Atheism/Atheïsm in the states
I am currently writing a blog about atheïsm in the Netherlands. I'm trying to figure out/research why atheïsm (or agnosticism) is such a taboo in the US. The Netherlands is also a christian country, yet we are now experiencing a boom of atheists/agnostics, without any real backlash from religious groups. Why does the US seem to find atheïsm so scary?
You are quite correct of your assessment of the perceptions of atheism in the U.S.
According to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center, we now know which groups have earned the most vitriol in the good ol' US of A.. Atheists and Muslims actually appear to be in a statistical tie. While atheism itself is not a religion (it has no consistent belief system or rituals or sacred texts) it is often included in religious polls to help account for those who reject religion, instead of just non-affiliated believers. My own take, and it's just me, is that such surveys usually succumb to a dog whistle type of approach that arouses the supercilious sanctimony of most of the American faithful who thereby invoke their fantasized moral superiority. THIS I believe to be the primary reason for the difference with the Netherlands. Too many in this country allow their beliefs to cloud their reason and they end up with indefensible sanctimony.
But let's not get too far ahead of ourselves.
Given the absurdly high level of xenophobia in the United States toward Muslims since 9/11,largely fueled by the Fox-heads, Murdochites and other Right wing media, it is not surprising, but it's still depressing to find these two groups - containing many upstanding citizens - to be ranked so unfavorably. Worse, atheists are shuffled to the bottom and universally disliked by just about every religious group there is. WHY?
Why are ‘Muricans so damned scared of us? Well, I suspect for the same reason they’re terrified of Edward Snowden (61% see him more as ‘traitor’ than patriot) and also because they lack the courage to live their lives as authentic, critically thinking individuals – not merely consumers. To be sure, a limited education also plays a role in this.
So, they amble through the day scared of their own shadows and anything that smacks of being a threat in their little consumer toy world. They are also the toddlers who most want the NSA to change their diapers for them, and keep them "safe" - probably lest those nasty Muslims and atheists come after them.
But that's just my jaundiced view and it could be wrong, or an over-generalization. Anyway, let's get to the finer details.
Among those polled, atheists received a rating of 33 or lower (on a scale between 0-100) from 40 percent of respondents and only 20 percent of respondents gave atheists a rating higher than 67. (I warrant that this 20 percent are actually among the upper quintile of I.Q. in the country, that is, roughly 120 on the Wechsler scale. Hence, the vast majority dissing atheists are uniformly DENSAN.)
Interestingly, while many tend to conflate the U.S. with its evangelical Christian base, Jews and Catholics ranked the highest on the list. Noted Hemant Mehta on the 'Friendly Atheist' blog:
“[…] When you removed Evangelicals from the survey, their own approval rating dropped from 61 to 52, suggesting that Evangelicals think much more highly of themselves than the rest of us do.”
What makes that so interesting is no other group in the poll displays that kind of drop if you remove it from the list. Meaning they may have less political leverage than even they believe. But again, this isn't terribly surprising. As the old cliché goes: "The squeaky wheel always gets the attention" and the evangelicals have received top political attention for so long precisely because they keep so much noise. Jews and Catholics would more likely be favored because together they comprise more of the populace, and are also much less obnoxious than evangelicals.
But dishearteningly, the data also shows that no religious group likes atheists very much, and also atheists and evangelicals both seem to be the archenemies of the US religious spectrum, ranking each other under 30 on the scale. I believe in the case of the fundies it's probably because they're so obnoxious with their 'Elmer Gantry' style mode of proselytizing. In the case of the atheist, I believe most critics are simply terrified of us - well, because people by nature fear what they don't understand and most haven't a clue what an atheist really is. (Many imagining the depiction in the graphic)
When it comes to the political demographic, Republicans really hate atheists, which they ranked at 34. The only group Republicans hate more are Muslims, which they ranked one point lower at 33. This is not surprising, really, because we all know members of this political party are amongst the most intellectually bankrupt, infantile, anti-scientific, and xenophobic there is in the USA while atheists are among the most scientific, intelligent and independent thinking. Hence, a mutual hatred would be expected!
Naturally also, among Republicans the stock of evangelicals soared, to a ranking 71, a full 4 points over the second spot held by Jews. This also is not surprising since an anti-scientific, regressive and knuckle-dragger party would naturally be enamored of a religious group that they believe most reflects its anti-scientific values. (Recall evangelicals are also dependent on Jews to fulfill their end time fantasies, e.g. the 'battle of Armageddon' etc.)
Democrats were slightly more favorable to atheists, but not by much. They ranked them 46, pushing Mormons under at 44, but were slightly more trusting of Muslims at 47. This also is not too surprising given most Dems today are nominal and basically unthinking toadies of the Neoliberal corporate state. Since consumption and making money are what’s most important to them, they would not trust a group that appears so “anti-American”, i.e. as to refuse belief in a deity.
