In my last post, I discussed research by Edgell et al. showing that atheists are the most disliked group in America. I also described a series of studies by Will Gervais and his colleagues showing that anti-atheist prejudice is strongly related to distrust. In another paper published last year, Gervais tested the hypothesis that prejudice against atheists will be reduced when there is a perception that atheists are numerous. This is an interesting hypothesis, as it is typically the case that prejudice towards an outgroup increases as the outgroup gets larger.
“For example, anti-Black prejudice is stronger where Black people hold a larger relative share of local populations in the United States (e.g., Fosset & Kiecolt, 1989; Giles & Evans, 1986; Pettigrew, 1959). The disparity in racial attitudes between North and South in the United States is statistically nonsignificant after local Black population share is controlled (Taylor, 1998)”
Given this tendency, why should atheists be different to any other outgroup? According to Gervais, different groups represent different perceived threats to those who are prejudiced. If an individual sees members of an outgroup as posing a physical threat, their fear and prejudice will increase as the outgroup increases in size. Distrust, in contrast to fear of physical threat, may decrease as the outgroup becomes larger. In addition, we can observe that in countries with greater relative numbers of atheists (such as Denmark and Sweden), there is less anti-atheist prejudice than in countries with fewer atheists (such as the US). In order to see whether it is really the case that there is less prejudice towards atheists in countries with greater atheist prevalence, Gervais analysed survey data from 40,271 respondents who expressed a belief in God, from 54 countries. He found that there was a significant negative correlation between atheist prevalence and anti-atheist prejudice.
Having established that religious people living in countries with more atheists tend to be less prejudiced against them, Gervais conducted an experiment in which he manipulated the perceived prevalence of atheists in order to determine whether this would cause a reduction in anti-atheist prejudice. One hundred and twelve undergraduate students were split into two groups and given different information about how many atheists there are. One group was told that around 5% of the students at their university were atheists, and that atheists are rare all over the world. The other group was told that 50% of the students at their university were atheists, and that atheists are the fourth largest “religious” group in the world (this last point is actually true: only Christians, Muslims, and Hindus are more numerous than atheists). The participants were then asked to rate two statements on a 7-point scale (from “strongly disagree to “strongly agree”). The two statements were “Atheists are dishonest” and “Atheists are trustworthy”. The second item was reverse scored and the two responses were added together to form a single measure of atheist distrust. The results showed that the students who were told that atheists are common gave lower ratings of distrust than the students who were told that atheists are rare, lending support to Gervais’ hypothesis that distrust decreases as perceived outgroup prevalence increases.
An obvious implication of this research in that atheists should seek to become more visible in order that others perceive them as more prevalent. This has clearly been happening in recent years – the bestselling books about atheism and the billboard and bus campaigns have definitely brought atheists to the attention of the population at large. Has all this effort led to a reduction in distrust of atheists? It’s hard to say, but if Gervais’ findings are generalisable, then the outspoken atheists who have been criticized for being outspoken, may be helping to reduce prejudice simply by altering people’s perception of the prevalence of atheists.
Gervais, W. M. (2011). Finding the faithless: perceived atheist prevalence reduces anti-atheist prejudice. Personality & social psychology bulletin, 37 (4), 543-56 PMID: 21343437