Thursday, 24 March 2016

Distrust of atheists is "deeply and culturally ingrained" even among atheists

Just as people throughout history have been subject to prejudice and persecution because of their religious beliefs, recent evidence suggests that atheists today are discriminated against because of their lack of faith. For instance, in a 2012 study, nearly one in two atheists and agnostics reported having experienced discrimination at work, in the family and elsewhere. Another US study that asked respondents to imagine their children marrying people from different social groups found that participants were most disapproving of the idea of their child marrying an atheist.

Building on these kinds of past results, most of which stem from the US, a new British study published in The International Journal for The Psychology of Religion, has found that many people's distrust of atheists seems to be deeply held, and what's more, even many atheists seem to have an instinctual distrust of other atheists. For background, Britain is a country where 13 per cent of people today consider themselves convinced atheists.

Leah Giddings and Thomas Dunn recruited 100 participants from Nottingham Trent University: their average age was 21 and 70 were women. Forty-three per cent were atheist, 33 per cent were Christian and the remainder subscribed to other faiths. The researchers presented the participants with a vignette about a man who one day backed his car into a van and failed to leave his insurance details, and later on, when he found a wallet, he removed the money from it for himself. In short, this chap wasn't very trustworthy or moral. Next, half the participants were asked to say whether it was more probable that the man was (a) a teacher or (b) a teacher and religious (let's call this the teacher+religious condition). The other half of the participants had to say whether they thought it was more likely that the man was (a) a teacher or (b) a teacher and an atheist (the teacher+atheist condition).

Logically speaking, in both conditions the correct answer is always (a) because (b) is a subset of (a) and therefore less likely by definition. However, it's well known in psychology that many people struggle to answer these kinds of questions logically because they're swayed by the connotations of the secondary category that's mentioned in (b) – an error that's known as the conjunction fallacy.

What was particularly revealing in this study is that participants in the teacher+atheist condition were much more prone to committing the conjunction fallacy (66 per cent of them did so), than the participants in the teacher+religious condition (just 8 per cent of participants in this condition fell for the conjunction error). These results suggest that at a superficial level, the description of the distrustful man sounded to many of the participants like a typical atheist, and hence many of them said they thought it more likely that he was both a teacher and an atheist than a teacher.

To test the strength of this apparent prejudice towards atheists, the researchers asked the participants the same question again, and they also presented them with information about the proportions of the population who are religious or atheist. To participants in the teacher+atheist condition, this barely made any difference to their answers, suggesting their instinctual prejudice towards atheists was robust. Even though they were given a chance to think more rationally, they still fell for the fallacy. By contrast, the participants in the teacher+religious condition committed the conjunction fallacy even less often when they were asked the question for a second time.

The prejudice shown towards atheists in this study was more pronounced among those who professed a stronger belief in God, but it was also present, albeit to a lesser extent, among the non-religious. Another thing – the non-religious participants, like the religious, showed more instinctual distrust toward atheists than towards religious people (that is, they committed the conjunction fallacy more often in the teacher+atheist condition than the teacher+religious condition).

The researchers said their findings "suggest anti-atheist distrust is deeply and culturally ingrained regardless of an individual's group membership". This raises the question – why are people, at least in the UK and the US, so distrustful of atheists? The researchers speculated that it may be because most people assume that religious folk believe they're being monitored by a higher being, and that this will therefore encourage these people to behave morally, whereas this supervision is absent for atheists. Also, perhaps people's distrust of atheists stems from the fact that, unlike religious people, atheists lack a coherent set of known moral rules (of course they have their own individual moral code, but as a group they don't have a code that they all follow).

"Looking to the future," the researcher said, "it is also important to explore how these perceptions and attitudes toward atheists manifest behaviourally, whether people act on these prejudices and in what contexts. It is only once the nature and extent of the issue is better understood that we can take measures to address it."


Giddings, L., & Dunn, T. (2016). The Robustness of Anti-Atheist Prejudice as Measured by Way of Cognitive Errors The International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, 26 (2), 124-135 DOI: 10.1080/10508619.2015.1006487

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

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