Atheists are still the most mistrusted group in
the U.S., and a godless politician is still the least likely candidate to win
votes in a presidential election.
But atheist leader Todd Stiefel is celebrating “a
lot of hope” in the fine print of a new Pew Research survey on political
True, 53 percent of Americans said they are least
likely to choose a candidate who doesn’t believe in God, according to a survey
conducted in April. But in 2007, that number was 63 percent.
And those who said a candidate’s lack of
belief didn’t matter to their vote rose, from 32 percent in 2007 to 41
Only two other categories of candidates showed a
sharper shift toward more favorable views: gay or lesbian candidates, and
candidates over age 70.
Stiefel—still dismayed that even pot smokers or
philanderers were viewed more favorably than atheists—predicted on May 20 that
the shift will be even greater as more unbelievers come out of the closet.
Earlier this month he announced the formation of
Openly Secular, a new coalition of several secular, atheist, and interfaith
groups that will launch a campaign in September to combat
discrimination. The main idea is to urge atheists to go public. It will stress
that atheists share American common values and “believe in acceptance, reason,
But Stiefel, a North Carolina millionaire who has
supported several atheist causes, remains troubled by the majority who would
spurn an atheist politician. “That’s a striking number in a country where there
is not supposed to be a religious test for public office,” he said.
A 2006 study by University of Minnesota
sociologist Penny Edgell found atheists were the most mistrusted minority in
the U.S. Edgell said Tuesday that an updated study based on a 2014 online
survey would be released soon. Preliminary results show the mistrust meter
Atheists stay hidden because “we are seen as
immoral, without fear of hell or hope of heaven,” Stiefel said. The “Out”
campaign is modeled on the tactic gay groups used to make people aware that
they already knew, liked, even loved, people who are LGBT.
Alec Tyson, research associate at Pew Research
Center, said the survey did not ask people whether they had close friends or
family who are atheist.
Tyson said the trends that may have had an impact
on the shift include changing U.S. demographics. Since 2007, more young
adults—who are statistically the least religious—have entered the age range of
surveys of U.S. adults, coupled with a downshift in older, more conservative
Other social shifts may also have had an effect.
Recent Pew surveys have shown more people say that churches should stay out of
politics and that there is “too much religious expression” by politicians. “This
is consistent with people finding religion matters less in politics,” said