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Study investigates distrust of atheists by believers

Study investigates distrust of atheists by believers

Distrust is the central motivating factor behind why religious people dislike atheists, according to a new study led by University of British Columbia psychologists.

“Where there are religious majorities – that is, in most of the world – atheists are among the least trusted people,” says lead author Will Gervais, a doctoral student in UBC’s Dept. of Psychology. “With more than half a billion atheists worldwide, this prejudice has the potential to affect a substantial number of people.”

While reasons behind antagonism towards atheists have not been fully explored, the study – published in the current online issue of Journal of Personality and Social Psychology – is among the first explorations of the social psychological processes underlying anti-atheist sentiments.

“This antipathy is striking, as atheists are not a coherent, visible or powerful social group,” says Gervais, who co-authored the study with UBC Associate Prof. Ara Norenzayan and Azim Shariff of the University of Oregon. The study is titled, Do You Believe in Atheists? Distrust is Central to Anti-Atheist Prejudice.

The researchers conducted a series of six studies with 350 American adults and nearly 420 university students in Canada, posing a number of hypothetical questions and scenarios to the groups. In one study, participants found a description of an untrustworthy person to be more representative of atheists than of Christians, Muslims, gay men, feminists or Jewish people. Only rapists were distrusted to a comparable degree.

The researchers concluded that religious believer’s distrust – rather than dislike or disgust – was the central motivator of prejudice against atheists, adding that these studies offer important clues on how to combat this prejudice.

One motivation for the research was a Gallup poll that found that only 45 per cent of American respondents would vote for a qualified atheist president, says Norenzayan. The figure was the lowest among several hypothetical minority candidates. Poll respondents rated atheists as the group that least agrees with their vision of America, and that they would most disapprove of their children marrying.

The religious behaviors of others may provide believers with important social cues, the researchers say. “Outward displays of belief in God may be viewed as a proxy for trustworthiness, particularly by religious believers who think that people behave better if they feel that God is watching them,” says Norenzayan. “While atheists may see their disbelief as a private matter on a metaphysical issue, believers may consider atheists’ absence of belief as a public threat to cooperation and honesty.”

About Dakota O'Leary

Dakota O'Leary is a freethinker, and often sassy, scholar of theology and literature. She got her Bachelor of Arts degree in English and Theology from the State University of New York College at Buffalo, and her Master of Arts degree in Theology and Literature from Antioch University-Midwest. She is a contributing writer focusing on eschatology, biblical prophecy, and general religious news. Dakota is a co-host of the God Discussion radio show, offering insight to the news stories of the week. We like to call her "our in-house Biblical prophecy expert" as her articles on eschatology have received over 200,000 views on God Discussion.
  • "Only rapists were distrusted to a comparable degree." WHOA. That's something.

    I think that part of this distrust seems to be a belief that atheists/secular humanists are an "elite" group of people who are trying to wipe out the public expression of religion. At least in the United States, that's how I see it playing out on blogs, in politics, etc.

    Seems to me the atheist community needs to do a couple of things: (1) promote information such as the video that the Thinking Atheist did about famous atheists who are well-respected and loved, like Katherine Hepburn and Gene Roddenberry; and (2) lay off of the insults toward Christians or other believers in personal conversations (I'm talking about insulting individuals, not critiquing theology and religion).

    "There is no God" type of billboards and ads may serve their purpose, but I think something less confrontational such as a public relations campaign featuring famous atheists and atheist contributions for the well-being of mankind might be better received by a primarily Christian populace if the goal is to end distrust toward non-believers.


  • CBeetle

    It is interesting to to think that with time, as new generations grow older and the Atheist parents teach their kids about the subject of religion, someday, this study will be about how the people who choose to put their faith in a deity are seen as distrustful.

    "The freethinking of one age is the commonsense of the next" (Matthew Arnold)

    There is no need for Atheists to rise up and take a political stance. Eventually, people will learn that it does not matter what people choose to believe in.

    If you have two top notch scientists who can do everything at the same skill level as the other, and the only difference they have between them is that one believes in some sort of deity.. Who's to say the other one cannot be trusted merely because they do not wish to believe in one as well?

    I do think that people should out right put down religion, because to do so is childish. A lot of religions have some core values to them that should be engrained into our skulls. For example, respect others around you. This is seen in a lot of different religions and I am positive that an atheist would agree with that same idea. I could go on about others but I am sure you get the gist of what I am saying.

    And it should be noted that there is a large portion of people who choose to not be part of a certain religion simply because they do not agree with how it has been used to gain certain things. Do I need to explain myself on this one? Shall I remind us all about the Crusades? The various "Holy Wars" that have been fought ( and are being fought) because some person or people seek to gain power?

    People fear what they do not understand. Those who do not, are either foolish in some way… or have a good sense of logic.

  • One thing that I do notice is that expressions of hatred towards athiests do seem to be more widely tolerated than expressions against those with any other belief.

    It seems like many people would not want to make a derogatory comment about someone who has a different faith to them but if somebody has no faith, in their eyes it's fair game.

  • We humans are weak and intolerant. Unfortunately, today people are in conflict for any reason. Religion – or lack of religion – should not generate disagreements.

  • The irony is the people of faith should, by definition, be more trusting – not suspicious and fearful.

    Anyone who stands apart and expresses a different view tends to be ostracized by the rest of the tribe. Look at how they treated Jesus!

  • Pingback: Study finds that atheists more compassionate than strongly religious | God Discussion()

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