What Do People Like About Atheists?
Atheists often face discrimination. In a 2014 poll from the Pew Research Center, 53% of American adults said they would be less likely to support a presidential candidate who was an atheist. This makes atheism a bigger hurdle to being elected than being gay or lesbian, having no experience in office, or even having an extramarital affair! What’s more, these numbers were an improvement for atheists over a 2007 poll.
What is it that people dislike about atheists? Will Gervais and his colleagues have often used a method called the conjunction fallacy to examine stereotypes about atheists. In the conjunction fallacy, people are given a description of a person, such as a woman who majored in philosophy in college and is active in anti-nuclear demonstrations. They are then asked which of the following is more likely: (A) She is a bank teller, or (B) She is a bank teller and is active in the feminist movement. Because many people think the person originally described seems like a feminist, many people choose (B), even though the occurrence of two possible events together (the conjunction) can’t be more likely than the probability of one of them alone.
The conjunction fallacy provides a useful way to examine stereotypes. Researchers can alter the description (e.g., to a murderer) and change the options to different groups (such as an atheist instead of a feminist) to examine stereotypes about different groups. This method has revealed some nasty stereotypes about atheists—people seem to associate atheism (but not religious people) with serial murder, cannibalism, bestiality, incest, and many other immoral acts. Moreover, even atheists themselves tend to hold these stereotypes of atheists as immoral.
My colleagues and I were interested in whether people might hold any positive stereotypes about a group that receives so much prejudice. But what type of stereotypes might those be?
Based on prior research on stereotypes about atheists and behaviors that are associated with atheism, we came up with three potential positive stereotypes. First, prior research found that people strongly stereotype religious people as family oriented, and that this even might help explain why religious people are trusted more than nonreligious people. We reasoned that, even if this stereotype leads to distrust, it might also lead people to view atheists as relatively fun—uninhibited, willing to break rules, etc.
Some research has also linked atheism with both open-mindedness (willingness to affiliate with diverse crowds and to consider new opinions in light of evidence) and scientific ability, at least in the United States. We reasoned that people might also stereotype atheists positively in these domains as well.
In our first two studies, we used the conjunction fallacy to see if people are more likely to choose the “atheist” than the “religious” option for these positive traits. We also included negative versions of these traits—descriptions of someone who is not at all fun, very closed-minded, and totally uninterested in science. Our first study suggested that people do hold these three positive stereotypes about atheists (compared to religious people). Our second study found that people even endorse these positive stereotypes while simultaneously associating atheism with serial murder.
Just as people endorsed these positive stereotypes of atheists (with higher rates of committing the conjunction fallacy), they also endorsed the corresponding negative stereotypes of religious people. In fact, the effects seem even more consistent for stereotypes of religious individuals—both the negative stereotypes (i.e., not fun, closed-minded, and unscientific) as well as the positive stereotype about morality.
In our third study, we asked people to choose whether they would prefer to interact with atheist or religious people for certain purposes (as well as several other questions so that the purpose of the study was not obvious). On a 1-8 scale, they were able to rate how strongly they preferred atheist vs. religious partners. Our participants tended to favor atheist partners for party hosts (which requires being “fun”), for open-minded conversations, and as science tutors.
An important question is whether religious and nonreligious people both agree on these stereotypes. Our findings were fairly clear for participants of average religiosity, but were smaller and somewhat inconsistent for participants high in religiosity. For example, in Study 1 the highly religious endorsed the fun and scientific stereotypes, but in Study 2 they only endorsed the scientific stereotype. In Study 3, the highly religious did not systematically choose atheist or religious partners—they tended to choose near the middle.
Many atheists are reluctant to disclose their disbelief to others, and for good reason! However, the story is much more complex than a simple stereotype of atheists being bad. When people meet other people, they usually know more than just their religion, and make complex inferences based on several cues. This research suggests that, even though being open about disbelief probably won’t help you be viewed as trustworthy, it may improve the impression you make in other ways.
For Further Reading
Gervais, W. M. (2013). In Godlessness we distrust: Using social psychology to solve the puzzle of anti-atheist prejudice. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 7(6), 366–377. https://doi.org/10.1111/spc3.12035
Moon, J. W., Krems, J. A., & Cohen, A. B. (2018). Religious people are trusted because they are viewed as slow life-history strategists. Psychological Science, 29(6), 947–960. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797617753606
Moon, J. W., Krems, J. A., & Cohen, A. B. (2021). Is there anything good about atheists? Exploring positive and negative stereotypes of the religious and nonreligious. Social Psychological and Personality Science. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1177/1948550620982703
Jordan W. Moon is a PhD student at Arizona State University. His work focuses on morality, religion, and prejudice.