Godless Americans: How Non-Religious Persons Are Labeled as Deviant in a Religious Society

Godless Americans: How Non-Religious Persons Are Labeled as Deviant in a Religious Society

Being an Atheist in the USA

In America, Atheists, and other non-believers are treated as deviants and social outcasts. Atheists are seen as “corrupt” and “abominable,” somehow incapable of doing good deeds. Numerous forms of deviance exist in modern American society. 

Everything from physical deformities, to illicit drug use, to homosexuality, are constructed as deviant in dominant American culture and ideology. 

Where Christianity is also the dominant religious/spiritual paradigm, it should come as no surprise when Atheists and agnostics are similarly constructed as “deviant.” Whether Americans realize it or not, we live in a heavily religious society. 

A vast majority of politicians affiliate themselves with some form of religion in order to gain favoritism among their constituents. With that having been said, let us explore what it means to be a deviant and how Atheists are classified as such. 

So what is a deviant? Deviance is commonly defined as behavior that deviates from what is considered normal in a group or a society. Patricia and Peter Adler (2009) take this definition one step further by identifying three types of norms that deviants tend to break; folkways, mores, and laws. 

The first type of norm is called folkways and is based on etiquette, customs, and traditions. Wearing clothes that are unfashionable or bad table manners may be considered against normal behavior, but are not worthy of complete societal outrage. 

Mores, it would seem, represent social moral norms that tend to create “more serious social condemnation” (Adler & Adler, 2009, p. 11). Such moral violations can include drug use, interracial or gay marriage, and illegitimate childbearing.

Lastly, laws consist of moral norms dominantly constructed to the extent they have been codified in formal legal discourse and attached to formal state sanction. Homicide, arson, and child molestation are considered violations of these legally-established norms. Who are these so-called “deviants?” 

Currently, only 22%- 23% of the American population is listed as Atheist/agnostic/ secularist. By not conforming to traditional religious roles/ideals (especially Christian), non-religious persons are seen as “deviant.” 

Atheists are singled out as the focus of this article since they tend to be vilified more so than agnostics or secularists. Atheists, in short, are individuals who do not believe in a higher power. 

Their non-belief in a higher power earns them the label of “Atheist” and they are essentially treated unjustly because of this title. Atheists tend to be chastised by the public as being unethical, incapable of integrity, and not to be trusted (Downey, 2004). 

Former President George H.W. Bush once stated in an interview “I don’t know that atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered patriots. This is one nation under God”. 

I take this statement very personally since I am both a patriot and a U.S. Army veteran. By not conforming to religious/societal standards, Atheists are targeted as problematic since their ideologies do not agree with the majority of Americans (Downey, 2004). 

In short, the simple act of not conforming to religion makes them deviant. Those who control our nation are the same people who also define how we are expected to live and act within its borders. America has evolved from a country founded on rights, freedoms, and secularism as a means of conducting political business, to a nation built upon religious values and ideology. 

In fact, the motto “In god, we trust” did not appear on U.S. currency until 1864, after an increase in religious sentiments during the Civil War (U.S. Department of Treasury, 2010). 

This merely provides an example of how those in power have systematically instilled their religious beliefs onto others. The Cold War was another point in history where those in control injected religious ideology into the veins of Americans.

During the “Red Scare,” people were tricked into believing that godless communists were taking over, and would force their nontheistic ideals onto others. 

The pledge of allegiance is a prime example; the words “under God” did not exist in the pledge until 1954. As a byproduct of all this religious rhetoric, Atheists have taken a backseat within American society. 

Atheists are not considered to be on the same playing field as those in control because of their lack of belief in a higher power. So then, why are Atheists viewed as deviants within America? To be blunt, society labels Atheists as deviants because of their lack of faith in a higher power. 

By not conforming to religious standards and values (especially Christian), Atheists and other non-believers are left open to criticism, ridicule, and oppression (Stenger, 2009). To theists, not worshipping a god is seen as worse than worshipping a god different from their own (Edgell et al., 2006). 

After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Muslims were seen as deviant because of their religious and cultural beliefs (Cainkar & Maira, 2005). 

The irony here is that these same religious groups quarrel with one another over which god is better when they in fact all worship the same basic god (e.g., Christianity, Judaism, Islam, etc.) (Harris, 2005).

In 2006, a University of Minnesota study found that atheists are the least trusted among several categories. Forty percent of Americans said of Atheists, “This group does not at all agree with my vision of American society” (Edgell et al., 2006). 

Compare this number to other groups that often experience discrimination (Muslims who were next at 26% and gays at 23%), and you gain a broader perspective of the type of discrimination that Atheists can expect to face during their lifetime (Edgell et al., 2006). 

In fact, only 4.8 million (3.1%) of people in the U.S. claim they are Atheists, but this figure is assumed to be an underrepresentation (Stenger, 2009). 

It is believed the actual number is much higher, but because of the stigma surrounding the “Atheist” label people are less willing to admit their non-belief for fear of retribution (Stenger, 2009). 

In America, “Atheist” is a dirty word. Atheists in particular see themselves as being deviant because that is how they are labeled and treated by society. Even the media helps to portray Atheists as “other” (“other” is defined as someone from within who is treated as an outsider) or to further the belief that Atheists are unwanted (Edgell et al., 2006; Stenger, 2009). 

Every holiday season newspapers, television, and the internet bombard people with ads for Christmas sales, movies, and television specials. Christmas is promoted (especially above Hanukkah and other religious holidays) as THE religious observance that matters. 

When this is taken into consideration, it further promotes the idea within an Atheist that they are not important to the broader society. I will now momentarily explain my personal experience as an Atheist treated as “other” during my time in the Army. 