Why is hatred for atheists so universal in the US of A? This is far from the first poll to suggest that atheists are the most hated religious group (or non-religious group) in the US. For reference, a 2011 poll found that US citizens trusted atheists on par with rapists. With this kind of fervent hatred and distrust, what does the future hold for a group so hated in their own country? Not much – and I would advise any atheist who wants to run for office to latch onto a Potemkin religion – just for show – first. The large native nitwit populace certainly won’t cast votes for you otherwise, even if you’re running for the school board!
Earlier, in March of 2006, a University of Minnesota study by Penny Edgell, Associate Professor of Sociology, and co-authors, Doug Hartmann and Joseph Gerteis disclosed that atheists occupied the bottom rung of social respect for minorities in American society. At that time, we were regarded as contemptuously as communists were in the 50s, and rated in social worth below Muslims, immigrants and homosexuals.
The 2006 study noted that a significant number of respondents associated atheism with an array of moral misbehavior, including criminality and materialist emphasis. In addition, the findings “seemed to rest on a view of atheists as self-interested individuals who are not concerned with the common good.”
This take is nothing short of astounding given that as a nation and people, Americans are notorious for giving short shrift to the “common good” as evidenced by consistently voting for no-tax, low tax or tax cutting candidates. This despite the fact they know the outcome will starve government of the resources needed to advance the needs of the vulnerable, such as the 17 million kids currently on food stamps - and deprived of enough food because of last December's cuts to food stamps. Seems to me then that these Americans are projecting their own self-interest, miserliness and disrespect for the common good on atheists! We know that this psychological projection is a common device when people feel inferior to, or bested by another group. So they project their own defects onto the hated, perceived superior group.
The truer fact is that Americans (especially of the Republican party, are hardest on atheists) may not like to confront, is that the U.S. has been committed to a rugged individualism since the country’s founding. The historic confluence of free market capitalism (exalting such individualism) and evangelical Christianity probably occurred in the U.S. ca. 1885 with the publication of the Rev. Josiah Strong's book Our Country, Its Possible Future and Its Present Crisis, 
As author Richard Hofstadter notes, the acceptance of Social Darwinism in the U.S. coincided with the visit of Herbert Spencer in 1882, for a speaking tour. Spencer, for those unaware, was a British philosopher who sought to extend the principles of natural selection in Darwinian Evolution, to society as a whole. As Hofstadter also points out, Spencer absolutely repudiated all state assistance to the poor, needy, physically feeble, or infirm. In terms of the role of natural selection in “social evolution” such aid amounted to unwanted artificial interference in nature. Not to mention, meddling in the “natural development” of a superior society.
We know the Rightist-corporate elite (including many of the ‘robber barons’) latched on to this as a kind of dogma, and then performed another “miracle” of sorts, by blending this hyper-individualism with Christian virtue (proto-Calvinism and its work ethic), and a strict, constructionist view of The Constitution. That Americans forget this basis for rejecting the common good in the national zeitgeist, while blaming atheists for it, is nothing short of amazing in terms of hypocritical acrobatics. Or it perhaps discloses a tragic absence of historical knowledge or perspective. (Or psychological projection as I already noted.)
In general, the respondents believed they “shared a basic sense of moral right and wrong” with everyone but atheist fellow citizens. Difficult to comprehend when the bulk of those actually in prison for major felonies are members of one religion or the other! And this study emerged after more than 30 years, during which Americans have been led to believe by their media that the seeds of social tolerance had finally sprouted.
That these "Americans", who pride themselves as being inheritors of the principles of liberty from John Stuart Mill, Franklin, Jefferson and others, could descend to such an abominable level of prejudice was appalling in itself. That it could still manifest in the 21st century is even more outrageous.
Of course, author Morris Berman has noted another, more depressing alternative: that graciousness, tolerance and humanity may no longer be possible in a nation (in the words of Nicholas von Hoffman) "rife with a collection of asses, dolts and blockheads.” A people that choose to live in a self-fabricated consumer and media fantasyland, or a bubble cut off from all reality. The question is why any sane, rational and well-informed atheist should take a cue from such a forlorn lot or allow their prejudices to dictate future behavior.
The only response of a rational atheist is to laugh these demented yokels off and make common cause with the Europeans who at least have grown up enough (most of them) to doff the religious nappies..
Anyway, I hope I have provided some insight.
 University of Minnesota News, March 31, 2006, “Atheists Identified as America’s Most Distrusted Minority, According to new U of M Study.”
 See, e.g. ‘The Vogue of Spencer’, Chapter 2, in Richard Hofstadter: Social Darwinism in American Thought, American Historical Association, 1955.
 Op. cit., pp. 41- 42.
 Morris Berman: Dark Ages America: The Final Phase of Empire, W.W. Norton & Co.. page 282. Berman cites a number of authors, including Hoffman, who agree most Americans live in a bubble divorced from reality and take their truth directly from an untrustworthy government or corporate media allied with them, rather than finding it out by their own research and independent thinking.