The answer is: Americans hate atheists just as much as they hate theists. Residents of these grand United States had always disliked prigs of any stripe and are not shy about saying so.
What riles is not a man’s theology or the lack of it, but the way that man non-humorously and forcefully pushes his belief on another. When a zealot, in the manner of an insurance salesman behind on his quota, says you are a fool or a dupe for not thinking as he does, it’s only natural to want to see that man’s tongue stung by fire ants.
Take the academic philosopher Daniel Dennett, a leading proselytizer of atheism—a fellow not entirely unrepresentative of that breed. This tenured gentleman says that a mother teaching her daughter to believe in God is “child abuse.” He doesn’t mean Bible reading is akin to abuse, but it is abuse actually. Now I ask you, if a pollster queried you about your fondness for this man, what would you say?
Gregory Pauland and Phil Zuckerman, both academic sociologists, fret that you might not like Dennett. Even worse, they feel your dislike would violate Dennett’s “rights” in some vague sense. In the Washington Post the pair wonder if American’s “knee-jerk dislike of atheists [is] warranted”.
After all, there’s plenty to love about atheists:
A growing body of social science research reveals that atheists, and non-religious people in general, are far from the unsavory beings many assume them to be. On basic questions of morality and human decency — issues such as governmental use of torture, the death penalty, punitive hitting of children, racism, sexism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, environmental degradation or human rights — the irreligious tend to be more ethical than their religious peers…
An unfortunate injury to which many professors are prone is selective deafness: academics can hear what others are saying but the words which issue forth from their own mouths and pens fail to be registered. This sad malady is the natural consequence of lecturing too many snoozing students and writing too many unread papers. If academics actually listened to themselves, they would go crazy.
This disease has struck our pair with force. Consider their statement that “research reveals” atheists are “more ethical” when it comes to considering the death penalty, gay marriage, “environmental degradation,” and so forth.
If they would have been able to read what they wrote, they would have realized that their statement implies that there is only one indisputably correct answer to each of these questions. They assumed that the (politically) correct positions are so well known to readers that the positions need not be given. Do all atheists concur on the subject of “environmental degradation”?
Atheists are better people:
As individuals, atheists tend to score high on measures of intelligence, especially verbal ability and scientific literacy. They tend to raise their children to solve problems rationally, to make up their own minds when it comes to existential questions and to obey the golden rule. They are more likely to practice safe sex than the strongly religious are, and are less likely to be nationalistic or ethnocentric. They value freedom of thought.
Gosh, what cads theists must be, what rustic rubes! Why would anybody want to be one of these things when they could be an atheist? Atheists are brainy, rational, scientific. The kind of folk that know how to pronounce “existential”, people who are careful while rutting to not spread disease nor their distrustful genes; the kind of intelligent beings that look upon patriotism with the disdain that that outmoded concept deserves.
Most importantly, atheists value freedom of thought. Dennett’s grip of freedom is so strong that he preaches prison for parents who drag their offspring to church.
Why, given their puissant philosophical purity and obvious ethical superiority, aren’t atheists loved and acknowledged as leaders in thought and deed? Pauland and Zuckerman think that it’s because, “Psalm 14 claimed that atheists were foolish and corrupt, incapable of doing any good”, and that this notion stuck.
Further, surveys “find that most Americans refuse or are reluctant to marry or vote for nontheists” and that Americans “intrinsically suspect” atheists. “Negative stereotypes of atheists are alive and well. Yet like all stereotypes, they aren’t true”.
Here, as Bertie Wooster might have said, is where our pair have made their bloomer. For stereotypes are almost always true. It is the explanations about stereotypical behavior that are often false. As Steven Goldberg1 has shown, “Stereotypes reflect a population’s nearly always correct observation that certain groups exhibit certain temperamental or behavioral tendencies that set them apart from the rest of the population.”
Atheists aren’t disliked because of their philosophy. They are disliked because the most vocal of them (like the unknown artist responsible for today’s graphic) aren’t likable.
1Steven Goldberg: When Wish Replaces Thought: Why So Much of What You Believe is False, 1991. Prometheus Books. Buffalo, New York. p. 151.