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Everyone knows you just can’t trust an atheist!

Monday, November 21, 2011
posted by Rita Handrich

Last year we wrote an article on bias against atheists and how to mitigate those biases in court. It was a really interesting paper to research and write, as the vitriol in the bias against atheists is stunningly powerful and (seems to be) permanent.

This week we saw an article at Miller-McCune on a new research article regarding atheists and had to go take a look. What the researchers say is that we use religiosity as a signal for trustworthiness. If you have no religion, then you are deemed untrustworthy. And, as the researchers say, “trustworthiness is the most valued trait in other people”. This clearly does not bode well for general attitudes about atheists.

The researchers examined the relationship (in the public imagination) between atheism and perceptions of amorality. They did six separate experiments including one in which students read a brief vignette about a man:

“Richard is 31 years old. On his way to work one day, he accidentally backed his car into a parked van. Because pedestrians were watching, he got out of his car. He pretended to write down his insurance information. He then tucked the blank note into the van’s window before getting into his car and driving away. 

Later the same day, Richard found a wallet on the sidewalk. Nobody was looking, so he took all of the money out of the wallet. He then threw the wallet in a trash can.”

Then participants were asked if this (amoral) man was more likely to be: a Christian, a Muslim, a rapist, or an atheist.  Research subjects chose atheist and rapist as most likely.  And they chose atheist in similar numbers to rapist. If you are wondering how in the world anyone would attribute any of these things to the behavior, we sympathize with you.  But the research is all about whether a form of amoral or immoral behavior is seen as consistent with antisocial behavior or religious beliefs.

Other experiments included a workplace choice between a religious candidate and an atheist with totally matching credentials. The positions they were considering were a high-trust position (child care) and a low-trust position (waiter). Participants chose the religious candidate for the high-trust (childcare) position and the atheist for the low-trust (waiter) position.

In another study, ‘Richard’ suffered from some pretty gross and visible physical ailments.  You guessed it– he was seen as more likely to be an atheist. The results are disturbingly consistent. We just don’t trust atheists.

The authors indicate these are the first studies to look at what exactly underlies anti-atheist prejudices. They found (perhaps not surprisingly) in 5 of the 6 studies that belief in God was a potent predictor of atheist distrust. One of the hypotheses the authors identify is this:

“The perceived norms of atheists might simply be more threatening to religious individuals that those of other groups. This is likely because, although religious people might infer that ethnic out-group members of homosexuals hold norms that differ from their own, atheists might be seen as holding norms that are directly antithetical to their own. Alternatively, atheists may be distrusted because people are unsure exactly what atheists believe. A Christian, for example, might be able to infer some of a Muslim’s norms, but an atheist might be viewed as a wildcard: religious people might distrust atheists not only for the norms they are perceived to follow but also for their perceived lack of norms.”

In other words, the atheist is seem by the public as unpredictable and likely without moral standards. We just don’t know what they might do! Atheism is such an affront to what religious people believe that atheists tend to be dehumanized.

After we wrote our research article on anti-atheist prejudices, we got a number of heartfelt emails saying “thanks” for writing an article that brought to light what was previously a dirty secret. The writers of those emails were touchingly human and clearly not used to be treated as such in writing.

As a trial lawyer, if your client is an atheist, there are steps you need to take to protect them and minimize prejudice against them. We outline those in our article and hope you will educate yourself on the intensity of the anti-atheist bias in this country. It’s pretty astounding.

Gervais WM, Shariff AF, & Norenzayan A (2011). Do you believe in atheists? Distrust is central to anti-atheist prejudice. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology PMID: 22059841


3 Responses to “Everyone knows you just can’t trust an atheist!”

  1. Ballard Law Office says:
    Here’s a thoughtful discussion (debate podcast on NPR) that appeared to me to give each side a chance to advocate for their point of view w/o disrespect to the other.

    Is it possible the anti-atheist prejudice that is referred to, above, is regional rather than national? I may be living in a bubble, but I don’t think I see much of it out here in the Pac NW.

    One group I belong to includes members that include a enthusiastically participating evangelical and an equally enthusiastic atheist – both know each other, see each other regularly and I’m proud to call both of ‘em my friends and colleagues.

    20 yrs ago, I heard this kind of rumble going on with respect to sexual minorities. Although bullying remains a concern, Gay/Straight Alliances now populate many high schools these days.

    See also, Dan Savage’s excellent “It Gets Better” campaign on You Tube.

    If we’re gonna get something done, we’ve got to get beyond these things and get to work.

    All respect – David K. Hiscock
    Ballard Law Office 206-789-9551
    Out in Ballard/Straight Talk

  2. FrankF says:

    I think the issue here is that if someone truly lives by the principles outlined by their religions, and since these principles are thought to encompass being honest, kind, generous, and selfless, than of course it makes sense to think that this ‘religious’ person may be more likely to exhibit these traits than a random atheist. This of course doesn’t mean that a person would be correct in this judgment, but it’s a good heuristic. The bottom line is that there are no moral guidelines that are inherent to atheism, so even though the population of atheists may be quite similar to the population of religious folks (in that they are just as decent and trustworthy, or indecent/untrustworthy), people for the most part are primed to think about these positive features of religion.

    If you were to set up vignettes that described all the activities a person engaged in that showed them to be extremely honest, kind, generous, and selfless; then at the end said they were either an atheist or a christian, i think the the atheist may not be rated as significantly more distrustful.

  3. daedalus2u says:

    This distrust of the “other” comes from the same roots as does all bigotry. I discuss the physiology of it on a blog post.

    Essentially what happens is that when two people meet, they try to communicate and in effect do a Turing Test to see if the other person can be communicated with and ultimately if they are enough like them to be able to emulate (my hypothesis is that communication requires emulation of the other party’s thinking style). If the error rate is too high, then xenophobia is triggered via the uncanny valley effect.

    What you say about being dehumanized is absolutely correct. The same is true of all bigots, they are unable to perceive that the objects of their bigotry are actually human, and so are unable to conceive of them as being capable of having human attributes such as loving, being loved, or even being lovable. This is why homophobes are so against gay marriage. They are unable to conceive that anyone can possibly love a gay person, in any capacity. Homophobes simply can’t imagine that the child of a lesbian could possibly love his/her mother, and so the child would be better off with a random stranger that it is conceivable the child could love (if the random stranger were not gay).

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