Anti-Atheist Prejudice (Part 5): What We Know So Far

[Published a day early because I will be very busy tomorrow]

Anti-Atheist prejudice is an under-studied phenomenon, seemingly viewed by academics as systemic but not important or, by lay people, as irrelevant. Whatever the case may be prejudice against atheists is an important phenomenon to study because it gives us insight into the cultural psychology of modern society. Why do self-described “open minded” people have difficulty accepting non-religious people for public office, for example? Common sense would have us believe a society that (relatively speaking) accepts religious diversity should also accept non-religion as a legitimate alternative. This is not the case, however, and atheism remains one of the final taboos in the US society.

Over the last several weeks I’ve been combing through some of the literature about anti-atheist prejudice. First, one study suggested the disparity between the electability to public office of religious people and atheists rests on the assumption that atheists are distrustful, disgusting, and threatening. Second, another study found a negative correlation between atheist prevalence in a society and the level of prejudice against atheists. The study also found that as the atheist prevalence increases, distrust decreases. In other words, simply reminding people that atheists are prevalent helps to overcome the findings in the first study in this series. Third, the next study offers several surprisingly easy steps we can take to help increase trust of atheists. Finally, the fourth study suggests that the presumptions about the positive effects religion and spirituality has on psychological health often has detrimental consequences. This final study is beyond the scope of this post, and I won’t be discussing it.

As we’ve noted, distrust appears to be the recurring theme in anti-atheist prejudice research. All three studies (addressed in this post) find that the public simply has a difficult time trusting atheists. Additionally, previously I reviewed another study that made similar conclusions: Distrust of atheists can be mitigated by reminding people the police exist. These studies help close major gaps in our knowledge about anti-atheist prejudice, but, as we all know, correlation does not equal causation. Therefore, more research is needed.

But research is not the goal of this project. Instead, we will continue looking to the literature and trying to put this puzzle together. And upon doing so something glaring stands out. People generally distrust atheists, but they can’t seem to agree on why atheists are distrustful.

Contradictory Narratives

In “Atheists As “Other”: Moral Boundaries and Cultural Membership in American Society,” American Sociological Review, April 2006 vol. 71 no. 2 211-234, researchers conducted a rather large multivariate analysis using survey data and followed it up with personal interviews to help give us insight into Americans’ views on non-religion. The article itself is rather in-depth. For the purpose of this post, I’ll be looking only at post-survey interviews.

Of particular note, interviewees could not agree on why atheists were distrustful. Some viewed atheists as criminals and degenerates who undermine society from the bottom classes. Others viewed atheists as elitists and materialists whose greed and self-importance erodes society from the upper echelons. The researchers put it thusly (pp. 225-7):

Respondents had various interpretations of what atheists are like and what that label means. Those whom we interviewed view atheists in two different ways. Some people view atheists as problematic because they associate them with illegality, such as drug use and prostitution — that is, with immoral people who threaten respectable community from the lower end of the status hierarchy. Others saw atheists as rampant materialists and cultural elitists that threaten common values from above — the ostentatiously wealthy who make a lifestyle out of consumption or the cultural elites who think they know better than everyone else. Both of those themes rests on a view of atheists as self-interested individualists who are not concerned with the common good.

Two things stand out here. First, these narratives are disparate. And second, despite this discrepancy, these narratives meet at a common theme: self-interest. In other words, both of these groups agree that atheists are self-interested people, and that is the major problem. On the other hand, however, neither group agrees on why. This contradiction undermines the strength of their claim. How do they know atheists are self-interested troublemakers if one group views them as drug addicted rapists, and the other views them as over-indulgent and uncaring millionaires? They can’t be both, so who’s to say they’re either? That’s not to say one can’t be right, but in order for one to be correct they’d need to demonstrate how their view is correct. I’ll hypothesize here that that’s a very tall order (because it’s simply not true).

Furthermore, that is a false dichotomy anyway. Our goal is not to get people to demonstrate why atheists are self-interested troublemakers; the goal is to determine the probable causes of people’s views of atheists as self-interested troublemakers and demonstrate that.

But these competing narratives are also part of the scientific question. The authors conclude this section (before changing gears) (p. 228):

In these interviews, the atheist emerges as a culturally powerful “other” in part because the category is multivalent (Turner 1974), loaded with multiple meanings. … To put it somewhat differently, atheists can be symbolically placed at either end of the American status hierarchy. What holds these seemingly contradictory views together is that the problem of the atheist was perceived to be a problem of self-interest, an excessive individualism that undermines trust in the public good. … It is important to note that our respondents did not refer to particular atheists whom they had encountered. Rather they used the atheist as a symbolic figure to represent their fears about those trends in American life — increasing criminality, rampant self-interest, an unaccountable elite — that they believe undermine trust and a common sense of purpose.

In other words, the respondents created an image of the atheist to help them explain their perceptions of criminality, greed, and empathy. The fact that atheists can rest at either end of the social spectrum is merely incidental.

Where Do We Go from Here?

Will M. Gervais has conducted several studies into anti-atheist prejudice, which I’ve covered to some extent in the past. He makes several novel suggestions. For example, simply telling people that X number of atheists live in their society should reduce levels of distrust of atheists. This suggestion fits with some of the findings above. Because the atheist was constructed symbolically to explain certain phenomena, without regard to individual atheists they may have met, reminding people that atheists are prevalent might compel them to rethink their conclusions about atheists. That is, if atheists really are self-interested troublemakers, we should expect the crime and incarceration rates to reflect that population. Furthermore, as more and more closeted atheists publicly declare their non-belief, more people should come to reject this stereotype; “My son’s an atheist, and he’s not a criminal,” a mother might say.

Of course, this is all up to people to do. Science cannot compel people to behave a certain way.

The gaps in our knowledge are still pretty wide, but we’re beginning to see some trends. Prejudice against atheists is based on distrust. Distrust of atheists is based on perceptions of atheists as self-interested, despite a contradiction. The contradiction can be explained by symbolically calling the atheist an “other” who simultaneously rests at both extreme ends of the American social spectrum. These can be mitigated by, for example, informing people about atheist prevalence.

About Rayan Zehn

I'm a political scientist.
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1 Response to Anti-Atheist Prejudice (Part 5): What We Know So Far

  1. Barry says:

    What is it that causes Americans to believe religion – any religion – is better than no religion at all? In the western world, this seems to be unique to the US. Here in Aotearoa New Zealand, voters will not usually know the religion or sexual orientation of those standing for office. Unless the candidate brings up their religion (which is unwise) or sexual orientation (safer), it’s simply considered a private matter and of no interest to the public or news media. Long may it stay that way.

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