Plenty of people are reviled for their religious beliefs. But a lack of faith seems to inspire even more intense antipathy.
A landmark 2006 study, analyzing data from a large survey of Americans, found that atheists “are less likely to be accepted, publicly and privately, than any others from a long list of ethnic, religious and other minority groups.” Writing in the American Sociological Review, researchers noted that “while rejection of Muslims may have spiked in post-9/11 America, rejection of atheists was higher.”
So why are atheists “among the least liked people ... in most of the world," in the words of a research team led by University of British Columbia psychologist Will Gervais? In a newly published paper, he and his colleagues provide evidence supporting a plausible explanation.
Atheists, they argue, are widely viewed as people you cannot trust.
“People use cues of religiosity as a signal for trustworthiness,” the researchers write in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Given that “trustworthiness is the most valued trait in other people,” this mental equation engenders a decidedly negative attitude toward nonbelievers.
Gervais and his colleagues approach this phenomenon from an evolutionary perspective. “A number of researchers have argued that religious beliefs may have been one of several mechanisms allowing people to cooperate in large groups, by in effect outsourcing social monitoring and punishment to supernatural agents,” they write.
Religion, in other words, has served a specific function throughout much of human history (beyond assuaging existential fears): It keeps people in line, discouraging them from engaging in selfish acts that hurt the larger community. Gervais and his colleagues point to recent research that bears this notion out; several studies have found people engage in less-selfish behavior “when reminded of watchful supernatural agents.”
If you believe – even implicitly – that the prospect of divine retribution is the primary factor inhibiting immoral behavior, then a lack of belief in a higher power could amount to a free pass. A 2002 Pew Research Center survey found nearly half of Americans feel morality is impossible without belief in God.
There is no actual evidence backing up the assumption that atheism somehow leads to a decline in morality. In a 2009 study, sociologist Phil Zuckerman argued that “a strong case could be made that atheists and secular people actually possess a stronger or more ethical sense of social justice than their religious peers,” adding that they, on average, have “lower levels of prejudice, ethnocentrism, racism and homophobia” than the much larger population of believers.
He adds that “with the important exception of suicide, states and nations with a preponderance of nonreligious people actually fare better on most indicators of societal health than those without.”
But the link between atheism and amorality persists in the public imagination, and is particularly strong for those with strong religious beliefs. Gervais and his colleagues provide evidence of this in the form of six experiments, five of which features students at the University of British Columbia.
Western Canada, they note, is one of the most secular regions of North America. But they found even in that environment and among highly educated people, implicit distrust of atheists is easy to identify.
Consider one of the experiments. One hundred and five students read a brief vignette about a man who fails to take responsibility when he hits a parked van with his car, and then pockets money from a wallet he finds on a sidewalk.
Participants were asked whether they thought it was more probable that this clearly amoral man was either (a) a teacher, or (b) a teacher and a second identifying factor. That factor varied for individual participants; for some it was “a Christian,” while for others it was “a Muslim,” “a rapist” or “an atheist.”
“A teacher and an atheist” was the equation most likely to chosen over the simple “a teacher.” Astonishingly, it was slightly more likely to be chosen than “a teacher and a rapist.”
“This description – of an individual who commits insurance fraud and steals money when the chances of detection are minimal – was only seen as representative of atheists and rapists,” the researchers write. “(It was not seen as) representative of religious individuals, be they Christian or Muslim.”
Another experiment suggested this distrust has real-life ramifications in the job market. Forty undergraduates were asked to choose between a religious candidate and an atheist for two jobs – a daycare worker and a waitress. Beyond their religious affiliation (or lack thereof), the candidates had identical qualifications for the position.
“Participants significantly preferred the religious candidate to the atheist candidate for a high-trust job (as a daycare worker),” the researchers report. “Conversely, participants marginally preferred the atheist candidate to the religious candidate for a low-trust job (as a waitress).”
To put it simply: “Participants discriminated against an atheist candidate when hiring for a job that required a particularly trustworthy individual.” This means "distrust of atheists translates into discriminatory decision-making," they write.
There are undoubtedly other factors also at play here. Religious belief, including belief in an afterlife, provides existential meaning to many people. Any threat to that feeling of comfort and reassurance would presumably be regarded as unwelcome, if not hostile. That alone could engender a negative attitude toward atheists.
But Gervais and his colleagues make a strong case that a perceived lack of trustworthiness is at the heart of anti-atheist sentiment. Perhaps it’s time to make more people aware of the ethical tenets of humanism.