The Elephant in the Room: A Qualitative Study of Atheists in the Bible Belt

Document Type


Degree Name

Master of Science (MS)


Sociology and Criminal Justice

Date of Award

Summer 2012


Christianity is embedded in the foundation of America and although affiliation with the religion has been gradually declining throughout the past several decades, the majority of Americans still identify with Christianity or one of its many forms. The numbers of 'those unaffiliated with any particular religion' have seen tremendous growth and make up about 16% of Americans (Pew Forum, 2010, p. 5). Atheists are just one group included in the religiously unaffiliated. Very little research has been done on this group to capture their perspective. The purpose of this study was to explore the lives and social experiences of atheists living in the Bible Belt. I attempted to answer several questions throughout the course of this research. First, I set out to uncover how atheists negotiate their everyday social world while living in a highly religious region of the country. Second, I wanted to learn more about people's reactions to atheists and how they are treated by society. Last, I wanted to know how atheists utilize stigma management techniques to cope with their discredited identity. Methods included in-depth interviews of a snowball sample of atheists at least 18 years old currently living in the Bible Belt. This study adopted a grounded theory approach which allows researchers to begin a study without any theoretical or conceptual framework so as to develop theory and concepts that are grounded in the data as opposed to comparing data obtained to existing theories (Charmaz, 2006). Data analysis included line-by-line, focused, and/or theoretical coding, memoing, and the constant comparative method was employed 'to establish analytic distinctions and thus make comparisons at each level of analytic work (Charmaz, 2006, p. 54). Upon conclusion of this research, I argue that the construction of an atheist identity occurs in six different, non-linear stages: (1) theistic upbringing, (2) questioning theism, (3) ambivalence, (4) rejecting theism, (5) 'coming out,' and (6) negotiating an atheist identity. Further, the three strategies of negotiating included revealing, concealing, and misleading. These stages appear to occur in the form of a 'dynamic dance' that is fluid and ever changing rather than a linear, step-by-step stage model.


Yvonne Villanueva-Russell

Subject Categories

Social and Behavioral Sciences