The Relative Comment

soothing waves of relativity

the propensity to distrust Atheists.

with 8 comments

This is a follow-up to some comments from an old post on TRC. It comes up again because it is of interest to the author, though TRC has no specific insights to add. It is just astonishing.

On a post about Mormonism, Religion and Politics, the following comment was made:

Commentor: I’m short of the source at the moment, but I recall reading about a survey showing that significant portions of the populace have qualms about (or refuse to) vot(ing) for an atheist. 30%?… 

AuthorI would expect that number to be much higher than 30%. Atheists and smokers are the two most disliked population groupings in the US.

Yesterday, I came across a study that looked into the general distrust of non-believers. The article, Distrust Feeds Anti-Atheist Prejudice, revealed these results:

A landmark 2006 study, analyzing data from a large survey of Americans, found that atheists “are less likely to be accepted, publicly and privately, than any others from a long list of ethnic, religious and other minority groups.”…researchers noted that “while rejection of Muslims may have spiked in post-9/11 America, rejection of atheists was higher.”… So why are atheists “among the least liked people … in most of the world,” in the words of a research team led by University of British Columbia psychologist Will Gervais? …Atheists, they argue, are widely viewed as people you cannot trust.

Other notes of interest:

  • If you believe – even implicitly – that the prospect of divine retribution is the primary factor inhibiting immoral behavior, then a lack of belief in a higher power could amount to a free pass.
  • nearly half of Americans feel morality is impossible without belief in God
  • There is no actual evidence backing up the assumption that atheism somehow leads to a decline in morality.
  • a strong case could be made that atheists and secular people actually possess a stronger or more ethical sense of social justice than their religious peers,” adding that they, on average, have “lower levels of prejudice, ethnocentrism, racism and homophobia” than the much larger population of believers.
  • with the important exception of suicide, states and nations with a preponderance of nonreligious people actually fare better on most indicators of societal health than those without

All fascinating results. I have no insights or pithy remarks regarding the points. But I have long been surprised by the openness with which American culture demonizes Atheism. (there is of course, plenty of criticism hurled back, it just comes from a much, much smaller population).

If you dispute the notion that atheists are truly distrusted…

…consider one of the experiments. One hundred and five students read a brief vignette about a man who fails to take responsibility when he hits a parked van with his car, and then pockets money from a wallet he finds on a sidewalk.
Participants were asked whether they thought it was more probable that this clearly amoral man was either (a) a teacher, or (b) a teacher and a second identifying factor. That factor varied for individual participants; for some it was “a Christian,” while for others it was “a Muslim,” “a rapist” or “an atheist.”
“A teacher and an atheist” was the equation most likely to chosen over the simple “a teacher.” Astonishingly, it was slightly more likely to be chosen than “a teacher and a rapist.”



Written by Christopher ZF

November 17, 2011 at 14:37

Posted in atheism, religion

8 Responses

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  1. I can explain that last anecdote, because obviously atheists are also rapists. Therefore, the question is a bit skewed. Plus, shouldn’t there be an “all of the above” option?


    November 17, 2011 at 15:50

    • all of the above meaning the actions were undertaken by a Teacher who is a muslim, atheist, christian rapist?
      talk about containing multitudes.


      November 17, 2011 at 15:51

  2. I wonder if this is because of Americans’ inherent distaste of extremism. People who are atheists are generally stridently so. This is similar to Americans’ distaste for politicians who are TOO religious.

    Redhead in Rapid

    November 17, 2011 at 15:51

    • that might be.
      though i question the idea that there are a higher percentage of strident atheists than there are strident any other group. i could be wrong.

      i think its more likely that there are 3 or 4 famous, loud atheists that paint a picture of rational logical reductionist worldviews that get attached to the general secular humanists of the world, who spend most of their days just like most moderate religious folks.


      November 17, 2011 at 15:56

  3. We need to make a hit movie that portrays the moral and social merits of secular humanism. In homage to that last quote we can call it “A Teacher and a Rapist”. Sounds like a summer blockbuster to me.

    Mr. O.

    November 17, 2011 at 16:13

    • it’s called atlas shrugged…


      November 18, 2011 at 02:51

  4. perhaps the reason why Atheists are less trusted is that they do not cling to a higher authority than themselves, whereas religious folks have a rule of faith that they, supposedly, cling to. this is not to say that the majority of practicing religious people do not ascribe to a relative morality, but within that moral construct they often appeal to a higher authority- the religious tradition. atheists might say that they too appeal to a higher authority but that authority is often less regulated by norms which have been accepted by society for the past 1500 years. scientific norms do not speak into a social construct. if they did they would no longer be claiming scientific authority but a pseudo-religious authority, or to put it in O’Connor’s words: a church of christ without christ.


    November 18, 2011 at 03:00

    • i am, of course, referring to western society. i believe you are as well.


      November 18, 2011 at 03:02

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