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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