Atheists are one of the least-liked groups in America. How much are they disliked? The average American feels warmer toward Congress than toward atheists. That’s as low as you get in public opinion.

ThermometersLast week’s report by Pew made headlines because it showed how much Americans liked different religious groups. America’s most liked group: Jews. It’s least-liked: Atheists.

For public opinion researchers, little in the Pew survey is news. The results fit the same pattern uncovered over the past half-century of research. Pew, like surveys since 1964, used a “feeling thermometer” to rate religions from zero (cold and completely negative) to 100 (warm and completely positive).

Jews have scored high ever since feeling thermometers were first used in the early 1960s (more on that in my next blog post). Specific Christian groups score as well or a bit below Jews, but the broad category “Christians” rates much higher.

Atheists are a newer addition to surveys. In 2012 the American National Election Study asked about atheists. People disliked atheists – no, they REALLY disliked atheists.

To understand how poorly the public feels toward atheists, you need to understand that while feeling thermometers technically range from zero to one hundred, the average rating doesn’t go nearly that high or that low.

The highest an average feeling thermometer goes is about 80. That’s the score “the military” received in the 2012 ANES.

If the military is the ceiling, Congress is the floor.

In survey after survey, Congress scores low on feeling thermometers. In 2012, Congress received an average score of only 42. Atheists, however, were a good notch lower, with a score of only 38. They also scored lower than “illegal immigrants” and the “federal government in Washington.” To put it bluntly: feelings toward atheists are the new low in public approval.

The 2012 ANES found that generic “Christians” was the most liked group with a score of 73. Jews weren’t included in the 2012 survey, but in 2008 and previous surveys, they scored the same as in the Pew survey (about 63). More specific Christian groups were lower: Catholics (61), Mormons (50), and “Christian Fundamentalists” (49). Pew found that “Evangelical Christians” scored about the same as Catholics.

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