Opinion

Kiss me, I’m an atheist

Nonbelievers need a new PR campaign, one that emphasizes their civic engagement

January 23, 2014 9:00AM ET
Brochures and bumper stickers at the LA chapter of the Sunday Assembly, which calls itself a “godless congregation.”
Jae C. Hong/AP

In Pope Francis’ Christmas address, he extended a surprise olive branch to atheists. But the reach was backhanded. “I invite even nonbelievers to desire peace,” he offered. Even nonbelievers? How magnanimous.

Religious tolerance has increased dramatically over the last few decades, at least in the United States. But one group remains behind the pack: atheists. A 2012 Gallup poll asked Americans if they would vote for a well-qualified presidential candidate nominated by their party if the person happened to be “X.” Catholic? Ninety-four percent said yes. Jewish? Ninety-one percent. Mormon? Eighty percent. Muslim? Fifty-eight percent. Trailing them all — and well behind blacks, women, Hispanics, and gays and lesbians — were atheists, at 54 percent.

Dislike of atheists might be surprising, given that we are a small and largely invisible demographic, making up less than 5 percent of the U.S. We are not known for terrorist attacks, secret cabals or any particular pageantry — we are not even a particularly cohesive group. As the comedian Ricky Gervais once wrote, “Saying atheism is a belief system is like saying not going skiing is a hobby.” But recent research has identified the primary source of prejudice against atheists: It is the distrust of those who are not scared of a watchful God. And the research suggests that current attempts to give atheists a PR makeover are severely misguided.

The source of prejudice

A 2006 paper by the sociologist Penny Edgell and her colleagues began to outline the nature of the anti-atheist bias. They found that people associate atheists with either the low end of the social hierarchy (common criminals) or the high end (cultural elitists). What these two groups purportedly share is extreme self-interest and lack of concern for the common good.

A couple of years later, the economists Jonathan Tan and Claudia Vogel published a paper supporting the notion that dislike of atheists is based at least partly on distrust. They found that, in an investment game, players handed less money to partners they thought were less religious. (The English philosopher John Locke gave voice to such behavior in 1689 when he wrote that “those are not at all to be tolerated who deny the Being of a God.” The title of the book, “A Letter Concerning Toleration,” was not ironic by design.)

But why such suspicion? Two psychologists, Will Gervais of the University of Kentucky and Ara Norenzayan of the University of British Columbia, hypothesize that people see atheists as not fearing punishment from a monitoring deity. And in the last few years they have demonstrated this belief to be the core of anti-atheist bias.

The logic makes sense: People are better behaved when they feel watched by others, or even by a photo of eyes. We also conceive of God as a personlike entity, someone who cares about our behavior. Gervais and Norenzayan have shown that cuing religious people with thoughts of God makes them more self-conscious, and numerous experiments have shown that priming believers with notions of supernatural beings makes them more honest and charitable. It is as if he is watching.

In one of their experiments (conducted with Azim Shariff, a psychologist at the University of Oregon), subjects read about a man who bumped a van while parking and did not leave a note, then stole money from a found wallet. They found this untrustworthy character to be more representative of an atheist than a Christian, a Muslim, a Jew or a feminist — which indicates that distrust of atheists is not just a matter of seeing them as outsiders. In fact, subjects were just as inclined to assume the character was an atheist as they were to think he was a rapist.

American Atheists has created billboards that read ‘Reason > prayer,’ but messages like these only increase distrust of atheists.

In their most telling experiment, subjects rated their own religiosity, evaluated the trustworthiness of atheists and rated the degree to which “people behave better when they feel that God is monitoring their behavior.” Agreement with this statement fully accounted for the connection between religiosity and distrust of atheists. In other words, if you believe in God, you think fear of God’s wrath is what keeps people in line, and this belief causes you to be wary of atheists.

Nothing to fear

How fair is this distrust of atheists? If reminders of religion prompt believers to be better behaved, are they generally more moral than atheists? Some evidence suggests that religious people are more generous than nonreligious people — but only in nonindustrialized societies, or when prompted to think about God. In one recent study, those who regularly attended Sunday religious services were more likely to respond to a request for charity than those who attended them irregularly or attended no services, but only if the request came on a Sunday. Strong evidence for goodness without God comes from Denmark and Sweden, according to the sociologist Phil Zuckerman. One in four Danes does not believe in a god, spirit or life force, and neither does one in three Swedes. These are two of the world’s least religious countries (PDF), yet they also have two of the world’s lowest homicide rates. Even if there were a small difference in the trustworthiness of atheists, are we really comparable to rapists?

Empathy does not require belief in God. Atheists feel just as much pain seeing the misery of others; it comes from a simple mammalian mechanism. A conscience does not rely on superstition either. We all like to do things that make us feel we are good people, even if it is simply to convince others that we are good.

What is more, God is not the only entity that can watch you and punish misdeeds. There is also the state. Shariff and Norenzayan found in a study that presenting people with words recalling secular sources of authority — “civic,” “jury,” “court,” “police,” “contract” — increased prosocial behavior almost as much as religious reminders did.

The fact that the government’s presence keeps people in line suggests one way to reduce distrust of atheists: Remind people that atheists are not in fact free to do as they please. Gervais and Norenzayan found that showing believers a video on the effectiveness of the Vancouver police department decreased their distrust of nonbelievers.

Taking these results from the lab to the real world, Norenzayan and Gervais report in an upcoming paper that wariness of nonbelievers is reduced in countries with a strong rule of law. Looking at data from dozens of countries, they found that where contracts, property rights, the police and the courts were formidable, religious citizens were less likely to agree that “people who do not believe in God are unfit for public office.”

One wonders, then, if the spreading purview of the state, with its panopticon-style wiretapping, drones, surveillance cameras and Internet snooping, will increase good behavior, as the philosopher Peter Singer and others have argued. And if so, perhaps it will also boost trust of atheists. Norenzayan, in his book “Big Gods,” argues that fear of disciplinary deities enabled humans to trust each other enough for civilization to gain a foothold, but that with big government to regulate human affairs, big gods are no longer necessary to hold strangers together. “You don’t have to lean on religion anymore to decide whom to trust,” he told me, “if you think there are other reasons people can be trusted.”

If such surveillance still does not help boost the reputation of atheists, what might a brand manager do for the godless? Let us look at what has been done. The British Humanist Association has run bus ads that say “There’s probably no God.” The Freedom From Religion Foundation has a billboard that says, “I am free from the slavery of religion.” And American Atheists has created billboards that read “Reason > prayer.” But these messages only increase distrust of atheists. Most people do not see reason as the root of virtue. Loyalty and generosity are not typically understood as the output of calculations but as the abandonment of them. And attacking another’s faith does not open lines of communication. Norenzayan added, “Instead of the angry, confrontational kind of atheism that gets all the attention, how about a kinder, gentler, funnier atheism?”

A successful campaign might paint pictures of atheists doing good in the world. Clips of John Lennon singing “Imagine,” Daniel Radcliffe reading “Harry Potter” to kids, Angelina Jolie saving Africa one baby at a time. They do not even have to be celebrities or saints (or Swedes) — just, as Will Gervais suggested, standup citizens who take out their garbage and pay their taxes, like anyone else. Norenzayan also recommended that more nonreligious people come out of the closet: “I think positive social contact in general helps a lot,” he said. “It has done wonders in reducing other prejudices.”

In modern society, there is no reason not to trust atheists. So to do my part in a world where religious intolerance plays a role in so many conflicts, I invite you all to join me in desiring tolerance and peace. Yes, even you Catholics.

Matthew Hutson is a science writer and the author of “The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking,” about the psychology of superstition and religion.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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