Atheists have been speaking up more loudly in recent years, adding a fresh perspective to debates over meaning and morality. But in spite of this new visibility, the way Americans view non-believers remains extremely negative, according to a newly published study.
After reading a description of someone committing an immoral act, participants in five experiments “readily and intuitively assumed that the person was an atheist,” University of Kentucky psychologist Will Gervais reports in the online journal PLoS One. “Even atheist participants judged immoral acts as more representative of atheists than of other groups.”
The findings suggest our instinctive belief that moral behavior is dependent upon God—as ethical arbiter and/or assigner of divine punishment—creates a belief system strong enough to override evidence to the contrary. It leads people many to look at non-believers and reflexively assume the worst.
Gervais describes five experiments with a total of 1,152 participants, all recruited online via Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. (He notes that users of that service have previously been found to be “less religious, on average, than Americans in general,” making his findings all the more striking.)
When Gervais looked at the responses of hard-core atheists—that is, those "who both self-identified as atheists and who rated their belief in God at 0"—he found even they "viewed immorality as significantly more representative of atheists than other people."
His methodology involved discovering what prejudices would lure people into making a common mental error.
Participants in the first experiment—237 Americans—read a description of a man engaged in unambiguously immoral behavior. “Dax” was described as someone who harmed animals as a child, and then went on to kill a series of homeless people as an adult.
Afterwards, they were asked whether it is more probable that the man is (a) a teacher, or (b) a teacher and some other descriptor. The descriptive terms were “is a Buddhist,” “is a Christian,” “is Jewish” and “is a Muslim,” and “does not believe in God.”
In this formulation, the first answer (“is a teacher”) is always correct, since any of the other answers are subsets of the first. The fact is not logically possible for any of the other answers to be accurate makes them good indicators of bias: If you, say, hate Muslims, you’ll be tempted to check that box without stopping to think through your answer.
When the second possible answer was one of the aforementioned religions, the vast majority of participants did not make the error in logic, choosing the correct answer (simply “a teacher”). However, when asked to choose between “a teacher” and “a teacher who does not believe in God,” nearly 50 percent checked the latter.
This suggests “one particularly vivid example of immorality—serial murder—is seen as representative of atheists,” Gervais writes.
Gervais duplicated these results by testing acts representing different types of moral violations (including incest), and comparing atheists with representatives of other minority groups. Non-believers consistently fared poorly. In one experiment, he writes, “participants found descriptions of a moral transgressor to be more representative of atheists than of gay people.”
Surprisingly, when Gervais looked at the responses of hard-core atheists—that is, those “who both self-identified as atheists and who rated their belief in God at 0”—he found even they “viewed immorality as significantly more representative of atheists than other people.”
“Even atheists seem to share the intuition that immoral acts are perpetuated by individuals who don’t believe in God,” he writes.
What’s the basis of this bedrock belief that counteracting immoral impulses requires religion? History and evolutionary psychology suggest that “religion likely does exert some influence on morality in at least two ways,” Gervais notes.
One is creating communities where certain ethical standards are expected to be upheld. The other is the thought that some higher power is watching you, judging you, and perhaps preparing to punish you if you step out of line.
“These two mechanisms are not mutually exclusive, and likely both operate in concert,” he writes. Yet the results of his fifth and final experiment suggest belief in God, as opposed to membership in a church, is the key factor in most people's minds.
“Lay perceptions may overestimate the role of faith, while underestimating a role of community in shaping morality,” Gervais writes.
It’s an important distinction, in that atheists can also form communities founded on ethical principles (humanism being a prominent example). But so long as people are convinced there is no good without God, atheists fighting for public acceptance face a struggle of Biblical proportions.