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An update on disrupting suspicion of atheists

Monday, April 30, 2012
posted by Douglas Keene

We’ve written a number of times about atheists in the courtroom and the general lack of trust in atheists in this country. One recent study pointed out we trust atheists about as much as we trust rapists! Identifying biases that are deep-seated and seem to be permanent is one of the things we do as trial consultants. Sometimes they are unexpected. They are almost always disheartening.

So we are grateful to social science researchers who sometimes identify strategies to disrupt permanent and deep-seated biases. And here’s one for disrupting biases against atheists. It’s simple, straightforward and free: remind jurors about the government.

Researchers point to research noting distrust of atheists who do not believe a “watchful and judging god monitors their behavior”. Most people think we behave better when reminded there is a god watching over us. That atheists have no such moral force judging their behavior makes the rest of us suspicious of their moral trustworthiness. The observation by a supernatural being gives believers a sense of psychological control over the behaviors of all believers. On a none-too-subtle level, it also suggests that mostly, we don’t trust that people to do the right thing if they don’t fear punishment.

There is also recent research showing that secular authority can also give a sense of psychological control in the world. When reminded of secular authority (and thus the awareness of monitoring by powerful figures, albeit not a deity) which also enforces prosocial behaviors–believers should also exhibit less distrust toward atheists. The idea is that there would exist some sort of behavioral control over the atheist–we don’t have to be so afraid of what they might do.

Researchers wanted to explore these ideas to see if bias against and fear of atheists would diminish if research participants were reminded of secular authority. They conducted 3 separate experiments:

In Study 1, researchers emphasized “police effectiveness” by having participants watch a video of the Vancouver police chief’s year-end report “which detailed many successes of the Vancouver Police Department during 2010”.

They found that being reminded of secular authority decreased the level of distrust toward atheists.

In Study 2, researchers examined distrust of atheists and the prevalence of disgust for homosexuals. Again the “police effectiveness” video was shown.

Again, researchers found that being reminded of secular authority (i.e., “police effectiveness”) reduced distrust for atheists but did not affect antigay prejudice.

In Study 3, researchers wanted to see if reminders of secular authority would reduce distrust in atheists and (at the same time) reduce distrust toward gays.

And again, the researchers found that being reminded of secular authority reduced distrust in atheists but did not affect distrust of gays.

What this research progression shows is that reminders of secular authority/effectiveness decrease distrust in atheists but do not decrease prejudice in general. This is a powerful finding although it will of course be moderated by how effective and trustworthy people find their government. Overall, though, it makes sense, if the secular authority is a replacement for religious authority. Bias and prejudice is not unidimensional, it is a complex response. No unidimensional explanation will capture all of the potential vagaries of bias and prejudice.

From a litigation advocacy perspective, if you have a client who is atheist (and ‘out’), you would do well to find ways to remind jurors of secular authority–either through law enforcement, regulatory agencies, or other reliable secular institutions relevant to the facts of your case. Society is safe, even if this person doesn’t perfectly mirror the religiously observant jurors. Jurors need to have a sense that “this atheist” is contained and law-abiding so they can trust the atheist’s future behavior.

It’s a simple yet powerfully, and pointedly targeted strategy.

Gervais WM, & Norenzayan A (2012). Reminders of Secular Authority Reduce Believers’ Distrust of Atheists. Psychological Science PMID: 22477103


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