Canadians Distrust Atheists More Than Feminists and Jews!!111!

Okay, I’ll ‘fess up right now, the title borders on trolling, however there is a point to it right now. If you got your nose too out of joint before reading further, the eleventy-one should have been a big tip-off that it was tongue in cheek.

Yesterday, I wrote a post about whether or not atheists are oppressed and, while researching the question, I realized a great deal of what we categorize as oppression today centers around group identity. I spent a fair amount of time reading Cressida Heyes’ article on the subject on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy website. It’s an interesting article and I highly recommend it.

When I read the statement, “Oppression… is the systematic limiting of opportunity”, I decided to do a bit more research to see if there was much information on the matter of discrimination against atheists. I tried searching using the terms “fired from job for being an atheist.” This led me to a post on Reddit, written by someone from Toronto. The writer worked as a waitress. A customer asked what church she went to and she answered that she didn’t go to church. When asked why, she said that she didn’t believe in God. Shortly afterward, she was fired.

That left a lasting impact on me. For many years I hid the fact I was atheist, not knowing exactly how people would react. It took me till my early 40’s until I was more comfortable admitting my views. It was a shame I let people effect me that way all those years.

What bothers me most is that now, when I get into discussions with theists, they don’t believe my story. They’re in denial about the discrimination atheists face. Does anyone else have a similar story of being fired or being discriminated against?

I continued reading the thread and in it was a link to an article in Scientific American, “In Atheists We Distrust,” that I’ve read before and I’ve seen quoted widely.

Atheists are one of the most disliked groups in America. Only 45 percent of Americans say they would vote for a qualified atheist presidential candidate, and atheists are rated as the least desirable group for a potential son-in-law or daughter-in-law to belong to. Will Gervais at the University of British Columbia recently published a set of studies looking at why atheists are so disliked. His conclusion: It comes down to trust.

Gervais and his colleagues presented participants with a story about a person who accidentally hits a parked car and then fails to leave behind valid insurance information for the other driver. Participants were asked to choose the probability that the person in question was a Christian, a Muslim, a rapist, or an atheist. They thought it equally probable the culprit was an atheist or a rapist, and unlikely the person was a Muslim or Christian.

Having seen this study referenced again and again, I decided it was time to bite the bullet and read the actual study by Gervai, Shariff and Norenzayan, “Do You Believe in Atheists.

Since this article was published, I’ve seen this statement many times, “Americans trust atheists less than rapists,” in comment threads. Although mainstream news sources reporting on this study have been slightly less distorted, the impression is definitely left that it was about the extent of discrimination against atheists in the U.S. population. In fact, the study was intended to not to survey the extent but to explore the psychology of anti-atheist prejudice. According to the authors:

Although prejudice has been a central topic of social psychology for decades, most of this research has been along racial, ethnic, and gender lines. Despite its prevalence and peculiarity, little is known about the social psychology of anti-atheist prejudice. The present article offers the first known systematic exploration of the social psychological processes underlying anti-atheist prejudice and contributes to the scientific understanding of both the psychology of prejudices and the cultural evolutionary landscape of religion.

It’s a shame that this study has been reduced to a click-bait headline because we can use exactly this sort of information. Regarding my own troll-like title, the study had six parts, five of which were done in Canada. In fact, the least interesting part of the study, which is significantly different from the others, is the first part, which was done in the U.S. So, technically, it’s Canadians that trust atheists less than rapists. 😉 Okay, maybe it’s a handful of Canadians.

Another thing that’s inaccurate in the Scientific American report is that the participants were not asked to choose if a person was a Muslim, Christian or Atheist. It utilized a concept known as “conjunction fallacy.” Since the probability that two things are true is less likely than that one thing is true, it is always less likely that the person under consideration is two things rather than one thing. In the study under discussion, they described to the participants someone who commits a variety of selfish and illegal acts. Then they asked if they thought

it more probable that the man was a teacher or a teacher and (a) a Christian, (b) a Muslim, (c) a rapist, and (d) an atheist.

What this demonstrates is a “representative heuristic.” Let’s remember that the researchers are not trying to find out the extent of anti-atheist prejudice but what might lie behind it. They note:

To understand a given form of prejudice, researchers must first understand the threat that the target of prejudice is seen to pose. Only then can they formulate precise hypotheses about the possible reactions that characterize any specific prejudice.

They go on to note that the evolutionary psychologists have been puzzled by large-scale cooperation in human societies. Gervais, et al. cite Frans L. Roes and Michel Raymond. In their paper, “Belief in Moralizing Gods,” they state:

Moral rules imposed by humans invite the suspicion that some members of the group will profit more from these rules than others, but such concerns are alleviated if the rules are convincingly portrayed as having been imposed by impartial gods without material or reproductive interests. If obedience to a certain religious moral rule indeed serves the interests of certain people, they may be expected to deny selfishness and to maintain that the rule reflects the will of the moralizing god. Finally, gods are often considered immortal, so their rules may last for many generations. We therefore suggest that an effective way to impose moral rules on society members is to have these rules prescribed by gods. Belief in these gods signals acceptance of the rules and, for the reasons stated above, we expect more support for the rules (and thus more belief in moralizing gods) in larger societies.

Roes and Raymond did indeed find a “modest but highly significant” correlation between the size of a society and the belief in supernatural beings that can enforce morality.

The particular hypothesis Gervais, et al. set out to test is whether or not anti-atheist prejudice is based on distrust. The use of “rapist”, besides making great click bait, was intended as an example of someone who would not be trusted. They establish that distrust is a feature of anti-atheist prejudice.

There are very few studies about atheists. It’s even difficult to make seemingly simple statements about how many of us there are and what our demographics might be. If we want to combat anti-atheist prejudice, it would behoove us to take a look at the few studies we have a note what they actually say. To this end it would be worth taking a look at some of the conclusions of this article.

Different prejudices have different characteristics. Anti-gay prejudice is often characterized by feelings of disgust. In contrast, anti-atheist prejudice is characterized by feelings of distrust. It appears to have little to nothing to do with unpleasantness. Someone might like an atheist but not trust him or her. (So don’t bother about being a “nice” atheist, maybe?) People who are religiously unaffiliated also distrust atheists. However, people who reported a stronger belief in a god or gods are more likely to distrust atheists.

Supporting another key prediction derived from our framework, belief in God proved to be a potent predictor of atheist distrust (Studies 1, 3–6). Importantly, this relationship was fully mediated by the belief that people behave better if they feel that God monitors their behavior (Study 4).

The authors note that they chose a framework that would enable them to make generalizations about anti-atheist prejudice around the world, not simply in North America. Because strongly religious people were more distrustful of atheists, the researches expect that more religious regions will have more anti-atheist prejudice. They also note the context-sensitivity of anti-atheist prejudice. People who are in a mating market they perceive as competitive report increased religious belief.

The authors further note that religion helps to explain cooperative human behavior in the absence of large-scale institutions. Furthermore, “societal-level existential security (as guaranteed by many modern social institutions) is a persistent predictor of reduced religious belief.” That government institutions guaranteeing some security reduce anti-atheist prejudice is a possibility that our libertarian and anarchist friends might like to mull over.


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