When people feel ostracized, they often respond by identifying even more strongly with the aspect of their lives that has provoked their rejection. Think of the black power crusade of the 1960s, or the gay pride movement of recent decades.
Newly published research finds this dynamic this also applies to another much-maligned minority: atheists.
“Like people who belong to other marginalized groups, perceptions of discrimination predict poor psychological and physical well-being among atheists,” write psychologist Michael Doane and sociologist Marta Elliott of the University of Nevada-Reno. “One way that atheists may cope with such discrimination is by further believing that being an atheist is important and central to their identity.”
Belief can certainly give one strength to persevere; so, it seems, can unbelief.
Writing in the journal Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, they describe a study featuring 960 self-identified atheists. They responded to a long list of statements designed to measure their experience with personal discrimination, group discrimination, and their personal identification with atheism, along with their self-esteem, physical health, and satisfaction with life.
Sample statements include “I have felt isolated because I am an atheist,” “Religious people have more opportunities than atheists do,” and “Being an atheist is an important part of who I am.” Participants rated each on a five-point scale, from “strongly disagree” to “strongly agree.”
“Participants who tended to experience discrimination, and perceive atheists as a derogated group, reported lower psychological and physical well-being,” the researchers report. Those people also, on average, identified more strongly as atheists.
What's more, "atheist identification was a positive predictor of both psychological and physical well-being," they add. This suggests that identifying strongly as an atheist "appears to be helpful in reducing, but not eliminating, discrimination’s ill effects" on one's mental and physical health.
This may help explain why atheists, who make up 2.4 percent of the American population according to a 2012 Pew Research Center survey, have become more outspoken in recent years. There is strong evidence non-believers are widely disliked and distrusted; this research suggests that many, in response, make atheism a key part of their personal identity.
“In the face of social rejection," Doane and Elliott conclude, "atheists may be resilient by drawing benefits from their identification as an atheist.” Belief can certainly give one strength to persevere; so, it seems, can unbelief.