Why a bigger stigma on atheism in the US as compared to the rest of the Western nations?

That atheists in the US sense a more extreme degree of stigma as compared many other regions of the world is a fact I can support with my data:


As is the case in any research, the "what" question is much more easy to answer than the "why" question. My goal in this post is to think through some possible explanations for the wide disparity between the US and other "Western" regions of the world, particularly Europe.

So far in my reading and thinking there are at least two major explanations regarding why religion is more dominant in the US than in Europe (and hence atheism is much more stigmatized).

First is the impact on the Cold War on the US. I submit the proposition that absent the Cold War and how it manifested itself in the American culture (McCarthyism and the other extreme reactions) the US would be far less religious than it is now. As a footnote to this period of US history, one contribution to the negative views of atheism might be the personal style of the most public atheist of the late 50's and 60's, Life magazines "most hated woman in America", Madalyn Murray O'Hair. The Cold War pitted the US against the “godless communists” and hence put on steroids the fairly mild levels of stigmatization of atheists and turned being a non-believer into something inherently anti-American and evil.

It seems obvious to say that the addition of "In God We Trust" to our paper currency was an artifact of the Cold War. A deeper look, though, reveals that we have had those words on our coins since 1864, with these additional words being added to paper money in 1957. Absent the Cold War would this have been done? Perhaps not.

A second major factor is, paradoxically, our constitutional separation between church and state. One arguments is that in Europe there are “lazy denominations”, that is, religion has been historically tied in with the state (the UK is a classic example) and hence have not had to work as hard for support; monopolies tend to get complacent. In the open marketplace of the United States, religions have had to fiercely compete for adherents and hence have after the hearts and minds of the public rather aggressively, yielding fuller pews and collection plates as compared to our European counterparts.

The above does not completely explain why atheism is more stigmatized in the US as compared to the rest of the Western nations, but I am convinced that this is a topic worth further study.

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Comment by Martin Allen on October 26, 2009 at 12:03pm
Don't forget that in many countries in western Europe, a church tax of up to around 2% of income is payable. The only way to avoid paying the tax in Austria was to formally apply to leave the church - that's quite a financial incentive. Perhaps abandoning the church for financial reasons contributes to the lack of stigma felt by those who have left.
Comment by René Hjortborg Bjørnskov on September 8, 2009 at 4:39pm
In Denmark one on the reasons could be that we have never truly been a Christian nation, our roots are in paganism, and Christianity was forced on people in the past.

On a broader European scale the philosophical impacts of the enlightenment hit harder here, Kant, Nietzsche, and Marx, along with the Russian and French revolution all posed a challenge to institutionalized Christianity.

In the US one difference is the impact of pietism in the US, people went from Europe to the US to escape an increasingly secular European order. Another difference ius that the US did not have the historical background of European nation states, so Christianity was one of the thing that could bind Americans together as a people, this puts Atheists in an in-fortunate position as "less American".

A somewhat funny point is that the challenge from mainly Muslim immigration is that more Europeans are becoming Christians and more are becoming non-theists , while fewer are undecided or ignorant. In other words the theologically lazy Europeans are becoming more American.
Comment by Bitsy Haywood on September 8, 2009 at 6:51am
Don't forget that Americans have a superstitious belief that our nation is "blessed" by god. If we worship god and keep his ways and so on and so on, then we will be protected by him and our ways will be clear. The recent catastrophe that nearly wiped out New Orleans and the twin towers in New York being destroyed both brought out comments about how it had been due to the "sinfulness" of the city residents in New Orleans and the citizens in America. In other words, it was either countenanced by god or directly caused by him. Athiests are a threat to our blessings and safety, in their superstitions way of thinking. And for years it was the "godless commies" that were our most terrifying enemy, because they also had "the bomb". That's why people have such a visceral reaction to athiests and even sometimes strike out against athiests.
Comment by tom arcaro on September 7, 2009 at 2:35pm
Very good insight. I have wrestled with the concept of the "American Dream" for years, and you've put your finger on one main component.

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