You fight through little things such as when I was president of "the friends of the library" and had to give a speech and invocation at the annual meeting. I stood up and said I refuse to give an invocation and turned to the librarian who I gave a quip to say on my behalf. Here it is: "Dear lord, we know there is only one book, but we have so many bookshelves to fill, please find it in your heart to fill them with more than only yours."
I don't think anyone caught the rhetoric of the invocation. After that I learned that when given the opportunity to lead a prayer atheists should take advantage of it.
I gotta say, we're only number 2. The gay community is easily number 1. Even in California, as progressive as we are on most things, gays still cannot marry. It's gotten better for us though. The original state constitution for Mass. contained a requirement that all office holders be christian. Atheists were considered to be even worse than catholics.
Going to the original paper, it looks like it's based on a telephone survey of about 2,000 people, and their response rate was poor. It was about a 30 min survey.
I would not take that database as representative of American's attitudes about anything. It's too small of a sample size and too biased.
I suspect that the commenters so far are correct. I imagine that, if you based the "most hated" on actual behavior, that gays, mulsims, and probably some racial minorities, are the recipients of more actual discrimination than atheists.
A lot of our problems stem from Madelyne Murry O'Hare. While she did make great strides against prayer in schools she was abrasive and quite frankly a PR nightmare for the atheist movement. The press had a field day. So, I'm think'n that it'll take until all those who remember her have passed on until we start to make some real strides towards acceptance in this country.
I think a lot of hate towards atheists is propagated by a few, with most people just going with the flow. At least until recently. If Obama has done anything he's politically charged both sides, and made people research, talk, and contribute. I think all of america is opening their eyes, and I think that will be nothing but good for us.
The one thing in our favor is - what's a stereotypical atheist? There is no physical description that one can use to spot us (aside from the cartoon on page 1;) ). There are some stereotypes to fight for sure such as being nihilists, devil worshipers, baby eaters, but I think they can be overcome. Most people who are vocal against us are heavily invested in the current system or don't think they've ever met an atheist. They think atheists are crack dealers, prostitutes, etc that have let themselves be tempted and have 'made deals with the devil' and other such heathenism. As more atheists come out and time goes on I think most of that will fade (though never go away completely).
As far as the research goes, the 2000 person sample size is too small to get really revved up about. I have a problem with phone survey's anyways because I feel the caller will feel pressure and may not answer truthfully. If they hate a particular minority group, they might hide it to a stranger on the phone, and likewise, if they think popular opinion is to be negative towards a group they might follow that. When you get a random phone call, you never know who might get the information and if it could come back on you. If I got a random phone call from a 'college researcher' would all of you tell them you're atheist?
I'm really excited about the 2010 census. A lot has changed in the last 10 years.