Anti-gay? Anti-Jew? Anti-Muslim? It’s those atheists we trust least

Some people, for some reason, just don’t like gays. Others have no time for Jewish people. And don’t even get me started on Muslims. But when it comes to being open targets of hostility, consider the poor atheist – apparently among the least-liked people around. That’s what Vancouver’s Will Gervais found in his study on anti-atheist sentiment published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology recently.  The University of British Columbia doctoral student’s study was among the first explorations of the social/psychological processes underlying this hostility towards those who don’t believe in a god.  Gervais, who co-authored the study with UBC prof Ara Norenzayan along with Azim Shariff of the University of Oregon, explains:

“This antipathy is striking, as atheists are not a coherent, visible or powerful social group. Where there are religious majorities, atheists are among the least trusted people.”

These study results* also suggested anti-atheist prejudice was characterized by distrust, while anti-gay prejudice was characterized by disgust.

In one part of this study, participants found a description of an untrustworthy person to be far more representative of atheists than of Christians, Muslims, gay men, feminists or Jewish people.

Only rapists were distrusted to a comparable degree.

Some sociologists believe that this surprisingly negative perception of atheists may stem from a basic misunderstanding of morality. A 2002 Pew poll, for example, found that nearly half of Americans believe morality is impossible without personal belief in a supreme being.

And according to a 2007 Gallup poll, only 45% of Americans would vote for a qualified atheist as president.

It gets worse: a new report from the International Humanist and Ethical Union names the seven countries in which atheists can be executed for their beliefs: Afghanistan, Iran, Maldives, Mauritania, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Sudan.

A University of Minnesota study** published in the journal American Sociological Review (April 2006) also found that Americans rate atheists below Muslims, recent immigrants, gays and lesbians and other minority groups in “sharing their vision of American society.” Atheists are also the minority group most Americans are least willing to allow their children to marry.

That study’s lead researcher Dr. Penny Edgell explained in a UofM news release at the time:

“Today’s atheists play the role that catholics, Jews and communists have played in the past. They offer a symbolic moral boundary to membership in American society.

“It seems most Americans believe that diversity is fine, as long as every one shares a common ‘core’ of values that make them trustworthy – and that ‘core’ has historically been religious.”

Many atheists who are tired of being lumped in with rapists and their ilk are apparently trying to wage their own pro-active public relations campaign. They may not have a church or mosque or temple they attend regularly, but some do belong to groups of like-minded people. One such group in Washington state is called Seattle Atheists. Their president is Shellie Brighton, who explains:

“The word ‘atheist’ has such negative connotation that even people without a god belief don’t like to label themselves that way.”

Last December, Seattle Atheists purchased bus ad space on a dozen King County Metro bus routes to help publicize its atheism awareness campaign. Four 12-foot banner ads showed everyday scenes:  four hikers, four knitters, four commuters at a bus stop, and a family of four decorating a Christmas tree. Each had the slogan, “One in 4 is an atheist” along with a link to their  campaign website. Seattle Atheists issued a statement that explained:

“Atheists are pretty much like everyone else. They’re bus drivers and engineers, baristas and doctors, smart people who take pride in their work, love their families – just like religious people.”

Apparently, many churchgoers are just not buying that message, however. Tolerance seems to flow in one direction only for far too many of these people. As a person who was raised in a devoutly catholic family, my own observation has often been that some of the kindest and most decent people I know are not even the slightest bit religious, while some of the worst intolerance and lack of respect for differing opinions is exhibited by the most publicly devout of believers.

It seems I’m not alone in those observations. It turns out, in fact, that intolerance and prejudice may actually be higher among those who identify themselves as religious believers, according to landmark research published by the “godfathers of personality and social psychology”, Drs. Gordon Allport and J. Michael Ross.*** They observed, for example:

“On the average, churchgoers are more prejudiced than non-churchgoers, and those people with an extrinsic religious orientation are significantly more prejudiced than people with an intrinsic religious orientation.”

Dr. Allport developed this intrinsic/extrinsic scale to measure the quality of religious belief. Here’s the interesting difference between extrinsic and intrinsic churchgoers:

◊   Extrinsic religious orientation is a method of using religion to achieve non-religious goals, essentially viewing religion as a means to an end by people who are often prone to twist religious beliefs to serve their own goals. People high in this external religious orientation use religion to provide security, solace, sociability, status and self-justification. (Example: a politician who goes to church in order to gain votes).

◊   Intrinsic religious orientation is a sincere belief in the teachings of a particular religion by people who live their religion, and as a result may be  less prejudiced to the extent that mainstream religions now generally teach inter-group tolerance. Most of these churchgoers show little correlation for racial prejudice, but do show a positive correlation for prejudice against gay people. (Example: a person who truly believes in their religion and uses this belief as a guide to all aspects of life).

In 2009, a number of Seattle religious groups reacted angrily after the city’s Metro transit agency ran the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s atheist bus ads reading: “Yes, Virginia, there is no god.”

