A common story told by my sixth-form mates during the time of National Service was about the unbeliever being inducted into the army by a sergeant major who asked him to specify his religion. "Agnostic," murmurs the new recruit. "Ag-fucking-what?" roars the sergeant major. "Ag-nost-ic," repeats the recruit. "Come again." "Atheist." "Come again" "C of E". "That's fucking better."

Although the joke was supposed to be on the illiterate sergeant major I always felt rather sorry for him. He wasn't there to capture the precise religious sentiments of those who stood to attention in front of him: he was merely ticking boxes and there weren't any nice neat boxes for agnostics or atheists. But he might also have suspected that the recruit was trying to be a little bit too clever. The other conscripts who'd told him they were Jewish or Catholic or Muslim were only naming their beliefs. But even today in quite conventional civilian circles anyone who publicly declares their affiliation with atheism seems to suggest that they're itching to start an argument. They're pushing their luck.

That's why, in the interests of social harmony, I've developed a less self-serving way to give expression to my own disbelief. I wave my hands around airily and declare that, in my view, all religion is "a load of bollocks" or "a pile of nonsense". Years of experience have taught me that religionists of all persuasion find it immeasurably easier to get on with a 'bollocks' or 'nonsense' kind of chap than a self-nominated atheist.

So I wasn't too surprised by some new research findings from the University of Minnesota. Using national survey data, Penny Edgell, Joseph Gerteis and Douglas Hartmann, show conclusively that atheists in the States are less likely to be accepted, publicly and privately, than any others from a long list of ethnic, religious and other minority groups. Americans are "less willing to accept intermarriage with atheists" than with any other group and are less likely to imagine that atheists share their vision of American moral order.

The Minnesota Three are sufficiently disturbed by this to set off immediately in search of a plausible explanation. One factor, they suggest, might be the sheer invisibility of the hated group. When only 3 per cent of the entire American population are prepared to agree with the statement "I don't believe in God", the chances of anyone bumping into a real atheist and discovering they don't devour Christian babies for breakfast is pretty negligible.

But this provides only a moment's comfort for the researchers. Atheists may not be a very visible group but the level of hostility directed towards them still sits very uneasily alongside the other survey news that in all other respects religious pluralism is on the advance. Americans are becoming ever more tolerant of other religions. "Atheism is the glaring exception", the report tells us. Even after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, which led large numbers of Americans to regard Muslims as a large external and visible threat, there was still more acceptance extended to members of that faith than to "the small silent internal atheist minority".

So what other explanation might there be? The Minnesota team turn to symbolic factors. "The creation of the other is always necessary for the creation of identity and solidarity.... 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 boundaries between believers and non-believers in our collective imagination."

Not bad. But I think that there's another more persuasive answer tucked away within the research paper: the finding that one of the principal reasons atheists are so disliked is because they are thought to be cultural elitists, smart arses. In other words they stand in opposition not so much to the American moral order as the American Dream. By calling themselves 'atheists' they are claiming an intellectual superiority and a cultural standing which they are suspected of having failed to earn in the market place.

Perhaps then it's time for non-believers to come up with a gentler, less provocative, less self-serving, term than 'atheist', because although there aren't any comparable UK findings, I wouldn't be too surprised to find that home-grown atheists were held in similarly low regard. While it's true that most people in this country would be unable to defend their own belief in God with half the degree of passion and reason with which they'd assert the superiority of their own football team, nevertheless, nobody, absolutely nobody, likes a clever dick.