We believe that in answering our questions about atheists, our survey respondents were not, on the whole, referring to actual atheists they had encountered, but were responding to “the atheist” as a boundary-marking cultural category. Unlike members of some other marginalized groups, atheists can “pass”: people are unlikely to ask about a person’s religious beliefs in most circumstances, and even outward behavioral signs of religiosity (like going to church) do not correlate perfectly with belief in God.
…If we are correct, then the boundary between the religious and the nonreligious is not about religious affiliation per se. It is about the historic place of religion in American civic culture and the understanding that religion provides the “habits of the heart” that form the basis of the good society (Bellah et al. 1991, 1985; Tocqueville  2000). It is about an understanding that Americans share something more than rules and procedures, but rather that our understandings of right and wrong and good citizenship are also shared (Hartmann and Gerteis 2005). To be an atheist in such an environment is not to be one more religious minority among many in a strongly pluralist society. Rather, Americans construct the atheist as the symbolic representation of one who rejects the basis for moral solidarity and cultural membership in American society altogether.
…The work on symbolic boundaries and moral order suggests, however, that the creation of the other is always necessary for the creation of identity and solidarity. Our analysis shows that attitudes about atheists have not followed the same historical pattern as that for previously marginalized religious groups. It is possible that the increasing tolerance for religious diversity may have heightened awareness of religion itself as a basis for solidarity in American life and sharpened the boundary between believers and nonbelievers in our collective imagination.
And I’m bearded, too. Foolish believers, you don’t even notice me as I walk among you. And while you sleep, I destroy your world.