Atheism and Stigma

Siân Eleri Jones discusses the role of stigma, particularly self-stigma, in expressions of nonreligious self-identity. image

 It has long been recognised that historically atheists were stigmatised and ostracised from the socially accepted and seemingly encompassing religionist norm. Although blasphemy laws in the UK were abolished in 2008, ingrained attitudes that are associated with them live on in the minds and actions of some. My purpose here is not to relay a chronology of the struggles atheists have faced, nor is it to advocate for the termination of perceived injustices towards atheists, but to consider the processes through which different forms of stigma arise, in particular the emergence of self-stigma. It is my belief, as an anthropologist, that we must release our grasp on assumed truths and abandon preconceived ideas based on historical generalisations.

My ethnographic field-research involved immersing myself amongst self-identifying religious and nonreligious communities for an extended period of time. Over several months in 2011 I met with three local atheist meeting groups of varying degrees of anti/nonreligiosity. To gain a fuller perspective of atheism I also felt it necessary to better understand religious communities. I, therefore, also attended Quaker Quest meetings and Church of England services in the same locale. These communities echoed the varying degrees of religiosity I’d seen amongst the atheist communities. We must appreciate that even within what we may think of as one community several voices are present.

The results of this research exposed new ways of thinking about and understanding stigma in relation to atheistic identities. What became evident was the complexity of stigmatising behaviours. Stigma is not only imposed upon atheists by religionists but travels reversely from atheists towards religionists. Moreover, the multifariousness of religious and nonreligious communities means that stigmatisation also occurs amongst and between members of those communities. Consequently, incidences of stigmatising behaviour should be viewed less as an imposed injustice upon a minority group and more as a melee of stigma both created by, and creating, social divisions.

The term ‘stigma’ is commonly used to describe socially unfavourable people or characteristics. To be stigmatised is to be discriminated against due to an alleged deviance from a supposed norm (Stuart 2011). Identity is central to stigma (Link & Phelan 2001), and identity is predominantly created through an individual’s affiliation to a certain community. These communities are formed based on symbolic boundaries of essentialised differences (Cohen 1985). Without a sense of opposition—whether real or perceived—it is impossible to achieve a sense of the self (Jenkins 2008). The habitual process of creating and maintaining symbolic boundaries is not, however, submissive; it is imbued with value judgements (Cohen 1985). Each community perceives itself to be the original, and, thus, the norm by which all others are judged. Notions of authenticity lead to hierarchically contested cosmologies and epistemologies (Gilroy 2001) and intangible values and moral judgements result in the negative imaging of the other (Morley & Robins 1996). Stigma can affect all persons across society—regardless of particular community affiliation but between atheists and religionists these contested cosmologies and epistemologies become highly relevant. An example that perfectly demonstrates this battle for authenticity is the commonly employed debate between science and religion—born from the question of a presence or absence of ‘faith’ or ‘belief’ in God/gods. Although atheists refute religious belief as a form of knowledge, due to the presence of faith, the dichotomy of belief and knowledge is a relatively new and western-centric phenomenon (Linquist & Coleman 2008). The preferencing of one knowledge system (science) over the other (religion) has become, what feels to be, a very real sticking point between who is right and who is wrong and is, therefore, often at the centre of heated arguments and incidents of stigmatising.

Thus, it is the inclusion and exclusion of people across boundaries of alleged differences, along with the vulnerability of being judged as inauthentic, which gives rise to the conditions which allow stigma to materialise. Stigma then becomes perpetuated through numerous contributory pathways such as stereotyping, self-imaging, isolation, and reduced opportunities (Quinn et al. 2011). The centrality of stigma to identity makes stigma cyclically complex and perpetually present. Moreover, its presence becomes furtive and imperceptible (Stuart 2011); so much so, those stigmas can persist beyond the presence of the originally stigmatised behaviour (Eidheim 1998). It is, for example, one of the reasons atheists—as a general category of person—are stereotyped as being depraved heathens and agents of earthy malevolence (Goodman & Mueller 2009). Or why religionists are often colloquially generalised as ‘bible bashers’. Neither stereotype accurately represents the majority of atheists or religionists; they are consequently reductive to our understanding of lived realities and relationships.

Unlike stereotyping, which is imposed upon individuals by others, self-stigma is the implicit internalisation of negative imaging of an individual’s self-identity—leading the person to become self-disapproving (West et al. 2011) regardless of actual lived experiences (Herek 2007). Initiated from external pressures, self-stigma subsequently thrives within the individual and prevents them from challenging the structures that reproduce the inequalities of stigma (Link & Phelan 2001). A number of atheist informants demonstrated this self-stigmatising trait; they would recount vignettes of everyday interactions—which were not markedly stigmatic—in terms of being stigmatised. For example, conversations about world-views between atheists and non-atheists were rarely, if ever, described as exchanges of curiosity and intellectual debate; rather, they were seen as antagonistic and confrontational (reflecting a pre-conceived assumption that religious believers would hold a negative opinion of atheist worldviews?). This form of self-stigma, unfortunately, continues to hinder/be an obstacle to constructive discourse surrounding issues of nonreligion and secularism.

