New research published in Group Processes & Intergroup Relations provides insight into what motivates some nonreligious individuals to conceal their lack of belief. The findings suggest that awareness of anti-atheist stigma is an important predictor of public identification as an atheist.
“This work is based on my Master’s thesis. I had noticed throughout the initial research process that there was a growing number of articles about how people felt toward the nonreligious in America, but not that many articles talked about how the nonreligious felt about being disliked by a majority of Americans,” said study author Cameron Mackey, doctoral student at Ohio University.
“I then turned to my own personal experience knowing nonreligious people in the Deep South and how almost all of them concealed their identity in one way or another.”
An initial survey of 1,249 non-religious American adults found that individuals living in the South felt more stigmatized about their lack of belief, were more likely to report concealing their nonreligious identity, and were less likely to publicly identify as atheists compared to those living in other parts of the United States. The researchers also found that feeling stigmatized about being nonreligious predicted a lower likelihood of self-identifying as “atheist” in public than in private.
“Atheists concealed their identity and adopted either another nonreligious identity (e.g., agnostic) or even a religious identity in public,” the authors of the study said.
In a follow-up experiment, 152 atheists were randomly assigned to read either an article about how atheists are stereotyped as untrustworthy, an article about atheists becoming increasingly prevalent in the United States, or a control article irrelevant to atheist identity about a newly discovered exoplanet.
The researchers found that those who read about anti-atheists stereotypes were more likely to agree with statements such as “I have told a few people about my lack of religious beliefs, but I don’t feel comfortable telling any more than I already have” and “Being an open nonbeliever would make it hard for me to be accepted at social events.”
The findings suggest that social identity threat plays an important role whether nonreligious individuals conceal their identity to others.
“The average person should be aware that they may be contributing to the concealment of nonreligious identity and atheist identity in particular. Even among nonreligious individuals who will come out and say that they aren’t religious, many will call themselves ‘agnostics’ or ‘nothing in particular’ to present themselves as less offensive. By becoming more open-minded toward the label ‘atheist’ and those who call themselves atheists, the average person can help reduce atheists’ feelings of threat to their identity,” Mackey told PsyPost.
The findings are in line with previous research, which has found that people who feel targeted because of their religious identity are more likely to feel socially isolated, be less comfortable sharing their religion, and to be more likely to hold prejudiced attitudes towards others.
But the new study — like all research — includes some caveats.
“One major caveat in this research is that it focuses on the American context. Thus, the results found in this set of studies may not apply to atheists in some cultural contexts where being nonreligious is more normative (e.g., the United Kingdom),” Mackey explained.
“Even within the United States, you will find substantial variation in atheists’ experiences, as we did in our research (e.g., atheists in the South were more aware of negative stereotypes about their group and hence concealed more than atheists in other regions). That is, not every atheist in America will feel threatened based on their nonreligious identity.”
“As for future directions for this line of research, it would be important to examine the intersection between nonreligious identity and other marginalized identities. In particular, little work has been done on the experiences of racial/ethnic minorities who are also nonreligious. It would also be intriguing to examine nonreligious identity among LGBTQ individuals, who belong to two potentially concealable groups,” Mackey said.
“If anyone is interested in collaborating on future research or is simply interested in learning more about any of my current research, you can contact me at my email at [email protected]”
The study, “Concealment of nonreligious identity: Exploring social identity threat among atheists and other nonreligious individuals“, was authored by Cameron D. Mackey, Christopher F. Silver, Kimberly Rios, Colleen M. Cowgill, and Ralph W. Hood, Jr.