A recent survey by the Pew Research Center had Americans rate different religious groups on a “feeling thermometer,” ranging from zero (cold, negative feelings) to 100 (warm, positive feelings). While a “feeling thermometer” sounds like a fun activity that could have been pulled from a kindergarten lesson plan to show the merits of togetherness and equality, the data produced by this survey is actually disheartening.
Unsurprisingly, Americans tend to favor Jews, Catholics and Evangelical Christians the most (rated 63, 62 and 61, respectively). But where do I – your friendly neighborhood atheist – fit on the scale?
Oh. Atheists are the second lowest ranked group with a cool 41 – beat out just barely by Muslims with a ranking of 40. That’s a full 20 points of separation from the top three. I don’t want to speak on behalf of Muslims, as I have no experience in their shoes, but I’ll just say, “It’s a little chilly down here on the bottom, so thanks for the company.”
I’ll say this straight away, as an atheist in the Bible Belt, my life could be drastically worse than it is. It’s not unheard of in this corner of the country for young atheists to be kicked out of the house, cut off financially or even completely disowned. Luckily, I’ve got it pretty easy, but it’s not all sunshine and smiles.
Similar to the struggle for LGBT individuals, it can be terrifying deciding to “come out” as atheist. Do you want it to be a slow process or like ripping off a bandage? Will you tell some people, but hide it from others? You never know what kind of reaction you’ll get – tears, anger, confusion, a subtle squirm of discomfort.
Wouldn’t it just be easier to keep it to yourself?
How unfair is that? Just to avoid the awkward discussions and potential rejection, I’ve got to hide this important part of my life or even pretend to be something I’m not.
The Pew survey shows that older age groups and Republicans rank atheists even lower than the overall score of 41. It just so happens that these subgroups match up perfectly with my extended family.
No matter how much I want to connect with my family, there will always be this invisible barrier between us, because no matter the occasion, a Southern family finds ways to inject little bits of religious ideology into the conversation. I’m not arguing that they should become any less religious but that they should understand how alienating that type of behavior can be.
Although the familial relationships are healthy on a superficial level, pretty often I feel like I don’t belong. But, hey, at least I have the freedom to keep my eyes open during the Thanksgiving gathering prayer – they’re all too devout to open theirs and catch me. That’s a fleeting moment of relief.
Another interesting bit of data showed that respondents were more likely to view atheists better (a 50 on the scale) if they knew one personally; consequently, the score went even lower (a 29 on the scale) if they didn’t know anyone from that group.
That could be a major part of the problem – people with no personal frame of reference create their own idea of what an atheist is. Back when I considered myself a Christian, just hearing the word “atheist” evoked a negative, nauseating feeling inside me. I knew that meant they didn’t believe in God, and that was bad, and I probably shouldn’t trust them. It’s easy to dehumanize an entire group of people that way.
All these years later, I’m on the other side of the fence, but I still know that those thoughts race through a believer’s mind when they realize I don’t believe in God. I’m friendly, accepting and an advocate for more love and less hate in the world. I’m sure if people got to know me, they would see that our theological differences aren’t that important when it comes to getting along.
But here’s the catch-22: If nonbelievers would come out, believers would view them more positively, but nonbelievers are too worried to come out because believers view them negatively.
We could all gain from being more accepting. We might disagree on what happens after we die, but that shouldn’t stop us from being friends while we’re alive.