Study Explores Believers' Distrust of Atheists

A recent study out of the University of British Columbia has found that distrust is the primary reason religious people don't like atheists and suggests atheists are less trusted than rapists in certain situations.

"Where there are religious majorities – that is, in most of the world – atheists are among the least trusted people," said Will Gervais, lead author on the study and a doctoral student at UBC, in a statement. "With more than half a billion atheists worldwide, this prejudice has the potential to affect a substantial number of people."

Researchers Ara Norenzayan, an associate professor at UBC, and Azim Shariff, an assistant professor at the University of Oregon, also contributed to the study, which is titled “Do you believe in atheists?” and examines prejudice against nonbelievers. The study appears in the current online issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

The research was conducted over the course of six studies involving 350 American adults and nearly 420 Canadian university students. In each study the participants were asked to provide answers to a variety of hypothetical questions.

In one of the studies, participants said atheists more closely matched the description of an untrustworthy person than Muslims, Jews, Christians, feminists or homosexual men did. The only people that were counted nearly as untrustworthy as atheists were rapists, who are described by the study as an “unambiguously distrusted group.”

"This antipathy is striking, as atheists are not a coherent, visible or powerful social group," said Gervais. One of the reasons the researchers gave for this distrust of nonbelievers, however, is a shared feeling “that people behave better if they feel that God monitors their behavior.”

“While atheists may see their disbelief as a private matter on a metaphysical issue, believers may consider atheists’ absence of belief as a public threat to cooperation and honesty,” said Norenzayan.

Norenzayan also explained that a significant motivator behind conducting the research was a Gallup poll that found that only 45 percent of Americans would vote for an atheist presidential candidate, even if he or she was otherwise qualified for the job. Those polled also said atheists are the group that least agrees with their vision for America.

Interestingly, the Secular Coalition for America recently claimed there are 28 atheists in our nation's Congress, but said Calif. Rep. Pete Stark is the only one who has gone public with his nonbelief.

The UBC study was conducted in the “atypically secular settings of a university, in one of the most secular cities in North America,” indicating atheist distrust might be even stronger in “more typically religious areas.”

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