Menus Subscribe Search

Findings

lviv-dominican-church

Once a museum of religion and atheism, the Dominican church and monastery of Lviv, Ukraine, today serves as the Greek Catholic church of the Holy Eucharist. (Photo: Robin Schuil/Wikimedia Commons)

Americans Intuitively Judge Atheists as Immoral

• April 15, 2014 • 4:00 AM

Once a museum of religion and atheism, the Dominican church and monastery of Lviv, Ukraine, today serves as the Greek Catholic church of the Holy Eucharist. (Photo: Robin Schuil/Wikimedia Commons)

New research finds a link between disbelief and unethical behavior is strongly lodged in Americans’ minds.

Atheists have been speaking up more loudly in recent years, adding a fresh perspective to debates over meaning and morality. But in spite of this new visibility, the way Americans view non-believers remains extremely negative, according to a newly published study.

After reading a description of someone committing an immoral act, participants in five experiments “readily and intuitively assumed that the person was an atheist,” University of Kentucky psychologist Will Gervais reports in the online journal PLoS One. “Even atheist participants judged immoral acts as more representative of atheists than of other groups.”

The findings suggest our instinctive belief that moral behavior is dependent upon God—as ethical arbiter and/or assigner of divine punishment—creates a belief system strong enough to override evidence to the contrary. It leads people many to look at non-believers and reflexively assume the worst.

Gervais describes five experiments with a total of 1,152 participants, all recruited online via Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. (He notes that users of that service have previously been found to be “less religious, on average, than Americans in general,” making his findings all the more striking.)

When Gervais looked at the responses of hard-core atheists—that is, those “who both self-identified as atheists and who rated their belief in God at 0″—he found even they “viewed immorality as significantly more representative of atheists than other people.”

His methodology involved discovering what prejudices would lure people into making a common mental error.

Participants in the first experiment—237 Americans—read a description of a man engaged in unambiguously immoral behavior. “Dax” was described as someone who harmed animals as a child, and then went on to kill a series of homeless people as an adult.

Afterwards, they were asked whether it is more probable that the man is (a) a teacher, or (b) a teacher and some other descriptor. The descriptive terms were “is a Buddhist,” “is a Christian,” “is Jewish” and “is a Muslim,” and “does not believe in God.”

In this formulation, the first answer (“is a teacher”) is always correct, since any of the other answers are subsets of the first. The fact is not logically possible for any of the other answers to be accurate makes them good indicators of bias: If you, say, hate Muslims, you’ll be tempted to check that box without stopping to think through your answer.

When the second possible answer was one of the aforementioned religions, the vast majority of participants did not make the error in logic, choosing the correct answer (simply “a teacher”). However, when asked to choose between “a teacher” and “a teacher who does not believe in God,” nearly 50 percent checked the latter.

This suggests “one particularly vivid example of immorality—serial murder—is seen as representative of atheists,” Gervais writes.

Gervais duplicated these results by testing acts representing different types of moral violations (including incest), and comparing atheists with representatives of other minority groups. Non-believers consistently fared poorly. In one experiment, he writes, “participants found descriptions of a moral transgressor to be more representative of atheists than of gay people.”

Surprisingly, when Gervais looked at the responses of hard-core atheists—that is, those “who both self-identified as atheists and who rated their belief in God at 0”—he found even they “viewed immorality as significantly more representative of atheists than other people.”

“Even atheists seem to share the intuition that immoral acts are perpetuated by individuals who don’t believe in God,” he writes.

What’s the basis of this bedrock belief that counteracting immoral impulses requires religion? History and evolutionary psychology suggest that “religion likely does exert some influence on morality in at least two ways,” Gervais notes.

One is creating communities where certain ethical standards are expected to be upheld. The other is the thought that some higher power is watching you, judging you, and perhaps preparing to punish you if you step out of line.

“These two mechanisms are not mutually exclusive, and likely both operate in concert,” he writes. Yet the results of his fifth and final experiment suggest belief in God, as opposed to membership in a church, is the key factor in most people’s minds.

“Lay perceptions may overestimate the role of faith, while underestimating a role of community in shaping morality,” Gervais writes.

It’s an important distinction, in that atheists can also form communities founded on ethical principles (humanism being a prominent example). But so long as people are convinced there is no good without God, atheists fighting for public acceptance face a struggle of Biblical proportions.

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

July 30 • 4:00 PM

Still the World’s Top Military Spender

Although declining in real terms, the United States’ military budget remains substantial and a huge drain on our public resources.



July 30 • 2:04 PM

The Rise of the Nuisance Flood

Minor floods are afflicting parts of Maryland nearly 10 times more often than was the case in the 1960s.


