A new study, Do You Believe in Atheists? Distrust is Central to Anti-Atheist Prejudice [PDF], probing the attitudes of people toward atheists has just been published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. The abstract reports:
Recent polls indicate that atheists are among the least liked people in areas with religious majorities (i.e., in most of the world). The sociofunctional approach to prejudice, combined with a cultural evolutionary theory of religion's effects on cooperation, suggest that anti-atheist prejudice is particularly motivated by distrust. Consistent with this theoretical framework, a broad sample of American adults revealed that distrust characterized anti-atheist prejudice, but not anti-gay prejudice (Study 1). In subsequent studies, distrust of atheists generalized even to participants from more liberal, secular populations. A description of a criminally untrustworthy individual was seen as comparably representative of atheists and rapists, but not representative of Christians, Muslims, Jewish people, feminists, or homosexuals (Studies 2-4). In addition, results were consistent with the hypothesis that the relationship between belief in God and atheist distrust was fully mediated by the belief that people behave better if they feel that God is watching them (Study 4). In implicit measures, participants strongly associated atheists with distrust, and belief in God was more strongly associated with implicit distrust of atheists than with implicit dislike of atheists (Study 5). Finally, atheists were systematically socially excluded only in high-trust domains; belief in God, but not authoritarianism, predicted this discriminatory decision-making against atheists in high trust domains (Study 6). These six studies are the first to systematically explore the social psychological underpinnings of anti-atheist prejudice, and converge to indicate the centrality of distrust in this phenomenon.
Why are atheists so distrusted by believers? ScienceDaily reports one speculation from the lead researcher:
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."
A recent Gallup poll noted (on the basis of an heroic assumption that a candidate for president was "well qualified") that 78 percent of Americans would vote for a Mormon, 67 percent for a gay, 89 percent for a Jew. Only 49 percent said that they would vote for an atheist. But there's good news—in 1958 only 18 percent said that they'd vote for an atheist.
I wonder if pollsters have ever asked atheists how they feel about voting for various sorts of believers, say, fundamentalist Christians?
Hat tip to Mark Sletten.
Disclosure: I am an atheist in the same way that I am an a-unicornist. I am also trustworthy (except perhaps when it comes to meeting writing deadlines).