They're feared and often loathed, viewed as non-conformists who pose a threat to our nation's moral compass. But if more were open about their inclinations, and engaged in congenial conversation with members of the mistrusting majority, that prejudice might start melting away.
It happened with gays and lesbians. Perhaps it's time for atheists to give it a try.
That's one implication of newly published research, which reports simply imagining a positive interaction with an atheist is enough to increase willingness to engage and cooperate with them.
"These effects persisted even among those relatively high in religious fundamentalism," psychologists Jordan LaBouff of the University of Maine and Annie Ledoux of George Mason University write in the journal Psychology of Religion and Spirituality.
Given that Americans "are likely having more intergroup contact with atheists than they are aware of," this provides an obvious opening for increased understanding.
Simply imagining a positive interaction with an atheist is enough to increase willingness to engage and cooperate with them.
The researchers described two studies: an initial one that found "fundamentalist beliefs and distrust of atheists are two critical pillars of anti-atheist prejudice," and a second featuring imagined inter-group contact.
Participants consisted of 258 Americans recruited online via Amazon's Mechanical Turk. (Agnostics were included, but atheists excluded.) All began by answering a series of questions designed to measure their attitude toward atheists, as well as their own religiosity.
"The majority of participants reported very little interpersonal contact with atheists," the researchers note.
Approximately half were instructed to "spend the next three minutes imagining that you are meeting someone who is an atheist for the first time." They were told the imaginary conversation should be a "relaxed, positive, and comfortable" one, in which you "learn some interesting and unexpected things about them."
The others participants were simply instructed to spend three minutes thinking about atheists. Afterwards, all participants wrote about their experience, and again completed the aforementioned questionnaire.
Those who engaged in the imagined conversation "expressed significantly less distrust toward atheists" than those who simply ruminated about the subject. The researchers conclude this more positive attitude was driven by "more comfort with atheists, and more willingness to engage with atheists."
Moreover, a reduction in distrust, which the researchers call "the central component of anti-atheist prejudice," was even found among religious fundamentalists. Perhaps they enjoyed the imaginary give-and-take.
Of course, not many people are going to have such an imaginary chat. But 58 percent of the study's participants reported they know few if any atheists personally—a figure that suggests many have friends or colleagues who stay quiet about their lack of belief. Perhaps it's time for them to open up and engage in some trust-building conversations.
Granted, it's easier to stay quiet when you're in the minority. But honest engagement can change minds.
Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.