Cultural Attitudes Towards Atheism

Cultural Attitudes Towards Atheism


Continuing from my last post A Short History of Atheism, I’m now adding to the blog another section of my Religious Studies dissertation which addresses different cultural attitudes towards atheism (and religious tolerance) and the effects they have on non-believers and minority groups. Due to the nature of the assignment the style is somewhat formal and objective, but the points raised are interesting ones which I think will be relevant to our readers! 

Eighteen percent of the European population now professes a lack of belief in any deity, and this is mirrored by the tolerance and acceptance of atheism within most European countries. In most of Europe, atheists can take an active part in society without discrimination; such as being elected to high levels of government. The British Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, is openly atheist- reflecting the significant non-religious population in the country[1]. Despite this, one-third of state funded schools in the United Kingdom are faith-based[2]. Ireland- a country close in proximity to the UK- has a stricter system of education, with training from Christian colleges required before a teacher can work in a state funded school. The fairly liberal attitude towards atheism is less prevalent in Southern and Eastern Europeans; with 25% of Turks in Germany holding the belief that atheists are inferior human beings[3].

This less tolerant attitude mirrors that of much of the United States, where some people may feel pressure to conceal their lack of belief due to legal and social discrimination against atheists. Such discrimination has led some American atheists to compare their situation to that of ethnic minorities and LGBT communities. A 2006 study by University of Minnesota researchers has suggested that there is still a huge stigma attached to atheism in the United States. A poll of 2000 households found that atheists are the least trusted of all minority groups- less so than Muslims, recent immigrants and LGBT groups; who are all classically victims of discrimination in the USA. The participants associated atheism with immorality, criminal behavior and materialism. Fred Edwords of the American Humanist Association asserted that “Americans still feel it’s acceptable to discriminate against atheists in ways considered beyond the pale for other groups[4].”

In the United States, it is difficult for a person who is openly atheist to hold public office; especially in comparison with many Western European countries. Few politicians have been willing to identify as such, as it is widely considered a poor political move. In 2009, a North Carolina Councilman was called “unworthy of his seat”[5] because of his open atheism, and several polls have suggested that over 50% of Americans would not vote for an atheist presidential candidate[6]. The constitutions of no fewer than seven states in the USA actively prohibit atheists from holding public office- for example, in Arkansas, “No person who denies the being of a God shall hold any office in the civil departments of this State, nor be competent to testify as a witness in any Court.”

In addition to this, child custody laws in the United States tend to favour the religious parent- the laws are often based on the “best interest of the child” principle, and it is therefore left to the family court judges to decide if a person’s lack of faith will be a detriment to their child’s development. A lack of belief, religious observation and regular church attendance have all been used to deny custody to non-religious parents, as well as an inability to prove willingness to attend to a child’s religious education and instruction.

The effects of prejudice are experienced not only by atheists but also by other non-privileged groups worldwide such as the LGBT movement and women, who are often still discriminated against due to religious beliefs within their culture- such as the implementation of Sharia law in some majority Muslim countries. There are varying degrees of tolerance for minority groups within every culture, but despite the tolerant attitude of many theists it can be argued that religious teachings could potentially encourage and worsen the prejudice experienced by such minority individuals.

What are the attitudes towards atheism in your culture? Have you ever been discriminated against for what you do or do not believe? Let us know by commenting below- and look out for more installations in this short series of posts on atheism.


[1] YouGov poll, 2004: 35% non-belief, 21% “don’t know”

[2] Berkeley, Rob; Savita Vij, Right to Divide? Faith Schools and Community Cohesion. Dec 2008

[3] Liljeberg Research International: Deutsch-Türkische Lebens und Wertewelten 2012. July/August 2012

[6] Faith in the System, Mother Jones. September/October 2004

I'm Beccy, I'm 18, and I love to write. I'm off to study English Literature at Edinburgh University because I've been nurturing an undying love of books since childhood. My interests involve blogging, podcasts, cinema, Game of Thrones, mid century vintage and copious amounts of tea.
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