about their secular beliefs without being aggressive. Anti-atheists already know more atheists than they realize, and some of them are their family and friends.