Now that one in five Americans chooses not to affiliate with a religion, media outlets in both the sacred and secular worlds have taken a new interest in atheists—a small, yet dynamic subset of the growing religious “nones.” In a recent interview with UNT sociologist George Yancey about his new book with David A. Williamson, There is No God: Atheists in America, The Christian Post hits upon a key point: these identities are not static, but are actively shaped by social relationships.
CP: Atheism changes over time and is a reaction to the dominant religious beliefs of the time. Today’s atheism is, in part, a reaction to the political activism of conservative Christians, or the “Christian Right.”
Yancey: They don’t proselytize in the way that Christians tend to proselytize. Atheists tend to believe that people are religious because they are socialized to be that way.
The article also illustrates how media “makes” atheist identities while discussing them.
CP: You find that atheists are mostly highly educated, wealthy, old, white, men, and that was consistent with some random samples as well.
Yancey: …they tend to be men, educated, older. Although, there is some indication of some younger atheists coming up.
CP: So demographically, they look, more or less, like the U.S. Senate.
Yancey: [Laughs] I hadn’t thought about it that way, but, yeah, that’s a good way of looking at it.
CP: You’re basically talking about a privileged group—wealthy, old, white guys. You say it makes sense that atheists would come from a privileged group. Explain.
While atheists are more likely to be educated white males, they don’t really look like the U.S. Senate at all. In fact, open atheism may actually be a barrier to political participation. Currently, there is only one religiously-unaffiliated Congressional Representative. According to research from the 2003 American Mosaic Project, about 40% of Americans say that atheists “do not at all agree with my vision of society,” a higher level than the levels of distrust for any other racial, religious, or sexual minority group in the study. And a 2011 Pew Center for People and the Press report found that 61% of voting Americans were “less likely” to vote for a hypothetical presidential candidate who did not believe in God. Social interactions clearly shape atheists’ identities, but it’s also interesting to see how they shape others’ perceptions of atheist identities as well.