Can You Trust an Atheist?
Although we don’t persecute individuals for not believing in God anymore, many believers still view atheists as having inferior moral foundations. Specifically, new research out of the University of British Columbia demonstrates that people tend to think that atheists are not trustworthy. In one part of the study researchers presented participants with hypothetical scenarios in which people did something wrong. For example:
Richard is 31 years old. On his way to work one day, he accidentally backed his car into a parked van. Because pedestrians were watching, he got out of his car. He pretended to write down his insurance information. He then tucked the blank note into the van’s window before getting back into his car and driving away.
Next, the researchers asked participants if they thought that it was more probable that Richard was either a 1) teacher or 2) a teacher and an atheist. Other participants were given alternatives: “teacher and a Christian,” “teacher and a Muslim,” or “teacher and a rapist.”
Logically speaking, the correct answer in each case is the teacher – the more specific conditions there are the less probable it is. (See K&T conjunction fallacy if this doesn’t make sense.) Yet, 48 percent of participants who had the choice selected “teacher and an atheist.” Alarmingly, the percent was about the same for those who had the “teacher and a rapist” option. On other hand, participants picked “teacher and a Muslim” only 15 percent of the time and “teacher and a Christian” only 4 percent of the time. “This implies,” as the researchers explain, “that a description of an untrustworthy person is not viewed as representative of religious individuals, be they Christian or Muslim. On the other hand, this description—of an individual who commits insurance fraud and steals money when the chances of detection are minimal—was only seen as representative of atheists and rapists.”
This presents a paradox in three ways. First, the least religious countries (Scandinavian countries namely) in the world are also the most peaceful and cooperative. Second, the decline in violence over the past few centuries was caused by the rise of rational non-secular thinking brought out by the Enlightenment. And third, there is zero evidence that suggests that atheist actually are less trustworthy than religious people or agnostics. So why does this anti-atheist sentiment still exist?
To be sure, it is easy to see why it would exist in a religious country. But the study was conducted in British Columbia, which the authors describe as “among the least religious regions in North America.” (Quote taken from Ideas Market, WSJ). What gives? One answer might be that religion still serves a purpose at the individual level even in countries where it plays no role in the government or the economy.
A brand new paper out of Rice University might have something to say about this. The study found that some atheist scientists (about 17 percent) with children “embrace religious traditions.” Specifically, the study said, they ”want their children to know about different religions so their children can make informed decisions about their own religious preferences.” The authors cited three personal and social reasons for why the atheist scientists decided to incorporate religion into their lives:
- Scientific identity – Study participants wish to expose their children to all sources of knowledge (including religion) and allow them to make their own choices about a religious identity.
- Spousal influence – Study participants are involved in a religious institution because of influence from their spouse or partner.
- Desire for community – Study participants want a sense of moral community and behavior, even if they don’t agree with the religious reasoning.
This research demonstrates “just how tightly linked religion and family are in U.S. society — so much so that even some of society’s least religious people find religion to be important in their private lives,” Rice sociologist Elaine Howard Ecklund explained.
This makes sense to me, and I don’t think these findings should be too surprising to anyone. It seems that at the individual level religion is still seen maybe not necessary, but important. It’s a different story at the national level. I would be very surprised if the study out of British Columbia found that people trusted a government based on Sharia law or what the Pope says more than a government constituted by secular ideals. This resolved the paradox for me – we think about religion differently depending on how it relates to nations and individuals.
- I do not have permission to use the graph. If the researchers or the journal of personal and social psychology have a problem with this please contact me. I will take it down.
Gervais, W., Shariff, A., & Norenzayan, A. (2011). Do you believe in atheists? Distrust is central to anti-atheist prejudice. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 101 (6), 1189-1206 DOI: 10.1037/a0025882