July 30 • 2:00 PM

The (Mostly Awful) Things You Learn After Investigating Unpaid Internships for a Year

Though the intern economy remains opaque, dialogue about the role of interns in the labor force—and protections they deserve—is beginning to take shape.


July 30 • 12:00 PM

Why Coffee Shortages Won’t Change the Price of Your Frappuccino

You’re so loyal to Starbucks—and the company knows it—that your daily serving of caffeine is already marked up beyond the reach of any fluctuations in supply.



July 30 • 10:00 AM

Having Difficult Conversations With Your Children

Why it’s necessary, and how to do it.


July 30 • 8:00 AM

How to Make a Convincing Sci-Fi Movie on a Tight Budget

Coherence is a good movie, and its initial shoot cost about the same amount of money as a used Prius.


July 30 • 6:00 AM

Are You Really as Happy as You Say You Are?

Researchers find a universal positivity bias in the way we talk, tweet, and write.


July 30 • 4:00 AM

The Declining Wage Gap for Gay Men

New research finds gay men in America are rapidly catching up with straight married men in terms of wages.


July 30 • 2:00 AM

LeBron James Migration: Big Chef Seeking Small Pond

The King’s return to Cleveland is a symbol for the dramatic shift in domestic as well as international migration.


July 29 • 4:00 PM

Are Children Seeking Refuge Turning More Americans Against Undocumented Immigrants?

A look at Pew Research Center survey data collected in February and July of this year.


July 29 • 2:00 PM

Under Water: The EPA’s Ongoing Struggle to Combat Pollution

Frustration and inaction color efforts to enforce the Clean Water Act.


July 29 • 12:40 PM

America’s Streams Are Awash With Pesticides Banned in Europe

You may have never heard of clothianidin, but it’s probably in your local river.


July 29 • 12:00 PM

Mining Your Genetic Data for Profit: The Dark Side of Biobanking

One woman’s personal story raises deep questions about the stark limits of current controls in a nascent industry at the very edge of the frontier of humans and technology.


July 29 • 11:23 AM

Where Should You Go to College?


July 29 • 10:29 AM

How Textbooks Have Changed the Face of War

War is more personal, less glorious, and more hellish in modern textbooks than in the past. But there’s still room for improvement.


July 29 • 10:00 AM

The Monolingual American: Why Are Those Outside of the U.S. Encouraging It?

If you are an American trying to learn German in a large German town or city, you will mostly hear English in return, even when you give sprechen your best shot.


July 29 • 8:00 AM

The Elusive Link Between Casinos and Crime

With a study of the impact of Philadelphia’s SugarHouse Casino, a heated debate gets fresh ammunition.


July 29 • 6:00 AM

What Are the Benefits of Locking Yourself in a Tank and Floating in Room-Temperature Saltwater?

After three sessions in an isolation tank, the answer’s still not quite clear.


July 29 • 4:00 AM

Harry Potter and the Battle Against Bigotry

Kids who identify with the hero of J.K. Rowling’s popular fantasy novels hold more open-minded attitudes toward immigrants and gays.


July 29 • 2:00 AM

Geographic Scale and Talent Migration: Washington, D.C.’s New Silver Line

Around the country, suburbs are fighting with the urban core over jobs and employees.


July 28 • 4:00 PM

Border Fences Make Unequal Neighbors and Enforce Social Inequality

What would it look like if you combined Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza, demographically speaking? What about the United States and Guatemala?


July 28 • 2:00 PM

Are Patient Privacy Laws Being Misused to Protect Medical Centers?

A 1996 law known as HIPAA has been cited to scold a mom taking a picture of her son in a hospital, to keep information away from police investigating a possible rape at a nursing home, and to threaten VA whistleblowers.


July 28 • 12:00 PM

Does Internet Addiction Excuse the Death of an Infant?

In Love Child, documentary filmmaker Valerie Veatch explores how virtual worlds encourage us to erase the boundary between digital and real, no matter the consequences.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

The Rise of the Nuisance Flood

Minor floods are afflicting parts of Maryland nearly 10 times more often than was the case in the 1960s.

America’s Streams Are Awash With Pesticides Banned in Europe

You may have never heard of clothianidin, but it's probably in your local river.

How Textbooks Have Changed the Face of War

War is more personal, less glorious, and more hellish in modern textbooks than in the past. But there’s still room for improvement.

NASA Could Build Entire Spacecrafts in Space Using 3-D Printers

This year NASA will experiment with 3-D printing small objects in space. That could mark the beginning of a gravity-free manufacturing revolution.

The Most Popular Ways to Share Good and Bad Personal News

Researchers rank the popularity of all of the different methods we have for telling people about our lives, from Facebook to face-to-face.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.