For years, atheists were America’s most disliked religious group. Now, it’s Muslims.

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Nestled within a new study focusing on American attitudes toward atheists and other "cultural outsiders" is an upsetting, albeit-frustratingly unsurprising tidbit: Negative sentiment toward Muslims has grown at an alarming rate over the past decade.

As its title suggests, "Atheists and Other Cultural Outsiders: Moral Boundaries and the Non-Religious in the United States," published recently by the journal Social Forces, focuses primarily on how Americans perceive non-believers of varying ilk. However, as Religion News Service noted, the study also indicates that negative attitudes toward Muslims have increased dramatically over the past decade.

For their paper, University of Minnesota sociologists Penny Edgell, Douglas Hartmann, Evan Stewart and Joseph Gerteis compared data from two previous studies they conducted—one in 2003, and one in 2014. Each study measured American tolerance for different demographic groups. In 2003, esteem for atheists appeared lower than all other groups. Not anymore.


The professors found that agreement with the statement "this group [Muslims] does not at all agree with my vision of American society" leapt from 26.3% in 2003 to 45.5% in 2014.

When asked whether they would disapprove of their child's desire to marry a Muslim, 33.5% of respondents from the 2003 study said "yes." That number jumped to 48.9% in 2014.

Of course, this rise in anti-Muslim sentiment isn't altogether surprising. As the paper's authors themselves point out, "religious minorities perceived as explicitly rejecting dominant, morally important beliefs and practices may face persistent negative sentiment." Put another way, the decade-plus efforts by some politicians and pundits to frame Muslims as evil threats to American society have paid off. In 2015, the Washington Post reported that Islamophobic hate crimes in the United States had increased five-fold since 2001.

The sentiment is corroborated in a Pew Research Center study, also from 2014, in which respondents were asked to rank their attitudes toward different religious groups on a "thermometer." The better the impression, the "warmer" the ranking. Coming in last were Muslims (followed shortly thereafter by atheists) at just 40 on a scale of 1-100.


Which isn't to say this recent paper's results are strictly a function of faith. As co-author Douglas Hartmann told RNS: “Religion becomes a signal and a marker, an easy shorthand for Americans’ moral judgment. But that is not the only thing going on with Muslims. It’s more complicated.”

To that end, RNS reports that Hartman and his colleagues will focus on pinpointing the forces at play in the increased negative sentiment toward Muslims indicated in their paper.

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