” I’m sure many people here have read opinion polls that show Atheists to be public enemy #1 ranking less favorably than Gays, Blacks, and Gay Blacks. Many still can’t understand that someone can believe in morality but not God.”
Just speaking as someone who is gay [lesbian] and was atheist/agnostic for most of my life, I always object when ppl make such statements. Sure, people say they don’t like atheists, but hatred against atheists manifests itself in completely different ways than hatred of other groups….
Over the past generation there has come to be in the United States a series of “oppression” bidding wars. Who has it worse, white women, or black men? Atheists or homosexuals? Muslims or Mormons? And so forth. A problem though with these comparisons is that they presume that dislike and persecution lay on a linear spectrum, rather than exploring a multidimensional space. The concreteness of this is manifest in comparing relations between the sexes and the races. The relationship between men and women, all things equal, is qualitatively different from the relationship between different races.
American atheists have trumpeted the fact that public opinion polls suggest that they are the most reviled and disliked segments of the population. More so than Mormons, Muslims and homosexuals. But I think that this sort of question misleads, and is expressing a widespread, but shallow, sentiment. The typical hostility toward atheism emerges out of ignorance, and preconceptions. Most Americans are at least moderately religious, and take it is a given that morality comes from God. It does not take a logician to infer from this model that those without God are particularly amoral and lacking in character, and because most Americans do not know anyone who is an atheist, or more accurately, they do not know that some of the people they know may be atheists, all they have to go on is a superficial model. When I was younger and socialized mostly with conservative white Protestants and Mormons (because of the demographics of where I resided) my atheism had an initial shock effect, in part because I was notably “straight edge,” and did not exhibit the amorality which was expected. But this issue quickly faded into the background, as the lack of religion had little pragmatic consequence.
In contrast, the few open homosexuals at my high school were subject to a far greater level of harassment. Though homosexuality is ostensibly different from race because one can mask it, operationally it is not always so, and many homosexuals have a particular affect which makes their orientation unmistakable. The hostility which many of my peers expressed toward homosexual males derived not from abstract preconceptions, but concrete fears and visceral disgust. Over the past generation the gay rights movement has worked to dispel preconceptions and raise consciousness, and this is resulted in a more acceptable public profile for homosexuals. While to my knowledge no person in Congress has been elected with their atheism public, Jared Polis and Tammy Baldwin were both elected as open homosexuals. But I would much rather be an atheist in much of this country than a gay man, because in interpersonal relations I believe that homosexuality is much more threatening to some than atheism is. In other words, the idea of atheism is something that many Americans have been indoctrinated to fear, but the reality of atheists turns out to be far less threatening. In contrast, sexuality is a much more primal issue, and though the specific relationship of social norms to homosexuality may vary across time and space, it is always something with much more personal valence.