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Originally published Saturday, June 21, 2014 at 3:04 PM

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Poll finds Americans’ growing tolerance stops at atheists

In culture and politics, atheism may be the last taboo.


Seattle Times staff columnist

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Interesting column, but my own experiences run counter to the poll. I've never made a secret of my own atheism, but I... MORE
@Lee Mellon Glad you kept "your" beliefs, to "yourself". MORE
@defranks1 I agree very much with your sentiment. However, my observations are that most non-believers who belittle... MORE

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For all the pitched cultural battles recently on issues like gay marriage, affirmative action and immigration, the general trend, happily, is that America is becoming an increasingly tolerant place.

In fact, there’s apparently only one type of person left that you just can’t bring home to mother.

Me.

People like me, anyway: doubters who don’t believe in God.

Earlier this month the Pew Research Center released its largest study ever of our political and cultural attitudes — a survey of 10,013 adults done in the first three months of this year. The headlines were all about how liberals and conservatives are retreating into polarized foxholes, suspicious of the other — a finding that couldn’t have surprised anyone.

But the survey also asked people about their personal lives. And one finding leapt out to me as remarkable.

The questions went like this: “How would you react if a family member were to marry a ... (fill in the blank.)” For example, how would you feel if your daughter brought home, say, a Republican — would you be happy, unhappy or doesn’t it matter?

The overwhelming response to this question was: doesn’t matter. Even liberals say they don’t tend to care if a daughter marries a Republican. The same was true for conservatives — they were mostly fine with their daughters marrying a Democrat.

The great news is we are incredibly tolerant of all sorts of others, according to this survey. By overwhelming majorities, people said they were fine accepting into their families people of other races (89 percent said this was OK) and from other countries (93 percent). Pew asked if we’d be OK with a gun owner (81 percent said yes), or someone who didn’t go to college (86 percent were fine with that).

Ninety-one percent were OK if a family member married a born-again Christian.

The one exception to this tide of tolerance: You have to believe in God.

Half of all respondents said they didn’t want an in-law who doesn’t believe in God. That means Americans now are far less accepting of atheists than of people with different skin color.

When I first heard about this, I figured the poll had used the term “atheist,” which had skewed the numbers. Right or wrong, that word conjures up more than a doubter or shrugger. It has an aggressive tinge to it — an implication that you’re hostile to religion.

But Pew didn’t use the word atheist. It asked: “How would you react if an immediate family member were to marry someone who doesn’t believe in God?” Answer: Not well.

Recently a group called Seattle Atheists has been running campaigns designed to soften the image of the godless. To come out of the religious closet, so to speak.

“Whether you realize it or not, you know plenty of atheists,” says the website 1in4wa.org, created by Seattle Atheists. “We help build your bridges, deliver your mail, and heal you when you’re sick. We’d like to be open about who we are.”

I thought this was silly when they first put it up. For one, I seriously doubt one in four Washingtonians are atheists. But also, nonbelief seems like an odd thing to mount a campaign about. My own lack of belief, for instance, stems more from disinterest than any passionate critique of any faith or organized religion.

But maybe they’re on to something. Gay marriage eventually won because gays and lesbians came out and got visible. Once you know a family headed by two moms or dads, it becomes almost impossible not to accept them completely.

Can atheism be the new gay marriage? Right now there’s not a single open atheist in the U.S. Congress. Based on the Pew study results, I bet we’ll get an out gay president before an out atheist one.

Danny Westneat’s column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or dwestneat@seattletimes.com



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About Danny Westneat

Danny Westneat takes an opinionated look at the Puget Sound region's news, people and politics. Send tips or comments to dwestneat@seattletimes.com. His column runs Wednesday and Sunday.
dwestneat@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2086

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