Date of Award

Spring 1-1-2013

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

Leslie Irvine

Second Advisor

Patricia Adler

Third Advisor

Lori Peek

Fourth Advisor

Isaac Reed

Fifth Advisor

Stewart Hoover


This study is a multi-year ethnographic investigation of self-identified atheists in America. The formation of atheist identities, the management of the deviant status of atheism, the collective identity and social movement aspects of atheist organizations, and the meaning of atheism both socially and for its adherents are the substantive and empirical topics analyzed in the following pages. Qualitative methods including in-depth interviews with forty-five self-identified atheists, extensive participant-observation with atheist groups, and textual analysis of a variety of document sources are the means by which this study was carried out. As qualitative research in this area is still in its beginning stages, this study is meant to make both a methodological and theoretical contribution to the study of contemporary American atheists.

Guided primarily by the framework of symbolic interactionism, and taking insights from sociological social psychology and the literatures on identity, the self, deviance, social movements, and the sociology of religion, I describe the key processes at play within the construction of both personal and collective atheist identity. I argue that these identities are accomplished in and through meaningful social interaction. I also analyze how atheists individually and collectively manage the stigma of atheism, as well as illustrate the importance of organizational dynamics for constructing, negotiating, and maintaining meaningful selves in an increasingly complex and globalizing society.