Atheists As “Other”: Moral Boundaries and Cultural Membership in American Society

Ephesians_2,12_-_Greek_atheosPenny Edgell, Joseph Gerteis, and Douglas Hartmann in American Sociological Review:

[T]he atheist emerges as a culturally powerful “other” in part because the category is multivalent (Turner 1974), loaded with multiple meanings. For all these respondents, atheists represent a general lack of morality, but for some, this lack was associated with criminality and its dangers to safety and public order, while for others the absence of morality was that of people whose resources or positions place them above the common standards of mainstream American life. To put it somewhat differently, atheists can be symbolically placed at either end of the American status hierarchy. What holds these seemingly contradictory views together is that the problem of the atheist was perceived to be a problem of self-interest, an excessive individualism that undermines trust and the public good. In this, our respondents draw the same link between religion and the taming of self-interest that Tocqueville wrote about over a century ago (Tocqueville [1992] 2000, see especially volume 2, parts I and II). It is important to note that our respondents did not refer to particular atheists whom they had encountered. Rather they used the atheist as a symbolic figure to represent their fears about those trends in American life—increasing criminality, rampant self-interest, an unaccountable elite—that they believe undermine trust and a common sense of purpose.

In recent public discourse, atheists take on a similar symbolic role. We found that the figure of the atheist is invoked rhetorically to discuss the links—or tensions—among religion, morality, civic responsibility, and patriotism. In particular, the association of the atheist with a kind of unaccountable elitism has surfaced in recent public debates. The civically engaged atheists’ awareness of the negative stereotypes of atheists has led to the coining of a new term, “Brights,” around which to identify and organize and thus, according to one prominent Bright, to challenge the association between atheism, immorality, and lack of civic commitment.