In the U.S. and plenty of other places around the world, atheism is on the rise. In just under half of the world’s countries, according to Pew Research Center, the second-largest religious group is people who claim no religion at all. In the United States, while recent research has shown an uptick in the number of people who identify as atheist, definitive numbers are hard to come by; one survey last year put it around 10 percent, while a more recent study argued that it was as high as 26 percent.
Whatever the true number is, though, there remains a disconnect between atheism’s popularity and its reputation: According to a new study published last week in Nature, people all over the world connect immorality with atheism. In fact, the moral prejudice against atheists is so strong that it holds even in countries like the Netherlands, where most people aren’t religious. Even atheists themselves, according to the study, are inclined to see nonbelievers as more wicked than the faithful.
“Entrenched moral suspicion of atheists suggests that religion’s powerful influence on moral judgements persists, even among non-believers in secular societies,” the authors wrote.
The study, led by University of Kentucky psychology professor Will Gervais, surveyed more than 3,000 people in 13 countries, including nations with Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Muslim, and non-religious majorities: Australia, China, Czech Republic, Finland, Hong Kong, India, Mauritius, Netherlands, New Zealand, Singapore, United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom, and the United States.
Participants read a description of a man who tortured animals as a child and became even more sadistically violent as he grew up, eventually murdering five homeless people and hiding their dismembered bodies in his basement. The survey then asked some participants if they thought the man was more likely a teacher or religious teacher. Other participants were asked if they though the man was more likely a teacher or an atheist teacher. This setup meant that no one was directly asked if they thought the man was or was not an atheist, but researchers could draw conclusions by comparing how many participants said the man would be an atheist teacher versus how many said he would be a religious teacher.
As they had hypothesized, the researchers found a universal suspicion of atheist morality across all 13 countries. “People overall are roughly twice as likely to view extreme immorality as representative of atheists, relative to believers,” they wrote. “Consistent with predictions, extreme intuitive moral distrust of atheists is both globally evident and variable in its magnitude across countries.”
The association was somewhat stronger in more religious countries, but even in very secular countries in the study — Australia, China, the Czech Republic, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom — people were more likely to associate serial killing with atheism, although the gap was narrower. The survey also asked participants to describe their religious beliefs, which allowed the research team to determine that even atheists connected immoral acts to atheism more often than to religious belief.
The authors concluded that people around the world see religion as a necessary restraint on depraved and dangerous behavior. In other words, despite the fact that we live in an increasingly secular world, people still fear those who aren’t God-fearing.
That finding didn’t surprise Joseph Baker, author of American Secularism and a professor in the East Tennessee State University sociology department. “An anti-atheist bias is really common and really well established,” he said. In the United States, atheists used to be the most disliked among a number of unpopular groups, but are now tied at the top with Muslims, he said; what this new study adds is good data showing that the feeling is international.
Louise Antony, a philosophy professor at UMass Amherst who has written about atheism and morality, also found the study results unsurprising. “I could predict it just from what I know about the stereotypes that people hold of atheists,” she said.
But Antony also cautioned against drawing too much significance from experiments that may reveal only implicit bias, but not accurately portray people’s more holistic feelings about atheists. For example, Antony said, she has a terrible fear of spiders, the result of some deep-seated association that she wishes she didn’t have, since she knows that spiders are almost entirely harmless and kill pests like mosquitoes. Likewise, people — even avowed atheists — may be handicapped by an implicit connection between atheism and immorality, despite a genuine belief that they themselves are as moral as believers.
The study might also be picking up on a fairly superficial response, Antony said: “It wouldn’t be surprising that atheists who grow up in cultures disparaging atheists have the same associations.”
But even superficial biases can have very real effects, she added. That’s especially true in moments of “hot cognition,” when people don’t have time to stop and reason out their beliefs before taking action, Baker noted. This latest study is more evidence that atheists are still mistrusted in contemporary society, he said. “It means that people who are secular still have a long way to go in terms of getting equal footing in civil discourse. There’s still a lot of prejudice they have to overcome.”