A while ago now, I took on an article for the UBC student newspaper about a recent study by a UBC prof about getting the the root of why people dislike atheists. For various reasons it didn’t end up on the newspaper website, so I’ve reproduced the article I wrote for them at the end of this post.
Many of the news articles that covered the paper were announced with headlines like “Atheists are as distrusted as rapists”. This is the sensational result of just one part of the study. The particular test made use of the conjunction fallacy to ask participants whether they thought a person doing a bad deed was either (a) a teacher; or (b) a teacher and a group member. The 105 participants were split into four groups, being given the option in (b) of the group being either Christian, Muslim, atheist or rapist. So, only around 26 people got the option to guess the criminal was an atheist, but it appears most of them thought he was.
There have been polls before that have similarly startling results, such as people being less likely to vote for an atheist president than any other minority (including homosexuals and Muslims); and Americans saying atheists are the group would have the strongest objection to their children marrying. What’s different about this study is that is tries to find out why people hate atheists – and the answer is distrust.
This may seem to be an obvious answer. A common feeling among the religious is that atheists, without God, will sin. According to Gervais and Dan Ryder, a philosophy prof who I also interviewed for the article, the reason could be one of two things. Without the morals of the Bible and God, atheists will have no morals, and behave badly. Alternatively, or additionally, without the threat of judgement from wathcful God, there are no consequences to the bad behaviour. But finding the reasons for dislike can help to dispel them. Gervais’ studyhad an initial phase that consisted of an online poll of Americans, finding that while distrust seemed to be the reason for dislike of atheists, disgust was the primary reason for dislike of homosexuals. With this is mind, homosexual groups can show people how their life is filled with love, and try to evaporate the gut reaction of disgust to a different kind of physical love.
The first test began to investigate distrust as the root of hate by describing the bad behaviour of the hypothetical person as remorseless, and doing bad things because he thinks no-one is looking (referring here to other people, not explicitly a God). To build on the idea that it is the possession of religion that makes people feel their are entitled to be trusted, the study goes on to test whether people who identify as more religious are less trusting of atheists. Here, the homosexual element was reintroduced, and the result was indeed that atheists were far more untrustworthy, even when both were considered equally unpleasant. Greater religious adherence also led to greater distrust, as predicted.
Finally, the study tried to eliminate other possible causes for distrust – lack of competence or lack of “warmth”. An initial poll searched out comparably warm and competent “out-groups”; Muslims, homosexuals, Jews, the elderly and feminists; as well as rich people and poor people. The most similar to atheists – Jews and feminists – were then given as options in the same conjunction fallacy as the first test, with an additional question set to determine religiousness, as in the third test.
An additional test began Gervais’ next investigation – whether the perceived untrustworthiness of atheists affects what people would hire them for. Interview participants were far less likely to hire an atheist for a job considered “high-trust”, a daycare worker, than the “low-trust” job of a waitress. In his latest study (in press, and available on his website here), Gervais seeks to discover if the distrust of atheists can be mitigated if people are reminded of secular authorities, such as the police force and the judicial system.
I’ve described this study in quite a bit of detail, but the simple conclusion is that people distrust atheists. Even more worrying though, is that the study was primarily conducted with UBC students. Even in Vancouver, Canada, where there is a legal safe drug injection site and the home of Greenpeace, an outwardly liberal location, even here, atheists are hated. This is important to me because I am an atheist. Chatting to the President of the Freethinkers Association at UBC, we discussed how atheists can overcome this hate. The prejudice being different fundamentally from the prejudice against homosexuals and other religious groups means different tactics have to be sought to reduce it. One way, he thinks, is to simply encourage atheists to be more visible. If people are more aware of just how many of their friends, family and everyday folks are atheists, they may be more accepted.
This is one of the reasons I associate with atheist groups, which help encourage people to come “out”. This is also one of the reasons I’ve decided to fully own my atheism, and although it will not necessarily formulate my writing, I will never shy away from it. Profs at the School of Journalism suggest that this sort of thing is a bad idea: journalists are supposed to be impartial (if not the outdated idea of completely objective). It may be that people will be prejudiced against me because of it, but I don’t want to hide away. Those in a position of influence are doing minorities a disservice if they deny their connection to that minority. (I’m thinking here of a particular example highlighted by Rick Mercer, where he suggested politicians were cowardly for not coming out and showing solidarity with bullied gay teens).
People don’t like atheists because they don’t trust them, rating them as untrustworthy as rapists, according to a new UBC study.
The study, conducted by Will Gervais and colleagues in the Department of Psychology, originally questioned 350 Americans, where anti-atheist sentiments are well documented. However, a follow-up set of questions designed to get a t the root of the distrust, found unsettlingly similar results in over 400 UBC students.
“We were surprised at just how much people distrust atheists, even among students at a top-40 world university in a secular, liberal city like Vancouver,” said Gervais.
When given a description of a person doing bad things and having no remorse, participants though the person was more likely to be a rapist or an atheist than a Muslim or a Christian. While participants who had strong religious affiliations were more likely to equate bad behavior with atheists, even those who identified themselves as non-religious had a tendency to distrust atheists.
Gervais also found people are less likely to choose atheists for high-trust jobs, such as daycare assistants. The distrust, he thinks, stems from the perception that atheists think no-one is holding them accountable.
“There seems to be a really persistent popular association between religion and morality, and a quite common belief that people will hold themselves to a moral standard if they feel like God is watching,” he said.
It seems the mistrust doesn’t go both ways though, with atheists reporting little difference in trust based on religious affiliation.
“It’s sort of like people who cheer for a sports team. Here in Vancouver, Canucks fans might look down on Blackhawks fans and Bruins fans. But if you aren’t into hockey, there’s no reason to worry about which team someone is cheering for,” Gervais said.
Dan Ryder, philosophy professor at UBC-O, think there may be more a more fundamental element to the mistrust.
“A lot of religious people I’ve run into think there is no such thing as morality without God. It was be interesting to see how much of the distrust is based on that philosophical mistake, as opposed to this stereotype belief,” he said.
Gervais wants to test this theory, and figure out ways the distrust may be reduced.
That the dislike for atheists stems from distrust is different to many other “outside” groups such as homosexuals or feminists, which people tend to have other reasons for discriminating against. According to UBC Freethinkers’ President Daniel Gipps, the profile of atheists could be raised if more of them “came out”.
“If atheists are more visible, and interacting with people in normal ways, I think there would be less prejudice towards them,” he said.