For the past two weeks I’ve been reviewing the academic literature about anti-atheist prejudice in the US (here and here). In both reviews I’ve explained some recommended prejudice mitigating factors and even offered some of my own. This week I’ll let Will M. Gervais of the University of Kentucky take over some of these duties. In his piece “In Godlessness We Distrust: Using Social Psychology to Solve the Puzzle of Anti-atheist Prejudice,” published in Social and Personality Psychology Compass 7/6 (2013): 366–377, Gervais performs a literature review of his own and makes a series of suggestions for how to reduce anti-atheist prejudice.
Using four social psychological models, Gervais tackles the question: How can we explain anti-atheist prejudice? Answering this question is a necessary step towards reducing prejudice.
- A historical view of prejudice as unidimensional. In other words, we like people who are similar to us and dislike those who are not.
- Intergroup conflict approach. In other words, religious in-groups might see atheists as a threat in terms of resources (both tangible and intangible resources).
- Group morality approach. That is, it might be that atheists pose a threat to religions’ inherent morality and scripturally-based values.
- Stereotype content model. In this model, a perception of atheists at certain levels of warmth and competence might espouse a view of atheists as pitiful and envied.
Next, Gervais uses these models and dives into the evolutionary and culturally evolutionary domains of anti-atheist prejudice: how humans evolved to be social animals who either value some humans for their resources or view others as threats. A non-believer in this context breaks from the social norms in a way sufficient to explain prejudice using some of the above-mentioned models. He or she is 1) dissimilar to the group, 2) poses a perceived existential threat, and 3) poses a perceived threat to morals and values.
In terms of cultural evolution, I’ll let Gervais sum up the literature:
Belief in watchful, moralizing gods may produce the same behavioral consequences as does a credible threat of corporeal punishment among believers, but not everybody believes that any gods are watching or even real. Thus, to a believer, atheists might be perceived as a potential cooperative threat.
Once again, we can see how this fits with 1, 2, and 3 above.
Distrust, that ever-recurring theme
As I’ve found in both previous reviews, distrust is the number one cause of prejudice against atheists. This apparent fact is not lost on Gervais, but he has some problems with the methodology that resulted in these findings in previous research. Citing his own previous research, he finds that:
Belief in a morally concerned god appears instrumental in distrust of atheists. At the same time, other factors likely contribute.
That is, it’s easy to infer things about people who identify as Christian or Hindu (etc.) without any more description. On the other hand, it’s incredibly difficult to avoid conjunction fallacies when inferring truths about atheists, leading to suspicion and the view of atheists as wildcards, capable of holding any negative trait.
How can we mitigate anti-atheist prejudice?
Gervais uses this finding as a springboard to make predictions. Most importantly, “distrust is surprisingly malleable.”
First, using a novel approach he developed in the article I reviewed last week,
Providing accurate information about the actual prevalence of atheists might be one purely informational intervention to reduce distrust of atheists.
Atheists are vast, much more numerous than many might expect. Their numbers rival those of the three largest religions in the world. And in contrast to prejudices painting atheists as not trustworthy, atheists do not wreak havoc on the societies in which they live. Just because they are content that god is not there to mete out divine justice does not mean they will break the law. Because of this reality, simply publishing stats about atheist prevalence might greatly reduce anti-atheist prejudice.
Second, science has uncovered many things about the world in which we live that give alternative, non-supernatural meaning to our lives. “Trust in science,” he says:
Alternative sources of meaning and coherence may undermine the motivation that promotes religiosity and in turn reduce anti-atheist prejudice.
In other words, educating people about the findings of science (and, I suppose, philosophy) can reduce the prejudices formed against atheists.
And finally, Gervais brings in one of the most obvious tools for mitigating distrust of atheists: the government. Specifically, the branch of the government with the power to punish wrongdoers. I’ve written about this before. In previous research, Gervais found that reminding people that the police exist reduces distrust of atheists. Gervais sums it up as:
Three experiments also revealed that experimentally priming secular authority concepts reduces believers’ distrust of atheists.
No discussion, but some final notes
This post is merely a pause in the presentation of new material for this ongoing literature review. So far during the last few weeks, I’ve discussed how distrust is a key variable preventing atheists from holding higher office in the US and how atheist prevalence (or the perception of it) can reduce anti-atheist prejudice. This post offers some context and suggestions, via Will M. Gervais. Next week, however, I’m diving back into the cold reality of the prejudices we face as non-believers.
Finally, I’d like to point out that I left out a lot from Gervais’ research in this post, including findings that support the fourth model of prejudice. For example, he has a lengthy discussion about a series of experiments he performed. I skipped over that discussion primarily because I’ll probably review those experiments in the future.