Self-stigma can also be expressed through the adoption and magnification of stigmatised characteristics—this strategy can be conscious or unconscious. In an attempt to justify ones identity, it is possible that individuals emulate stereotypical behaviours (Barth 1998). Doing so, individuals use their stigma as a source of empowerment rather than shame. This form of coping-mechanism is often found amongst minority groups who maintain a powerful within-group unity (Shih 2004). It is this kind of self-stigma that I found most associated with the members of the New Atheist movement—evident in the aggressive media presence, heated public debates, and emotive publications; as well as in the outspoken atheists who take great enjoyment in berating all non-atheists as foolish and idiotic. However, such strategies often endorse negative and discriminatory attitudes, propagating the perceived void between atheists and religionists, and further impacting on the freedom of debates around secularism and nonreligion in today’s multifarious society.

It is through understanding stigma, in relation to identity, that we can begin to appreciate the varieties of ways in which atheists and religionists experience and perpetrate stigma towards each other. We must not fall pray to the misconception that atheists and religionists are homogenous groups filled by individuals with exacted shared values. My research exposed the infinite heterogeneity within each community. Individuals are concerned with making and remaking their identities according to a variety of values and beliefs, even sometimes conflicting ones. Understanding self-stigma is one way to illuminate intricate ways in which atheists experience stigmatisation, not necessarily imposed by religionists or other atheists but in response to perceived societal attitudes. My research began to expose the nuanced ways in which stigma is experienced and perpetrated today. Further research, which begins from a position of dispended pre-conceptions, is imperative to further the field of research in issues around atheism, secularity and nonreligion.


Barth, Fredrik (1998). Ethnic Groups and Boundaries: the social organization of cultural difference. In Fredrik Barth Ethnic Groups and Boundaries (2nd ed. pp. 9 – 38). Illinois: Waveland Press Inc.
Cohen, Anthony P. (1985). The Symbolic Construction of Community. London: Routledge.
Eidheim, Harald (1998). When Ethnic Identity is a Social Stigma. In Fredrik Barth Ethnic Groups and Boundaries (2nd edition., pp. 39 – 57). Illinois: Waveland Press Inc.
Gilroy, Paul (2001). Identity, belonging, and the critique of pure sameness. In Between Camps: nations, cultures and the allure of race (pp. 97 – 133). London: Penguin.
Goodman, Kathleen M. & Mueller, John A. (2009). Invisible, Marginalized, and Stigmatized: Understanding and Addressing the Needs of Atheist Students. New Directions for Student Services, Vol. 125, 55 – 63.
Herek, Gregory M. (2007). Defining Stigma and Descrimination. In Anna Alexandrova (ed.) Mobilizing Civil Society’s Responses to Stigma and Discrimination in Central Asia (pp. 13 – 46). USA: Idebate Press.
Jenkins, Richard (2008). Ideologies of Identification. Rethinking Ethnicity (pp. 77 – 89). London: Sage Publishing.
Link, Bruce G. & Phelan Jo C. (2001). Conceptualizing Stigma. Annual Review of Sociology, Vol. 27, 363 – 85.
Linquist, Galina & Coleman, Simon (2008). Introduction: Against Belief?. Social Analysis, 52(1), 1 – 18.
Morley, David & Robins, Kevin (1996). No place like Heimat: images of home land in European culture. In Geoff Eley & Rondald Grigor Suny Becoming National: a reader (pp. 456 – 478). New York: Oxford University Press.
Quinn, Neil; Smith, Michael; Fleming, Susan; Shulman, Amanda & Knifton, Lee (2011). Self and Others: the Differential Impact of an Anti-stigma Programme. Stigma Research and Action, 1(1), 36 – 43.
Shih, Margaret (2004). Positive Stigma: Examining Resilience and Empowerment in Overcoming Stigma. The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol. 591, 175 – 185.
Stuart, Heather (2011). The Need for Stigma Research and Action. Stigma Research and Action, 1(1), 1 – 2.
West, Michelle L.; Yanos, Philip T.; Smith, Stephen M.; Roe, David & Lysaker, Paul H. (2011). Prevalence of Internalized Stigma among Persons with Severe Mental Illness. Stigma Research and Action, 1(1), 54 – 59.

Siân Jones is a UCL anthropology graduate. She views her discipline as a powerful lens through which we can better appreciate the intricacies of the human experience. Adopting reflexivity into her everyday practice, Siân continually seeks to replace assumptions and generalisations with deeper understanding and, thus, respect for the world’s rich diversity. It is for this reason that Siân’s professional interests remain broad; she currently explores the religious and non-religious spheres as well as the arenas of health, education, community, and youth development.



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One Response to Atheism and Stigma

  1. intactidrone says:

    This is a really interesting article. As an (out of the closet) atheist myself I have experienced a lot of different reactions to publicly stating that I’m an atheist. The ones which I found most upsetting were informing teachers and nursery teachers that I would rather my children were not encouraged to pray, write letters to god or be told things which were not proven to be true. The teachers looked at me and after a brief discussion I was told not to bring ‘MY’ dogma to school.

    One thing which I find most infuriating, in relation to the bit where you mentioned atheists being described as heathens etc. is that sometimes religious people when in a debate don’t ask me (even out of curiosity) where I get my morals from but, rather insinuate that I don’t have any. For example; ‘Do you teach your children not to lie?’. I have never once been asked about what I do believe and why I believe it. Maybe atheists need to start taking positively about how they live their lives e.g. ‘I don’t purposefully do anything to hurt myself or other people.’ The Golden Rule ‘I have respect for all Earths creatures and treat them all equally.’ ‘I am a good person, because it makes me and others feel happy.’ Finally, I will teach my children not to lie because it will have a detrimental effect on their life, nobody will trust what they say or take them seriously.’

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