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In Atheists We Distrust

Subjects believe that people behave better when they think that God is watching over them



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Atheists are one of the most disliked groups in America. Only 45 percent of Americans say they would vote for a qualified atheist presidential candidate, and atheists are rated as the least desirable group for a potential son-in-law or daughter-in-law to belong to. Will Gervais at the University of British Columbia recently published a set of studies looking at why atheists are so disliked. His conclusion: It comes down to trust.

Gervais and his colleagues presented participants with a story about a person who accidentally hits a parked car and then fails to leave behind valid insurance information for the other driver. Participants were asked to choose the probability that the person in question was a Christian, a Muslim, a rapist, or an atheist. They thought it equally probable the culprit was an atheist or a rapist, and unlikely the person was a Muslim or Christian. In a different study, Gervais looked at how atheism influences people’s hiring decisions. People were asked to choose between an atheist or a religious candidate for a job requiring either a high or low degree of trust. For the high-trust job of daycare worker, people were more likely to prefer the religious candidate. For the job of waitress, which requires less trust, the atheists fared much better.

It wasn’t just the highly religious participants who expressed a distrust of atheists. People identifying themselves as having no religious affiliation held similar opinions. Gervais and his colleagues discovered that people distrust atheists because of the belief that people behave better when they think that God is watching over them. This belief may have some truth to it. Gervais and his colleague Ara Norenzayan have found that reminding people about God’s presence has the same effect as telling people they are being watched by others: it increases their feelings of self-consciousness and leads them to behave in more socially acceptable ways.

When we know that somebody believes in the possibility of divine punishment, we seem to assume they are less likely to do something unethical. Based on this logic, Gervais and Norenzayan hypothesized that reminding people about the existence of secular authority figures, such as policemen and judges, might alleviate people’s prejudice towards atheists. In one study, they had people watch either a travel video or a video of a police chief giving an end-of-the-year report. They then asked participants how much they agreed with certain statements about atheists (e.g., “I would be uncomfortable with an atheist teaching my child.”) In addition, they measured participants’ prejudice towards other groups, including Muslims and Jewish people. Their results showed that viewing the video of the police chief resulted in less distrust towards atheists. However, it had no effect on people’s prejudice towards other groups. From a psychological standpoint, God and secular authority figures may be somewhat interchangeable. The existence of either helps us feel more trusting of others.

Gervais and Norenzayan’s findings may shed light on an interesting puzzle: why acceptance towards atheism has grown rapidly in some countries but not others. In many Scandinavian countries, including Norway and Sweden, the number of people who report believing in God has reached an all-time low. This may have something to do with the way these countries have established governments that guarantee a high level of social security for all of their citizens.  Aaron Kay and his colleagues ran a study in Canada which found that political insecurity may push us towards believing in God. They gave participants two versions of a fictitious news story: one describing Canada’s current political situation as stable, the other describing it as potentially unstable. After reading one of the two articles, people’s beliefs in God were measured. People who read the article describing the government as potentially unstable were more likely to agree that God, or some other type of nonhuman entity, is in control of the universe. A common belief in the divine may help people feel more secure. Yet when security is achieved by more secular means, it may remove some of the draw of faith.

The findings on why we distrust atheists also point towards another potential way of reducing such prejudice: by reminding people of charitable and altruistic acts committed in the name of atheism. In recent years, there has been a growing number of virtual communities dedicated to those interested in atheism. Some of these communities have begun to organize charitable efforts. For example, the Haiti earthquake led members of Richard Dawkins’ foundation to launch a campaign entitled Non-Believers Giving Aid. In December the Reddit.com online atheism community managed to raise over $200,000 worth of donations for Doctors Without Borders. It is possible that greater public awareness of altruistic atheists may help alleviate some of the distrust that many Americans feel towards nonbelievers.

Are you a scientist who specializes in neuroscience, cognitive science, or psychology? And have you read a recent peer-reviewed paper that you would like to write about? Please send suggestions to Mind Matters editor Gareth Cook, a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist at The Boston Globe. He can be reached at garethideas AT gmail.com or Twitter @garethideas.

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