Even Atheists Think that Atheists Are More Likely to Be Immoral Than Believers

"Our findings reveal widespread suspicion that morality requires belief in a god."



Religious believers in the United States and Canada trust atheists just about as much as they do rapists, according to a 2011 study. Now one of that researchers behind that study, University of Kentucky psychologist Will Gervais, has published a new study bolstering his earlier findings. Gervais and his team's new report, published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour, looks beyond North America to survey more than 3,000 people in 13 countries, ranging from secular strongholds like the Netherlands and Finland to such deeply religious places as the United Arab Emirates and India.

To probe the salience of anti-atheist prejudice, the researchers took advantage of people's propensity to fall for the conjunction fallacy—the erroneous assumption that more specific conditions are more probable than general ones. In this particular study, the researchers told a gruesome story in which a man who used to torture animals when he was a boy grew up to kill five homeless people whose dismembered bodies are now buried in his basement. Half of the respondents were asked: Which is more probable? (1) The man is a teacher. (2) The man is a teacher and does not believe in any gods. The other half were asked: Which is more probable? (1) The man is a teacher. (2) The man is a teacher and a religious believer.

"We used this psychopathic serial killer because we thought that, even if people didn't trust atheists enough to let them babysit their children, they wouldn't necessarily assume them to be serial killers," Gervais told the New York Times. But they did. As the Times reports:

About 60 percent of the people who had the option to flag the teacher as an atheist did so; just 30 percent of those who had the option to flag the teacher as a religious believer did so. Self-identified nonbelievers were less biased than the average, but not by much, the study found.

When given the teacher/atheist conjunction, 52 percent of atheists selected it. Asked about the teacher/believer option, only 27 percent of atheists picked it. The only country that did not show any greater prejudice against atheists than believers was Finland.

Why do so many people believe that atheists are more likely to be immoral? The researchers suggest that "anti-atheist prejudice stems, in part, from deeply rooted intuitions about religion's putatively necessary role in morality." Evidently, many people believe that moral behavior requires a belief that something like a sky-god is watching and enforcing good behavior. The researchers note that "highly secular societies are among the most stable and cooperative on Earth. Nonetheless, our findings reveal widespread suspicion that morality requires belief in a god."

Interestingly, Public Religion Research Institute's 2013 American Values Survey reported that "fewer than 6-in-10 (58%) libertarians believe that God is a person with whom one can have a relationship, one-quarter (25%) believe God is an impersonal force in the universe, and 16% report that they do not believe in God."

So what to do? A Pew Research poll earlier this year reported that Americans who don't personally know any atheists feel colder toward them. There may be more of us than is generally thought. In January, Gervais and his colleagues estimated that 26 percent of Americans qualify as atheists. Coming out of the nonbelief closet is one way to begin to overcome anti-atheist prejudice.

Disclosure: I have been out as an atheist since I was a teenager, and as far as I can tell I have not personally experienced any anti-atheist prejudice. I am an atheist in the same way that I am a-unicornist.