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Ask Professor Burge 11: Sentiments, Prejudices, and Attitudes Over Time


Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Publication (Outlet/Website): Canadian Atheist

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2021/06/04

Professor Ryan Burge‘s website states: “I am an Assistant Professor of Political Science as well as the Graduate Coordinator at Eastern Illinois University. I teach in a variety of areas, including American institutions, political behavior, and research methods. My research focuses largely on the intersection between religiosity and political behavior (especially in the American context). Previously, I have completed an appointment as a post doctoral research fellow at the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute in Carbondale, Illinois. While there I was an adviser on issues of survey methodology and polling, as well as providing data collection and analysis.

I have published over a dozen articles in a number of well regarded peer reviewed journals including Politics & Religion, the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, the Review of Religious Research, the Journal of Religious Leadership, RepresentationPoliticsGroupsand Identities, the Journal of Communication and Religion, the Journal of Religion, Media and Digital Culture and the Social Science Computer Review. 

In addition, my research has been covered in a variety of media outlets including The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN, NBC, Vox, 538, BuzzFeed News, Al-Jazeera, Christianity Today, Religion News Service, The Daily Mail, Deseret News, World Magazine, Relevant, and C-SPAN. I am the co-founder and frequent contributor to Religion in Public, a forum for scholars of religion and politics to make their work accessible to a more general audience.

Finally, I am a pastor in the American Baptist Church, having served my current church for over thirteen years.”

Here we talk about sentiments and attitudes in the United States over time, and the nature of the ubiquitous hatred of atheists in the United States – a hate that unifies all.

*Interview conducted on August 4, 2020.*

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Now, you did a short clip. If America was 200 people, the biggest category is Protestants at 78 people, 36 Catholics, 11 atheists, 11 agnostics, etc. If we look at some of the other data around forms of bigotry and hate, the three that came to mind when I looked at the data from Canadian statistics, StatsCan. There was a rise in what has been termed Islamophobia or anti-Muslim sentiment, anti-Semitism, as well as anti-Catholic prejudice. Those are the three big ones. What is it? What are the rises and falls of this in America? Which is to say, who is experiencing things better in the recent history of the United States? Which ones are experiencing things worse in terms of just the way those trend lines are going?

Professor Ryan Burge: Yes, so, I think anti-Catholic sentiment especially in America, used to be much higher, 30 or 40 years ago than it is today. And there’s a bunch of reasons for that. There’s a lot of anti-Catholic sentiment in America going back to immigration. Let’s say even one hundred years ago in New York, Jews are not just the ones experiencing prejudice and discrimination. Italians and Irish people came to America, and they were Catholic. And America was largely across the country at the time. So, it was like, “Wait, wait, wait, if you’re going to come to America, you need to assimilate to our religion. And we are Protestant. So, you need to be Protestant.” So the Catholic priest was actually tied up into an immigrant piece where it wasn’t they are necessarily against Catholics. They were anti-other and just all the others were Catholic. Now, I think in a lot of places in America that has sort of waned dramatically, especially post Vatican II.

So here’s what I think happened in America. For a long time, Protestants had an enemy and that was Catholics. They were the outsider. They were the different one. But then in the last 20 or 25 years or so, the ‘other’ becomes Islam; and now, Protestants and Catholics look at each other and go, “Wait, we’re a lot closer than we thought we were. Islam is the enemy.” So, now, it is like, “Okay, we’re on one team now and the ‘other’ now is not Catholics. The other now is Muslims. So, there’s a lot, even like I said, in Vatican II as well, the Catholic Church, basically, said, “The Protestants are not the enemy. We are going to get to heaven, just like Catholics will.” So, there was an acceptance there, both sides that “you’re okay, we’re okay,” but somebody needs to go down. Even though, there are a lot of Protestants who do not like the Pope and are anti-Catholic in theological orientation. Sociologically, they still see Catholics as sort of cousins, distant cousins, that are still a part of our team and the enemy more than is Muslim.

So, we’ve seen a decline in anti-Catholic sentiment, but a rise in anti-Muslim sentiment. But I think that’s actually waning in America over the last couple of years because 9/11 has sort of faded into the background and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have also faded into the background. And I think it is still there, but it doesn’t have that fever pitch that it did – let’s say 10 years ago. We’re still fighting in both places. And 9/11 isn’t very fresh. So, I think it is waning as well. The group Americans don’t like the most actually is atheists, even Democrats. People are amazed by that. But it is Democrats. I have a poll somewhere, where I say, “Why don’t more Americans like atheists?” And honestly, it is: Democrats don’t like atheists either. It is not just like a faith versus no faith thing. It is just not a very palatable need to be an American today.

So, if I looked at the thermometer score, which is a score from zero to one hundred, 100 meaning like very warm, 0 being very cold, 50 meaning not hot or cold. Atheist’s score among Evangelicals below 30. For Catholics, they score 42 for Democratic Catholics and 33 for Republican Catholics. But here’s what’s even more fascinating among the religiously unaffiliated atheist score, a 54 among Democrat’s Nones. A 45 among Republican Nones. So, there’s not even a warm feeling there among Nones towards atheists. So, they are a very disliked groups.

Jacobsen: What is the source or set of sources for this ‘not liking them’?

Burge: Why don’t they like atheists?

Jacobsen: Yes, I mean the general statement there. Why don’t Americans like atheists? Why are they the other?

Burge: Because America is like inherently a Christian country. Okay, so, there’s this thing called civic religion in America. And we’ve got a long history in American social science. If the idea that the flag is sacred, like Arlington Cemetery is a place of reverence, going to the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument and walking around Washington, D.C. is walking in a sacred space, like a mosque, a religious site, then that American national identity is deeply intertwined with American religious identity and that the default in America is: You are a Christian. That’ is to say, every president we’ve had, at least as far back as we can tell, has aligned themselves with American Christianity. And I think that is just how we see ourselves, even like we said even amongst the Nones, they still kind of defer to an idea that Christianity is still the default in America, right or wrong.

So, I think a lot of it is tied up in this idea of civic religion. like we say, “God bless America,” or, “So help me God.” And we swear on Bible. People swear on Bible; even though, they don’t believe the Bible, because it is just a thing that we do. Because we believe in it so much. And atheists just don’t. They reject all that stuff. So, that’s a tough pill to swallow. They might not be devoutly Christian themselves, “But I don’t hate Christianity.”

Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Professor Burge.


In-Sight Publishing by Scott Douglas Jacobsen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Based on a work at


© Scott Douglas Jacobsen and In-Sight Publishing 2012-Present. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Scott Douglas Jacobsen and In-Sight Publishing with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. All interviewees and authors co-copyright their material and may disseminate for their independent purposes.

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