Date of Award


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy



First Advisor

Jesse M. Smith, Ph.D.

Second Advisor

David Hartmann, Ph.D.

Third Advisor

Elena Gapova, Ph.D.

Fourth Advisor

Luke W. Galen, Ph.D.


This dissertation examines the ways atheist organizations construct morality and valorize atheist identities. Focusing on a discursive resources approach, wherein “atheist” is a social category whose meaning is contested, this analysis examines how representations of “atheists” are sedimented by the ways individuals and organizations communicate about atheism, religion, morality, secularism, and other relevant concepts which constitute this identity.

Examining the websites of two prominent atheist organization, Qualitative Content Analysis is used to identify the strategies used to legitimate atheist identities, discredit religion, and construct a coherent atheist morality. I describe the way atheist organizations engage in boundary work to challenge common conceptions of atheism and religion, using moral contrasts, appeals to science, and human rights framings. I argue for the utility of a discourse-centric approach in the social scientific study of religion and nonreligion. This study demonstrates how to analyze in parallel the interrelated concepts of symbolic boundaries, collective identities, and legitimizing discourses, to produce a coherent sociological account of the identity formation processes for stigmatized and marginalized communities.

Access Setting

Dissertation-Open Access