While in the Army, I experienced discrimination because of my non-theist ideology. During training for a deployment to Iraq, my rifle team leader at the time made an inspection of all our personal identification documents. This included such things as I.D. cards, shot records, and dog tags. 

Dog tags, in particular, list four different pieces of information: Name, social security number, blood type, and religious preference. On my tags, I had “Atheist” stamped as my religious preference. Upon seeing this, my rifle team leader told me to change it to some type of religion (like Christianity) because “If you’re captured by Iraqi’s and they see that on your tag, they’ll kill you.” 

To which I replied, “They’re gonna kill us anyway.” I was amazed that after serving several years with this guy, he was telling me to change my beliefs to match those of everyone else in the unit. For the first time in my military career I felt discriminated against and like I was an outsider within. 

In order to curtail situations like the one above, a means of acceptance needs to be formulated. For Atheists and other non-religious people to be accepted by American society, a plan of action needs to be developed that addresses the issues of both theists and non-theists alike. 

The following is merely a proposed plan for the acceptance of non-theists in the United States and is not meant or implied to cover the full range of issues. This is only a jumping-off point from which we might develop a foundation. 

Whether Americans fully accept it or not, we live in an extremely religious society. Most politicians run for office on a platform where religion is a driving force in their election. President George W. Bush presented himself during both elections as a god-fearing Christian. 

This presents a problem since American politics should be based on secularism as a means of protecting the rights of everyone. Furthermore, politics is power-based, which in turn leads to the amalgamation of like-minded individuals who control all aspects of society.

anti atheism billboard

This poses a serious problem for those who represent a small portion of the population since they are at the will of their overlords. In order for non-religious persons to be accepted into mainstream society, they should be involved at all levels of local, state, and federal government. Pete Stark (D- CA), is currently the only openly Atheist politician in Washington D.C. (Associated Press, 2007; Starobin, 2009). 

Additionally, the development of true secularism in the U.S. is a key to leveling the playing field. By allowing non-theist politicians to have political positions, power could then be balanced a bit more than it currently exists. 

At this point, it becomes possible for Atheists to become less an object of ridicule and scorn, and more of a citizen worthy of equal rights. It is important to stress that politicians should not be elected just because they are atheists, but because they are qualified to fulfill an elected position. 

An additional solution to the acceptance of Atheists in American society; it is important for them to be more vocal about their beliefs. Stigmas are a side effect of labels, especially when they are applied to a specific person or group of people. 

Erving Goffman (1963, p. 3) once noted that stigmas are “attributes that is deeply discrediting,” and this holds true when the definition is applied to Atheists. 

In order for Atheists to shed the label of “deviant,” they need to publicly acknowledge and affirm their beliefs. Atheists also need to raise awareness of what we are not. We are not mongrels incapable of integrity or morals. 

We are not a belligerent horde bent on stamping out religion altogether and taking back the power in order to further our own “agenda.” 

In fact, I could care less that people believe in religion or a higher power, provided the devout and pious are not pushing their religion onto others or causing harm to the greater society. Much in the same way that gays and lesbians “came out of the closet” en masse during the ’70s and ’80s, we too must also make public our beliefs and hold fast to them. 

I am not saying that Atheists and their struggle for equality are the same as those of gays and lesbians, but merely using it as an example of what can be accomplished when persons come together collectively for a common goal. 

Grant it, homosexuals still have a ways to go in achieving true equality, but they have come a long way in the past few decades. It is imperative that Atheists maintain persistence and continue to be vocal about their ideals. 

America needs to know that Atheists are the same as everyone else with the only major difference is our lack of belief in a higher power. To stay silent about the issue will only lead to the further oppression of yet another group.

Related:

References

  • Adler, P. A. & Adler, P. (2009) Construction of Deviance (6th ed.). Belmont, CA; Thomson Wadsworth. 
  • Associated Press. (2007, March 19). “Fans applaud politicians for revealing Atheist beliefs.” Napa Valley Register, Retrieved (2009, December 10) from http://www.napavalleyregister.com/articles/2007/03/19/news/national/doc45fe8660bcdb9407470445.txt 
  • Cainkar, L. & Maira, S. (2005). “Targeting Arab/Muslim/South Asian Americans: Criminalization and Cultural Citizenship.” Amerasia Journal, 31(3). 1–27. 
  • Downey, M. (2004). “Discrimination against Atheist: The facts. Council for Secular Humanism.” Retrieved (2009, December 4) from http://www.secularhumanism.org/library/ fi/downey_24_4.htm 
  • Edgell, P., Gerteis, J., & Hartmann, D. (2006). “Atheists as ‘Other:’ Moral boundaries and cultural membership in American society.” American Sociological Review, 71(2). 211–234 Goffman, E. (1963). Stigma: Notes on the management of spoiled identity. New York, NY; Simon and Schuster. 
  • Harris, S. (2004). The end of faith: Religion, terror and the future of reason. New York, NY; W.W. Norton and Company Limited. 
  • O’Hair, M. (2009). “Atheists neither citizens nor patriots.” Positive Atheism. Retrieved (2009, December 3) from http://www.positiveatheism.org/writ/ghwbush.html
  • Starobin, P. (2009). “The godless rise as a political force.” National Journal. 
  • Stenger, V. J. (2009). The New Atheism: Taking a Stand for Science and Reason. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books

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Damian Bramlett
By Damian Bramlett

Damian Bramlett, MS is a health science specialist in the Dissemination and Training Division at the National Center for PTSD. In 2012, he earned his Master of Science degree at San Jose State University, focusing on Justice studies which he implements in his work, including, qualitative research methodologies, and human rights advocacy–such as, labor rights, feminism, LGBTQ rights, and homelessness issues. Damien is a passionate advocate for Veterans’ rights, especially regarding access to services and benefits. He has also been a volunteer for natural disaster relief efforts both domestically and globally.

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