On dislike and distrust of atheists

As many people reported back in 2006, atheists are perceived in rather a bad light by many Americans. According to a survey conducted by Penny Edgell and colleagues at the University of Minnesota

Atheists are at the top of the list of groups that Americans find problematic in both public and private life, and the gap between acceptance of atheists and acceptance of other racial and religious minorities is large and persistent. It is striking that the rejection of atheists is so much more common than rejection of other stigmatized groups. For example, while rejection of Muslims may have spiked in post-9/11 America, rejection of atheists was higher. The possibility of same-sex marriage has widely been seen as a threat to a biblical definition of marriage, as Massachusetts, Hawaii, and California have tested the idea, and the debate over the ordination of openly gay clergy has become a central point of controversy within many churches. In our survey, however, concerns about atheists were stronger than concerns about homosexuals.

Edgell and colleagues conducted a telephone survey of 2081 American households over the summer of 2003. First, participants were given a list of racial, ethnic, and religious groups, and asked whether “people in this group agree with YOUR vision of American society—almost completely, mostly, somewhat, or not at all?” Second, respondents were asked “Suppose your son or daughter wanted to marry [a person in given category]. Would you approve of this choice, disapprove of it, or wouldn’t it make any difference at all one way or the other?” For the first question, respondents were asked about recent immigrants and homosexuals, in addition to groups such as Conservative Christians, White Americans, African Americans, Jews, Muslims, and Atheists.

Only 2.2% of respondents answered “not at all” when asked whether White Americans agreed with their vision of America; White Americans can thus be seen as the least “problematic” group. At the other end of the scale are Homosexuals (22.6%), Muslims (26.3%), and Atheists (39.6%). Turning to the second question, respondents said they would most disapprove of the children marrying African Americans (27.2%), Muslims (33.5%), and Atheists (47.6%).

From these results, it would certainly seem that a lot of people don’t care too much for atheists. Two immediate questions arise. First, what is the basis of this dislike? Is it fear? Distrust? Moral outrage? Second, is this rejection of atheism still the case? The data discussed above were collected in 2003. Not really a long time ago, but before the current conception of ‘New Atheism’ became an object of discussion in the mass media. Before Dawkins’ The God Delusion. Before Harris’ The End of Faith. Before Hitchens’ God Is Not Great and Dennett’s Breaking The Spell

Both questions are addressed in a more recent paper from Will Gervais, Azim Shariff, and Ara Norenzayan. Their conclusion is that:

Atheists are among the least liked groups of people in many parts of the world, and the present studies help to explain why. The present six studies converged on the conclusion that distrust is at the core of this particularly powerful, peculiar, and prevalent form of prejudice.

In the first of their six studies, Gervais et al set out to replicate Edgell et al.’s finding that atheists are liked less than homosexuals. Three hundred and fifty-one participants were asked to rank atheists, gay men, and people in general on three scales of 0 to 100: general feeling toward each group, trustworthiness of each group, and disgust towards each group. The results show that atheists were viewed less favorably than the other groups, that atheists were viewed with more distrust than gay men, but that gay men were viewed with more disgust than atheists. These findings indicate that anti-gay prejudice results from disgust, whereas anti-atheist prejudice is rooted in distrust.

The authors then conducted several further studies aimed at examining distrust further. To this end, they modified a classic psychological task, first made famous by Tversky and Kahnemann (1983). In the original version of the task, participants were presented with the following problem:

Linda is 31, single, outspoken, and very bright. She majored in philosophy in college. As a student, she was deeply concerned with discrimination and other social issues, and participated in anti-nuclear demonstrations. Which statement is more likely?

a. Linda is a bank teller.

b. Linda is a bank teller and active in the feminist movement.

Tversky and Kahneman found that 85% of participants answered ‘b’. This response is a conjunction fallacy; it is fallacious because the likelihood of both A and B occurring is always less than the likelihood of either A or B alone. If “A and B” is true, then both A and B have to be true, which is less likely than only A being true or only B being true. To illustrate why this is the case, consider another example:

Which statement is more likely?
a. You will be hit by lighning
b. You will be hit by lightning and you will win the lottery

Clearly both being hit by lightning and winning the lottery are unlikely, but it should also be clear that any one of these two events is more likely than both. So why do people answer that Linda is more likely to be both a bank teller and a femininst? According to Tversky and Kahneman, it is because people tend not to reason using pure logic. Instead we rely on heuristics to guide our decisions. In this case, participants used the representativeness heuristic to guide their judgments. The description of Linda is more representative of a feminist than it was of a bank teller, so people pick the answer that includes the word feminist, ignoring the fact that the conjunction of feminist and bank teller is less likely than either one of these attributes alone.

Gervais et al. modified this task so as to compare the extent to which participants made the conjunction fallacy with different target groups, including atheists. Participants were given the following description:

Richard is 31 years old. On his way to work one day, he accidentally backed his car into a parked van. Because pedestrians were watching, he got out of his car. He pretended to write down his insurance information. He then tucked the blank note into the van’s window before getting back into his car and driving away.

Later the same day, Richard found a wallet on the sidewalk. Nobody was looking, so he took all of the money out of the wallet. He then threw the wallet in a trash can.

Participants were then asked if it is more likely that Richard is
a. A teacher
b. A teacher and a [Christian/Muslim/rapist/atheist]

Participants were placed in four groups. Each group saw of one of the four alternatives presented in answer ‘b’. The point of this task is that Richard is presented as someone who is untrustworthy. As a result, participants should make the conjunction fallacy if they consider the target group presented in answer ‘b’ to be untrustworthy. Given that the prejudice against atheists seems to be driven by distrust, people should be more likely to make the conjunction fallacy when answer ‘b’ is “teacher and atheist” than for, say, “teacher and Christian”. Gervais et al found that participants were significantly more likely to make the conjunction fallacy for ‘atheist’ than ‘Christian’ or ‘Muslim’. Also – and very alarmingly – there was no significant difference in the frequency of conjunction errors between ‘atheist’ and ‘rapist’!

I am going to skip over studies 3-5. Suffice it to say, they all paint a picture of the perception of atheists as untrustworthy. Furthermore, Gervais et al. found that belief in God was associated with higher levels of atheist distrust. In study 6, participants were given the task of choosing between two (fictional) job candidates for two different jobs: waitress and daycare worker. You can probably guess that one of the candidates was presented as religious and one as an atheist. You may also guess that participants preferred the religious candidate for the daycare position, as this job requires someone who is trustworthy. The authors also found that participants with a strong belief in God were less likely to hire the atheist candidate for the high-trust position than participants who did not have a strong belief in God.


Edgell, P., Gerteis. J., & Hartmann, D. (2006). Atheists As “other”: Moral boundaries and cultural membership in American society American Sociological Review, 71 (2), 211-234 DOI: 10.1177/000312240607100203

Gervais, W. M., Shariff, A. F., & Norenzayan, A. (2011). Do you believe in atheists? Distrust is central to anti-atheist prejudice. Journal of personality and social psychology, 101 (6), 1189-206 PMID: 22059841

Tversky, A., & Kahneman, D. (1983). Extension versus intuitive reasoning:
The conjunction fallacy in probability judgment. Psychological Review (90), 293-315 : 10.1037/0033-295X.90.4.293


5 thoughts on “On dislike and distrust of atheists

  1. The video of Pat Robertson blaming the atheists for the Sikh temple shooting is either going to fuel the mistrust — or maybe it will inspire the closeted nonbeliever secular folks to speak up?

  2. Pingback: On reducing anti-atheist prejudice | Cognitive Revolution

  3. Pingback: On hugging atheists | Cognitive Revolution

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