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Atheists: A Groundbreaking Study of America's Nonbelievers Paperback – June 1, 2006

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

This slender, conversational, but methodologically sound treatise on the inner world of atheists will pleasantly surprise readers accustomed to the soporific "academese" of most sociological studies. Altemeyer and (the late) Hunsberger have conducted some of the first surveys of atheists, a decided minority within a very religious United States. The book is based primarily on surveys of "active" atheists (i.e., members of atheist clubs in the San Francisco Bay Area, Alabama and Idaho), as well as on a comparison group of Canadian parents (who happened to have children in the authors' psychology classes at the University of Manitoba). In previous studies, atheists have been lumped together with "the nonreligious" who might include unaffiliated or "non-church-attending" theists. Here, self-described atheists finally get their day, as perhaps they should since one of the growing religious categories in the General Social Survey of Americans is "None." The study is limited in scope, but the flaws are so forthrightly acknowledged and the writing is so fresh, honest, compelling and entertaining that it is bound to become an important launching point for more studies of what makes atheists tick. (June)
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Review

"Who are the atheists? What sustains them? The authors have opened the door to scientific research in this area in a meticulous and very engaging way. Once you start reading this book you won’t want to put it down! The reader is in for a surprise (an interesting one) and a treat at every turn of a page."
RAYMOND F. PALOUTZIAN
Professor of Psychology, Westmont College, Santa Barbara, CA
Editor, The International Journal for the Psychology of Religion


"This slender, conversational, but methodologically sound treatise on the inner world of atheists will pleasantly surprise readers accustomed to the soporific ‘academese’ of most sociological studies…The study is limited in scope, but the flaws are so forthrightly acknowledged and the writing is so fresh, honest, compelling and entertaining, that it is bound to become an important launching point for more studies of what makes atheists tick."

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 159 pages
  • Publisher: Prometheus Books; First Edition edition (June 1, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1591024137
  • ISBN-13: 978-1591024132
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 0.4 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 0.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (14 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #352,220 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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54 of 58 people found the following review helpful By Mark Waldman on August 9, 2006
Format: Paperback
Hunsberger is one of the few researchers to look deeply into the soul (or should I say mind?) of an atheist, and what his studies show will be both pleasing and disturbing to nonbelievers and believers alike. First, let's make one thing perfectly clear. Surveys show that atheists are the most disliked people who log into the American debates on religion, so much so that it will be hard for any researcher to accurately guage the attidutes of the ordinary American disbeliever. But Hunsberger, who is highly respected for his research on right-wing authoritarianism, comes to some fairly high and complimentary conclusions, and he does this by studying 253 "active" atheists who are affiliated with atheist clubs in the San Francisco area. He compares these politically motivated protectors of our separation-of-church-from-state laws with a small group of 28 atheists belonging to clubs in Alabama and Idaho and to an equally small group of "ordinary" atheists and fundamentalists in Canada.

Of the active atheists, he found with great surprise that they can be as dogmatic and close-minded as the staunchest bible-thumping Protestant. Of course, it isn't surprising that members at opposite ends of any religious, philosophical, scientific, or political belief system would tend to dismiss those who strongly disagree with them (in Andrew Newberg's new book, WHY WE BELIEVE WHAT WE BELIEVE, he does the first brain scan study on an atheist, showing biological evidence that the contemplation upon opposing beliefs causes neurological dissonance in the frontal lobes, where logic and conscious reasoning occur). However, they are far less authoritarian than fundamentalists, and far more likely to encourage a wider variety of religious beliefs throughout the world.
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23 of 25 people found the following review helpful By Ambulocetus on February 6, 2007
Format: Paperback
The authors' conclusions make sense overall and shed an interesting light on a little-studied group of people. However, the prose could use a great deal of trimming and reworking, and gets worse as you proceed through the book. By the end, it becomes very distracting.

A few of the conclusions are also questionable. For example, the authors claim that atheists are more dogmatic than one might expect, but their own evidence shows that atheists are substantially less dogmatic than most other religious groups. Their assertion about the dogmatism of atheists is on dodgy ground, and seems to have more to do with adding drama to the research findings than with those findings themselves.

Aside from these points, a good introductory foray into an important topic of research.
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17 of 18 people found the following review helpful By Daniel A. Williams on January 9, 2007
Format: Paperback
I highly recommend, "Atheists: A Groundbreaking Study of America's Nonbelievers." Though the authors readily admit that the study provides a much less than adequate statistical sample of atheists, still it is a start in trying to understand the attitudes, histories, and concerns of atheists in America. The book does not attempt to either endorse or remonstrate against atheism as a personal perspective which is handled by many others recent authors.

If you are interested in people and how they think and see themselves against what they perceive as a hostel environment full of irrational religious people, this is a good addition to your library.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful By W. Tilghman on March 3, 2008
Format: Paperback
The opinions of the other reviews here will give you a good idea of what this book is about. I'll just add a few remarks/clarifications:

The authors readily acknowledge that their samples are not necessarily representative of all American atheists, and their methods are limited (all involve written surveys). They see this as preliminary work. Fortunately, they provide detailed descriptions of their sample populations, and they reproduce all of the survey questions, so you can see for yourself and draw your own conclusions. The authors' "finding" that in some cases atheists can be more dogmatic than theists provides a good example of why this is important. In my opinion, their operant definition of "atheist dogmatism" and their method of testing for it is questionable, but you can examine the whole thing and decide for yourself.

I was particularly intrigued by a concept discussed late in the book -- an idea not brought up in any of the reviews here. The concept is authoritarianism, discussed here as mode of thinking, an element of social psychology, rather than as an aspect of political systems or of a particular government. In other words, authoritarianism in this sense is not necessarily a particular government's overextension of authority and power at the expense of individual rights, but the degree to which individuals are inclined to accept certain assertions simply because they emanate from some source of authority, whether it be an elected official, an expert or respected leader, the police, the Bible, or whatever. One of the authors has done considerable research on authoritarianism and considers general attitudes about authority to be a more useful explanation for some of their research results than whether the respondents were theist or atheist. And I think the concept might often provide more useful insight into the behavior of our electorate than the more common characterizations of liberal vs. conservative.
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful By G. B. Robinson on May 26, 2008
Format: Paperback
This work focuses not so much on what atheism is or why one should (or shouldn't) be an atheist, which is the concern of practically all other literature on the subject, but on how atheists, as a demographic, think and feel compared to agnostics, religious fundamentalists, inactive believers, and the general public. In many ways, Altemeyer and Hunsberger found, atheists (and agnostics too) really are "different", and almost at a cognitive level--my choice of words, not theirs.

I find that most of the book's results reinforce the feeling I've had for a long time that atheism is more a consequence, rather than a cause, of how one's mind apprehends the world. Particularly noteworthy are the authors' accounts of former devout believers who became atheists. It turns out there is a way to raise your children in a heavily God-and-Jesus-saturated household that will increase their risk of apostasy--and that way isn't what a deeply cynical person might suspect. In other words, parents don't drive their offspring from the faith through abuse or harassment; sadly, such treatment likely keeps them within the flock.

The authors candidly, and repeatedly, admit that they were surprised by their own results. A lifelong atheist, I was at times as well. Are atheists more or less dogmatic than believers? More or less zealous? More or less ethnocentric? I reckon most folks, atheists and believers alike, feel confident they could make qualitative guesses about all of these. Hunsberger and Altemeyer show us data. Some are bound to be disappointed, and others pleasantly surprised--yet it's not always the same team that sees its prejudices vindicated.

Atheists is pretty short (only about 150 pages), is engagingly, informally written, and makes for a brisk read.
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