this article in the Financial Times. The general picture: not pleasant. If you live in small town America, you'll most likely want to keep your non-belief to yourself. Being unreligious will make it hard for you to be part of the community, since so much socializing and volunteer work is organized around religion.
Academic city dwellers, particularly if they're philosophers, will find it hard to relate to all of this. 70% of philosophers are atheists, so (seriously) I think it's harder to be a Christian in philosophy than to be an atheist. On the other hand, as an inhabitant of a north Dallas suburb (we're just a few blocks from Plano, the hideously conservative suburb mentioned in the article), I do have just a little experience with anti-atheist prejudice--enough to know it's a reality.
The article ought to make anyone empathize with maligned American atheists, but it should probably also make maligned American atheists ponder their own agenda a bit. Consider what many of Julian's informants told him--being gay or even a crack addict creates less of a problem than being an atheist. Why is that? Probably part of the difference lies in the thought that you can't be good without God. Atheists really need to overcome that belief. But there's another element to this. If you're gay, you're not attacking heterosexuality, and you're not trying to make others gay. In the public mind, an "atheist" isn't simply someone who believes there is no God. An atheist is a promoter of godlessness.
At least, that's the impression I've gotten in many conversations. People will confess disbelief and then turn around and say "But I'm not an atheist, or anything like that." What is an atheist, or anything like that? An opponent of religion, I think, not merely someone who believes there is no god. So--part of the problem with atheists winning acceptance is that many don't position themselves like members of other religions. Christians can accept Jews because Jews aren't anti-Christian, and vice versa. It could work the same way between theists and atheists, but it calls for overt "live-and-let-live" attitudes on both sides.
Of course, some atheists really are anti-religious, and don't plan on giving that up, even if it would help atheists gain more acceptance. They think the goal of defeating religion is so important that it's worth the temporary marginalization of atheists out there in middle America. OK, fine, but let's be honest about how atheists present themselves to others, and what role that self-presentation plays in the stigma associated with the word.