The “high status” discourse online is a treasure-trove of amusing quips and vapid analyses. If you want to signal your status, avoid Zoom backgrounds. If you’re low status but want to feel high status, join X. As for getting the blue check on X, that could be either a high-status symbol or total cringe. Choose carefully!
There are endless articles written about signaling status. For example, Realmenrealstyle.com highlights 10 male status symbols, which include: purchasing custom clothing, wearing a fancy watch, driving a stylish car, and practicing basic etiquette. A post from Declarewarwithin.com goes further with 39 ways to be high status: Workout to sculpt the perfect body, love yourself, raise testosterone and lower cortisol, have good posture, laugh loudly, “be a master seducer,” etc.
In other words: the discourse around status is a bit of a joke. Nonetheless, it’s a reality that people endlessly seek out status. Also, acquiring status feels good. According to science writer Jay Dixit: “An increase in status or reputation, studies show, triggers the release of dopamine equivalent to receiving a financial windfall. But when you perceive that your status has been lowered, it triggers a stress response that actually diminishes cognitive capacity.”
So, even though it may seem vapid to seek higher status, it could actually be good for your mental health to do so.
Atheism and Status
Atheists have traditionally been pushed to the margins of society. For much of history, if you wanted to signal health, wealth, power, or influence, the last thing you’d want to do is publicly decry the local deity. Even long after the Enlightenment in Europe, Percy Shelley was kicked out of Oxford and lost custody of his children for publishing an atheist pamphlet. Today, atheists can still face the death penalty in at least 13 countries.
But in modern America, the opposite is true. Atheists are everywhere in society—and they’re especially concentrated in elite, highly-educated circles. Atheists (and agnostics) tend to be more highly educated, more economically secure, and even more economically productive. Gone are the days when being an atheist puts you in a class of outcasts. Today, to be an atheist is to signal your associated with Nobel prize-winning scientists, Hollywood actors, Elon Musk—the elite of the elite. Atheism, to the extent it signals an association with the elite, is a sign of high status.
Put another way, particularly for Gen Z, it’s simply not cool to be strongly religious anymore. Let’s face it, Jesus is cringe. As I’ve written previously on this topic, “All else being equal, if Christianity boosted your social cool factor, you wouldn’t see Gen Z being so desperately allergic to it.”
The twist here is that atheism as a status-signifier falls flat in many rural areas of America. In a recent study conducted by psychologist Dena Abbott, two groups of people feared social stigma if they were to publicly reveal their atheism: rural people and women. According to a review of the study, “the social stigma associated with atheism leaves this population vulnerable to isolation and poor mental health outcomes.” As a result, these groups often hide their non-belief.
There’s at least one more group of Americans who fear social consequences for their atheism: politicians. There’s no real data on this, but we can all name a list of politicians who clearly aren’t as religious as they make out to be. The prime example being, of course, Donald Trump, who struggles to name a single verse from the Bible. And yet his grift works, as Republicans see Trump as more of a “person of faith” than Joe Biden or even Mike Pence. The gullibility of voters regarding politicians’ alleged religiosity might explain why members of Congress are (or claim to be) more religious than Americans as a whole.
Western society has come a long way since the time when Percy Shelley was punished for his atheist pamphlet. Unless you live in a rural community or are serving as a Boomer member of Congress, it’s safe to say that being an atheist is a signifier of high status. So go ahead and proclaim it from the hilltops. Just be sure to maintain good posture and laugh loudly while you’re at it. And don’t forget your fancy watch and custom suit.