New research has uncovered a significant connection between the belief in Christian nationalism and negative attitudes toward atheists in the United States. Intriguingly, this connection tends to be weaker among Black Americans who live in states with higher levels of Christian nationalism. The findings, published in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, provide insights into the complex relationship between race and ideology in shaping societal attitudes.
“Despite being one of the fastest-growing groups in the U.S. religious landscape, atheists are still confronted with more negative prejudice than many other religious groups,” said study author Fanhao Nie, an assistant sociology professor at the University of Massachusetts Lowell (UML) who is also an affiliated faculty member at UML’s Center for Asian American Studies.
“This is particularly the case in an era when Christian nationalism, an ideology that integrates Christian identity with American identity, has been building more boundaries and instilling more distrust in an already highly divided society. With these in mind, I have become interested in examining how public opinions toward atheists may change when their social environment becomes more Christian nationalistic.”
“Particularly, given Christian nationalism’s racist connotations, I have been interested in exploring how racial minorities may react when their surrounding social environment becomes increasingly Christian nationalistic. Will they be assimilated into such a social context so that they also hold more negative opinions toward atheists, indistinguishable from Whites in the community? Or will individual agency, such as a growing sense of subcultural identity, insulate racial minorities from Christian nationalism’s influences on attitudes toward atheists?”
For his study, Nie used data from the Baylor Religion Survey conducted in 2017. This survey, managed by Gallup, gathered the beliefs and values of the American public. Address-based sampling was utilized to ensure a diverse representation across different demographics, resulting in 1,501 completed surveys.
To measure attitudes towards atheists, the survey asked participants to respond to statements that reflected opinions on atheists’ moral standing, their impact on personal freedoms, and their perceived threat to physical safety. Similar questions were asked about other religious minorities, such as Jews and Muslims.
The key independent variable, Christian nationalism, was measured through a series of statements about the role of Christianity in U.S. governance and society (e.g., “The federal government should declare the United States as a Christian nation,” “The federal government should advocate Christian values”). Participants’ level of agreement with these statements helped gauge their inclination towards Christian nationalism.
Nie also considered the broader societal context by aggregating these individual beliefs at the state level. This approach allowed an examination of whether living in an area with a prevalent Christian nationalist ideology influenced attitudes toward atheists.
On average, the respondents exhibited a moderate level of prejudice against atheists, much more than against Jews but slightly less than against Muslims. A key revelation was that individuals with strong beliefs in Christian nationalism were more likely to harbor negative views toward atheists.
Interestingly, when broadening the lens to state-level influences, the direct impact of Christian nationalism on anti-atheist attitudes became less clear. This suggests that personal belief in Christian nationalism is a more potent predictor of prejudice against atheists than the general societal milieu.
A striking demographic finding was the racial difference in attitudes. In states with higher levels of Christian nationalism, Black Americans were found to be less prejudiced against atheists compared to their White counterparts. This finding suggests a complex interplay between race, religion, and political ideology in shaping societal attitudes.
“What surprised me is that contextual-level social and religious factors may introduce interesting contingencies to individual-level findings,” Nie told PsyPost. “For example, although at the individual level, Blacks and Black Protestants held more negative views toward atheists, they became relatively more tolerant toward atheists when state-level Christian nationalism increased. In other words, when Christian nationalism, an ideology that endorses white supremacy and marginalizes racial minorities, becomes more dominant in the social environment, Blacks and their main religious denomination may choose to embrace what this ideology opposes — a sign of defiance.”
“The interesting racial disparities in attitudes toward atheists across different state levels of Christian nationalism may also indicate that as their surrounding social environment becomes increasingly Christian nationalistic, Blacks and Black Protestants have developed a stronger sense of embattled subcultural identity. In other words, there is a growing motivation among them to survive and maintain their own subcultural values and identity in an increasingly alienating and oppressive social environment.”
Overall, the findings indicate that “the relationship between Christian nationalism and prejudice against atheists is multilayered and intersects with important individual traits, particularly race,” Nie explained. “When one’s race is marginalized and stigmatized in a Christian nationalism-dominated social context, one may exert agency to oppose Christian nationalism’s stigmatization of other minority groups, in this case, atheists. To some extent, rising Christian nationalism in the social context may have inadvertently made Christian nationalism a common enemy to two marginalized groups, in this case Blacks and atheists, and brought them closer.”
Nie accounted for various demographic and sociodemographic factors, such as age, education, income, race, gender, and political leanings, to ensure that the findings were not influenced by these variables. But the study, like all research, includes limitations.
“The cross-sectional nature of the data may prevent us from drawing causal inferences,” Nie said. “For example, does a stronger belief in Christian nationalism cause one to view atheists more negatively? Or is it possible that a stronger antipathy toward atheists may lead one to become more supportive of Christian nationalism? Future research using longitudinal data may be better able to answer these questions about causal direction.”
“In addition, to what extent will contextual-level Christian nationalism influence one’s attitudes toward atheists? Will geographically more proximal Christian nationalism, such as county-level Christian nationalism, exert any influence? Future research using geographically finer- grained measures of Christian nationalism may present us with a more ecologically informative picture of Christian nationalism.”
“It may be interesting to study Christian nationalism in relation to other racial and ethnic minority groups, particularly Asian Americans, who have been the target of racism and xenophobia since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Nie added. “However, many national data sets with measures of Christian nationalism tend to have a very small sample size of Asian respondents, which may limit their statistical power for the Asian subsample. Future research may overcome this issue by oversampling Asian American respondents.”
The study, “In God We Distrust: Christian Nationalism and Anti-Atheist Attitude“, was published November 6, 2023.