The first North American bus ads like these appeared in November 2008 on buses in Washington, DC, saying: “Why believe in a god? Just be good for goodness’ sake” – but there was little apparent public outcry to that message at the time.

The following year, U.K. buses in London and other big British cities ran large British Humanist Association ads running down the sides saying: “There is probably no god. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.”

The U.K. Advertising Standards Authority reported that some Brits complained about the atheist bus campaign. In fact, this ad made the agency’s Top 10 list of the most complained-about ads for 2009.

But oddly enough, more people during that same year complained about one of the Christian bus ads that were run as a counter-response on 175 British buses by the Christian Party, the Trinitarian Bible Society and the Russian Orthodox Church.

The Christian Party ads read: “There definitely is a god. So join the Christian Party and enjoy your life.”

This pro-Christian bus ad not only topped the Top 10 list of most complained-about ads in 2009, it turned out to be the most complained-about non-broadcast ad campaign ever in the U.K.

And no wonder. When the International Social Survey Program conducted an in-depth study of religious beliefs in 45 nations over five continents in 1991 and 1993, it asked people if they agreed or disagreed with the statement, “I know god exists and I have no doubts about it”.  In Britain, only 23.8 percent of people said they agreed.

Meanwhile, in his UBC study on anti-atheist sentiment, Will Gervais made this observation about the lack of tolerance for atheists among churchgoers:

With more than half a billion atheists worldwide, this prejudice has the potential to affect a substantial number of people.”  

See also:


* Gervais, W. M., Shariff, A. F., & Norenzayan, A. “Do You Believe in Atheists? Distrust is Central to Anti-Atheist Prejudice.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology © 2011 American Psychological Association.  2011, Vol. 101, No. 6, 1189–1206 0022-3514/11/DOI: 10.1037/a0025882
**  Edgell, P et al. “Atheists As ‘Other’: Moral Boundaries and Cultural Membership in American Society”. American Sociological Review April 2006 vol. 71 no. 2 211-234 . doi: 10.1177/000312240607100203  
*** Allport, G.W.; Ross, J.M. “Personal religious orientation and prejudice.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 5(4), Apr 1967, 432-443. doi: 10.1037/h0021212

9 thoughts on “Anti-gay? Anti-Jew? Anti-Muslim? It’s those atheists we trust least

  1. VERY good article but, to quote Francis X. Urquhart
    “”You might very well think that; I couldn’t possibly comment.”

    (Have to avoid hate mail, ya know? LOL)

  2. This is a terrific topic.

    “nearly half of Americans believe morality is impossible without personal belief in a supreme being”

    Many atheists are more moral than many theists, for the latter rely for their morality on the directive of a god. Atheists act morally because they’ve had to think about how to act. They don’t act morally, for example, out of fear of damnation. They act because they’ve learned what is right and wrong from their upbringing, from study, from circumstances, etc.

    And if morality is an unchanging standard, one that even a god can’t change, then a god, or The God, has no control over morality. But if morality is something changeable, depending on what a god decides is moral, then theists would change their actions in a heartbeat, not based on what they believe to be moral, but on the new dictates of their god.

    Moral atheists, though, hold to an inner standard, based, again, on upbringing, from study, from circumstances, etc. They don’t base their morality on the whims of the gods.

    As Socrates asked, do the gods love something because it is good, or is something good because the gods love it? Just remove the gods or God from the question, and there is an answer. Atheists don’t need gods to know murder is wrong, that child molestation is wrong, that lying is wrong, that making war, not love, is wrong. But theists do.

    • While it’s unfair to generalize one way or another, Dave, one can’t help but wonder about theists like those in the catholic church, whose predator priests sexually abused generations of vulnerable minors while church officials calmly looked the other way. Maybe they need a few atheists at the Vatican to help advise the devout on the basic differences between right and wrong?

  3. While mostly agreeing with the post and the comments I’d be willing to bet there are quite a few atheists who do commit murder, are rapists, thieves etc.

    But I do agree with this: “Many atheists are more moral than many theists”.

    “Many”—– not all. That probably what was meant.— Just saying.

    • I wrote specifically about atheists who are moral. Certainly there are immoral atheists. My point remains: atheists can be as moral or more moral as theists.

  4. What a wonderful, refreshing take on atheism. I have never bought the argument that you have to believe in god to be a moral person.

    I respect other people’s religious beliefs, just as I think they should respect my lack of belief in a higher power. Whichever way you look at it, life is a gift, and it’s one I am deeply grateful for, whatever the source. As always, you argue persuasively and intelligently without attacking either side.

    • Interesting points, Kate (especially the part about me being persuasive and intelligent!) I suspect however that, in reality, this ideal mutual respect is a tad one-sided just as the UBC research seems to suggest: not much respect out there among churchgoers for that “lack of belief” in others. Thanks for your perspective here!

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