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Why Atheists Terrify Believers

Their presence challenges fundamental defense mechanisms that protect people from fear of death.
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(Photo: Twenty20 Inc/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Twenty20 Inc/Shutterstock)

Even as an increasing number of Americans declare their disbelief in God, the nation as a whole continues to hold a dim view of atheists, in large part due to non-believers' perceived lack of morality. However dubious its premise, the assertion "There is no good without God" reflects a widely held mindset.

But it turns out that's not the whole story. Newly published research finds another dynamic driving antagonism toward atheists: They threaten the comforting narratives that gives meaning to so many people's lives, and make the thought of death bearable.

Humans instinctively search for ways of "mitigating the potential terror arising from the uniquely human awareness of death," writes a research team led by psychologist Corey Cook of the University of Washington-Tacoma. Atheists "pose a fundamental threat" to the belief systems that perform this vital function.

Non-believers are not only distrusted; they also stir up morbid thoughts, and perhaps raise discomforting doubts about what happens after we die.

Writing in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, the researchers report "hostility toward, and mistrust of, atheists is particularly pronounced when existential concerns are involved." Even more tellingly, they also find that "among believers, the mere contemplation of atheism can arouse intimations of mortality."

The first of their two experiments featured 236 American college students (including 34 self-proclaimed atheists, whose answers were not included in the analysis). Two-thirds reported they were Christians; Muslims, Buddhists, and Jews made up the bulk of the final third.

Approximately half of the participants were instructed to write down "as specifically as you can, what you think will happen physically when you die," and asked to "describe the emotions that that the thought of your own death arouses in you." The others responded to "parallel questions regarding thoughts of extreme pain."

After a brief distraction, all were then asked to rate, on a zero to 100 scale, their feelings about either atheists or Quakers (who represented a non-threatening group of outsiders). They also estimated the extent to which they found members of the group trustworthy, and whether they'd like such a person to marry into their family.

The results were consistent across the board: Compared to Quakers, participants distanced themselves more from atheists, found them less trustworthy, and rated them more negatively overall. Most importantly, negative feelings about non-believers were more pronounced among those who had written about their own death. (In contrast, thoughts of mortality did not affect attitudes toward Quakers.)

The second experiments featured 174 college students. Two-thirds were randomly chosen to describe the emotions that arose from either thoughts of their own death, or non-life-threatening pain (as above). The others were asked to "write down, as specifically as you can, what atheism means to you."

The researchers then determined whether they had mortality on their mind by having them fill out a set of word fragments, some of which "could be completed as either neutral or death-related words." (Example: SK__L, which could be completed as either "skill" or "skull.")

Not surprisingly, those who had written about their own mortality were more likely than those who had described pain to choose death-related words. But here's the interesting part: The same was true among those had written about atheism. Mulling the concept of disbelief brought up thoughts of death just as strongly as explicitly contemplating one's own demise.

So non-believers are not only distrusted; they also stir up morbid thoughts, and perhaps raise discomforting doubts about what happens after we die. Given this reality, Cook and his colleagues conclude by admonishing atheists to avoid "militant denunciations of theistic conceptions of reality, and those who adhere to them."

If you're facing scorn, giving it right back may be an understandable reaction, but it does not further understanding. On the other hand, friendly dialogue that reveals alternative ways to find meaning in life and encourage morality just might.

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.