I don’t have to remind you of this, but we’re all going to die. Some of us sooner than others. In fact the odds are essentially 100% that we’ll all be dead in 100 years. Every last one of us. This knowledge is—as far as we know—distinctly human and also distinctly terrifying. Thinking about our own mortality is not something we enjoy doing, and I’d assume most of us go out of our way to avoid thinking about it. And when things make us think about death, we tend to avoid those things too, even if they’re other human beings. This phenomenon is called Terror Management Theory. Such is the theme of the latest study into anti-atheist prejudice.
In the online April 2015 early release of Social Psychological and Personality Science, researchers Corey L. Cook, Florette Cohen, and Sheldon Solomon published “What If They’re Right About the Afterlife? Evidence of the Role of Existential Threat on Anti-Atheist Prejudice.” They attempt to determine to what extent atheists pose an existential threat to religious people in terms of the realization that death is inevitable. In other words, do atheists make people think about death? And does this cause them to feel threatened by atheists?
Cook, et al, conduct two studies “to establish that existential concerns contribute to anti-atheist sentiments” (abstract).
In the first experiment the results show “that people have generally negative impressions, accompanied by high levels of distrust, of atheists,” which supports previous posts I’ve done on anti-atheist prejudice. Moreover, however, the results indicate “participants became more negative, more distant, and more distrustful of atheists after reflecting on their own mortality” (p. 5).
In the second experiment the researchers find “just thinking about atheism increased implicit death thought accessibility to the same level as a traditional MS [morality salience] induction” (p. 5). In other words, thinking about atheism caused the test subjects to think about death, which, in turn, it can be argued, expounded the results in the first experiment. The researchers put it this way: “Experiment 1 showed that atheists were also perceived as more untrustworthy following an MS induction” (p. 6).
At first glance it seems the answers we’ve gotten over several weeks about anti-atheist prejudice offer us contradictory findings. On the one hand, previous research (especially by Gervais, et al) indicates a cultural attitude towards atheists as not trustworthy. On the other hand, this research suggests anti-atheist prejudice can be explained using “an existential psychodynamic perspective” (p. 5). Cook, et al, point out that these findings are disparate merely because the approaches are disparate. When we account for that we can begin to see how Gervais’ and Cook’s findings complement each other. That is, from a cultural evolutionary standpoint, “people are particularly attuned to cues indicating untrustworthiness” (p. 5), and “atheists pose an existential challenge to central tenets of believers’ cultural worldviews, and are thus disparaged when concerns about mortality are aroused” (p. 5-6).
We might say that the afterlife is a rather important feature in some societies. When non-belief is considered it stands in contrast with this social feature and elicits distrust against those who don’t share the cultural belief.
I was rather excited when I first discovered this study. During the last five parts of this literature review, distrust was a recurring theme, but it appeared to be drying out. There’s only so many ways we can study distrust, and the overlap was becoming apparent. That’s not to say the previous studies are weak—just the opposite. Similar findings across the board generally means researchers are doing something right. But the previous research can’t close all the gaps in our knowledge, so it was refreshing to find an alternate way to come to conclusions about anti-atheist prejudice. This study is remarkable to me because—prior to reading it—I had no idea people could feel existentially threatened when I speak of atheism.
Finally, although the researchers point out some interesting future research points, I feel they overlooked an important one entirely. For both experiments, their subjects are college students. Although students can range from ~18 to 100+, most fall around 20 years old or so. I’m wondering if we’d get different results if we reran the study using people over 60. Older people view death differently than younger or middle aged people. Might they be less adversely affected by thoughts of death and therefore more willing to view atheists with more acceptance and less prejudice? I don’t know, but it would be a very cool research project.
For more info on this general concept—thinking about mortality—Wikipedia has a pretty good introduction to Terror Management Theory. Because psychology is not my field of expertise, I had to read up on it prior to reading Cook’s article.
This post is part of my Sunday Science series.