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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

15 Comments Post a comment
  1. First, *of course* atheists aren’t inherently immoral contingent on atheism. Speaking as a Christian, there’s nothing in the teachings of that religion that automatically saddles atheists with the immoral label. Some atheists put the religious to shame in the ethical arena.

    I’ve always maintained that the atheist’s problem isn’t so much a problem of moral knowledge (epistemology) as one of source (ontology). I think these Canadians drawing wildly illogical conclusions as they are, are doing so based on the intuitive idea that, for atheists, it is perhaps easier—for lack of a better word—to rationalize immoral behavior. “Fine,” they may surmise, “the atheist may know or feel what he’s doing is wrong, but on his worldview, at a completely atavistic, Darwinian level, no one is watching, why shouldn’t he do what benefits him?”

    It is a view that is, of course, wrong. Even the religious do these kinds of things all the time, but it seems to me there is a difference: if the religious are indeed so—and not merely stating they are—then they live sub specie aeternitatis, in the sure knowledge (be it true or not doesn’t matter for now) that God or some other celestial being will surely mete out punishments as necessary. Because of this, as Hitchens put it, celestial North Korean dictatorship, the religious may take a quick stutter step on the way to faking that note.

    My two very quick cents.

    December 2, 2011
    • sammcnerney #

      1) Christianity, and all the Abrahamic religions hold non believers as immoral and damned to hell. So when you say, “Speaking as a Christian, there’s nothing in the teachings of that religion that automatically saddles atheists with the immoral label,” I don’t think you are indicative of a Christianity.

      2) The researchers are not drawing their conclusions on an “intuitive idea,” they are drawing their conclusions off of the data they gathered.

      December 4, 2011
      • 1) That is absolutely not true. Would you like to show me where this is mentioned in any of the literature?

        2) I’m not saying the researchers are drawing their conclusions based on whatever, I’m attempting to explain why the Canadians polled are drawing their conclusions, Sam. Read closer.

        December 5, 2011
        • sammcnerney #

          Luke 19:27 comes to mind. (And to be sure, I am criticizing a traditional version of Christianity.) Islam has pretty much the same message.

          December 5, 2011
  2. specularimage #

    posh, Darwin day should be the new Christmas, we should buy even bacteria presents to celebrate the familial yuletides of the slugs!

    December 2, 2011
    • sammcnerney #

      I love it

      December 4, 2011
  3. jm hatch #

    They should have done another study for balance. Let me propose the scenario: John, a single parent, found his day care had been leveled by Timothy McVeigh (Before anyone starts shooting of that he was an atheist, note that before his execution, McVeigh took the Catholic sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick). John is now desperate to find someone to watch over his young son and pre-teen daughter while he goes for a job interview. His options are:
    (A) a catholic priest who has just be shuffled in from another diocese,
    (B) a mullah who just arrived from Somalia with a large # of young “daughters” all of similar same age who are never allowed out of the house
    (C) a Hindu Aghori Sadhu (for the un-informed, they eat human flesh as preparation to enter Nirvana)
    (D) an Atheist who retired from teaching science at the near by university.

    December 2, 2011
    • sammcnerney #

      In this context, yes, an atheist sounds wonderful.

      December 4, 2011
  4. I love the train of thought.

    The heart of the matter is the recognition of unconscious fallacious correlations in the face of conjunctional likelihoods. Though I do notice this analysis had room for misappropriation.

    Situation: driver hits car. Seen doing so. Will they “do the right thing?”

    Then we move to atheistic nation’s safety.

    That shift is where an assumed corollary arises. We move from a question of honesty to questioning criminal, potentially homicidal, intentions. Since the framework presented is one of science, we must not conclude more than is empirically evident.

    In this scenario, it appears that those within this polled population believes they can trust an atheist to be as forthcoming as a rapist when they hit a car accidentally (note that the writing gives us insight into the intentions of the accused) and they can trust Christians and Muslims long before these other two groups.

    With that clarification set along a conversation of honesty rather than holistic trustworthiness, it’s still revealing to societal generalizations.

    And frankly, it’s fucked up.

    December 3, 2011
    • sammcnerney #

      Not sure what you are trying to say Matthew, could you explain more?

      December 4, 2011
  5. Sam writes that there is zero evidence that religious people are more trustworthy than athiests. I would have been more interested if he conducted an experiment or found some evidence one way or the other.

    December 7, 2011
  6. he hated all atheist and admeittd that for my non religious beliefs he hated me and thought it would be better if I would die. I didn’t take well to his insults and lets just say the end result was a screaming and swearing match. In the city of Vancouver I was completely shocked to encounter such unfounded hatred and prejudice! Fortunately my bosses supported me and let him go but I’m disgusted to know that people who can hate so blindly live among us.

    October 23, 2013

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