Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


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

December 18 • 10:00 AM

What It’s Like to Spend a Few Hours in the Church of Scientology

Wrestling with thetans, attempting to unlock a memory bank, and a personality test seemingly aimed at people with depression. This is Scientology’s “dissemination drill” for potential new members.


December 18 • 8:00 AM

Gendering #BlackLivesMatter: A Feminist Perspective

Black men are stereotyped as violent, while black women are rendered invisible. Here’s why the gendering of black lives matters.


December 18 • 7:06 AM

Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.


December 18 • 6:00 AM

The Very Weak and Complicated Links Between Mental Illness and Gun Violence

Vanderbilt University’s Jonathan Metzl and Kenneth MacLeish address our anxieties and correct our assumptions.


December 18 • 4:00 AM

Should Movies Be Rated RD for Reckless Driving?

A new study finds a link between watching films featuring reckless driving and engaging in similar behavior years later.


December 17 • 4:00 PM

How to Run a Drug Dealing Network in Prison

People tend not to hear about the prison drug dealing operations that succeed. Substance.com asks a veteran of the game to explain his system.


December 17 • 2:00 PM

Gender Segregation of Toys Is on the Rise

Charting the use of “toys for boys” and “toys for girls” in American English.


December 17 • 12:41 PM

Why the College Football Playoff Is Terrible But Better Than Before

The sample size is still embarrassingly small, but at least there’s less room for the availability cascade.


December 17 • 11:06 AM

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.


December 17 • 10:37 AM

A Public Lynching in Sproul Plaza

When photographs of lynching victims showed up on a hallowed site of democracy in action, a provocation was issued—but to whom, by whom, and why?


December 17 • 8:00 AM

What Was the Job?

This was the year the job broke, the year we accepted a re-interpretation of its fundamental bargain and bought in to the push to get us to all work for ourselves rather than each other.


December 17 • 6:00 AM

White Kids Will Be Kids

Even the “good” kids—bound for college, upwardly mobile—sometimes break the law. The difference? They don’t have much to fear. A professor of race and social movements reflects on her teenage years and faces some uncomfortable realities.



December 16 • 4:00 PM

How Fear of Occupy Wall Street Undermined the Red Cross’ Sandy Relief Effort

Red Cross responders say there was a ban on working with the widely praised Occupy Sandy relief group because it was seen as politically unpalatable.


December 16 • 3:30 PM

Murder! Mayhem! And That’s Just the Cartoons!

New research suggests deaths are common features of animated features aimed at children.


December 16 • 1:43 PM

In Tragedy, Empathy Still Dependent on Proximity

In spite of an increasingly connected world, in the face of adversity, a personal touch is most effective.


December 16 • 12:00 PM

The ‘New York Times’ Is Hooked on Drug du Jour Journalism

For the paper of record, addiction is always about this drug or that drug rather than the real causes.


December 16 • 10:00 AM

What Is the Point of Academic Books?

Ultimately, they’re meant to disseminate knowledge. But their narrow appeal makes them expensive to produce and harder to sell.


December 16 • 8:00 AM

Unjust and Unwell: The Racial Issues That Could Be Affecting Your Health Care

Physicians and medical students have the same problems with implicit bias as the rest of us.


December 16 • 6:00 AM

If You Get Confused Just Listen to the Music Play

Healing the brain with the Grateful Dead.


December 16 • 4:00 AM

Another Casualty of the Great Recession: Trust

Research from Britain finds people who were laid off from their jobs expressed lower levels of generalized trust.


December 15 • 4:00 PM

When Charter Schools Are Non-Profit in Name Only

Some charters pass along nearly all their money to for-profit companies hired to manage the schools. It’s an arrangement that’s raising eyebrows.


December 15 • 2:00 PM

No More Space Race

A far cry from the fierce Cold War Space Race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, exploration in the 21st century is likely to be a much more globally collaborative project.


December 15 • 12:32 PM

The Hidden Psychology of the Home Ref

That old myth of home field bias isn’t a myth at all; it’s a statistical fact.


December 15 • 12:00 PM

Gluttony and Global Warming: We’re Eating Ourselves to a Warmer Planet

Forget your car. Our obsession with beef and dairy has a far more devastating effect on the climate.


Follow us


Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.

The Hidden Psychology of the Home Ref

That old myth of home field bias isn’t a myth at all; it’s a statistical fact.

A Word of Caution to the Holiday Deal-Makers

Repeat customers—with higher return rates and real bargain-hunting prowess—can have negative effects on a company’s net earnings.

Crowdfunding Works for Science

Scientists just need to put forth some effort.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

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