Us & Them: Atheists

Nov 16, 2015

Throughout our nation’s history, it’s not uncommon for presidential candidates to reference the Bible to demonstrate their religious and specifically, Christian credentials.  Democrats and Republicans both do this, from John F. Kennedy defending against critics of his Catholic faith to fundamentalist Christian GOP presidential candidate Ted Cruz, who said that a person who “doesn’t begin his days on his knees” isn’t fit to be president.

But would Americans ever support an atheist for president? A 2012 Gallup poll says a non-believer wouldn’t stand a chance. A 2011 study from the University of British Columbia suggests that Americans trust atheists about as much as rapists.

For this show, I spoke with Cory Cook, a professor at the University of Washington Tacoma. Cook studies how stereotypes are transmitted and their effect on how people feel about and perceive others. He has conducted further studies about how and why the term “atheist” conjures such negative stigmas and connotations.

While there is an 8% decline in the number of Americans who are certain of God’s existence, the number of individuals who identify as atheist has only increased slightly. Why is this?  Cook’s study suggests that there are some real social consequences to be associated as an atheist.  So much so, that he’s reluctant to admit his non-belief in God.

Some go so far as to suggest atheists are missing some piece of a puzzle. Yet, when distinguishing between right and wrong, the most dominant method used by the majority of Americans, atheist or not, is common sense. Is there a bridge to this divide?

Us & Them is a joint project of West Virginia Public Broadcasting and Trey Kay Productions, with support from the West Virginia Humanities Council.

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