Canadian study: Religious people trust atheists about as much as they do rapists

All this time, I thought I was a beta male. Turns out people were just shunning me because they’re terrified.

Does this mean, if ever I find myself with a religious person and a rapist, I should leave the two of them alone so as to lower the religious person’s angst?

The resulting paper, published in the current online issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, includes six studies all designed to measure people’s perception of an atheist’s trustworthiness. The first study asked 351 Americans from across the country to compare the trustworthiness of an atheist and a gay man, since both represent groups often described as threatening to majority religious values. They rated atheists significantly higher than gay men on distrust, though lower on levels of disgust.

The second study recruited 105 UBC undergrads —they purposely targeted a more liberal sample from a less-religious nation — to test whether distrust of atheists is more pronounced than distrust of other groups, including Muslims. The students read a description of an untrustworthy man who pretended to leave insurance information after backing his car into a parked vehicle and were asked to say whether it was more likely the man was either a Christian, Muslim, rapist or an atheist. People were far more likely to say he was either an atheist or a rapist and not part of a religious group. They did not significantly differentiate atheists from rapists, something Mr. Gervais found disconcerting…

The levels of distrust were more pronounced among respondents who said they were religious, said Mr. Gervais. One of the studies measured how much people thought believing God is watching makes you a better person.

“That was a really strong predictor of distrust in atheists,” he said.

That logic, that nonbelievers are less trustworthy because there’s no fear of damnation keeping them on the straight and narrow, gets thrown at atheists a lot and it never fails to make me nervous about the person who’s throwing it. There always seems to be an implicit threat to it — that if that person should lose his faith and the accompanying dread of hellfire, he might be capable of anything. That’s not how it works for most of us atheists, but if you think that’s how it might work for you, give the rest of the population a heads up if/when you start to have religious doubts so that we can prepare for your impending rampage.

Ace thinks this study smells like B.S. and is being used as a vehicle for an agenda. Perhaps. The sample size is small and the inclusion of a rapist instead of, say, a convicted perjurer in a hypothetical having to do with honesty does make it seem like they’re straining for the most sensational possible conclusion. (“Public thinks atheists are as sketchy as rapists!”) But that’s not to say there’s nothing to this. Via Ronald Bailey of Reason, remember this Gallup poll from June?

This poll is problematic too, of course. Some of the characteristics listed are biological, not identities derived from a chosen belief system, so they can be disregarded as a proxy for judgment in a way that religion (or irreligion) can’t. And asking whether you’d vote for an atheist to lead America isn’t quite the same as asking whether you’d trust one in the abstract. I have socially conservative friends whom I trust personally but whom I’d rather not have setting policy for the entire country, and they doubtless feel the same about me. Still, though — there’s surely some broader suspicion about atheists as people that’s contributing to the Gallup presidential result here. Eyeball those numbers again; you’ve got fully half the population admitting they wouldn’t vote for a nonbeliever, and probably a few of those people in the “yes” column are only saying yes because they want to seem “tolerant” for the pollster. (Needless to say, this result is why there’s exactly one admitted atheist among 535 members of Congress.) I think Gervais’s basic point, that atheists are viewed “as sort of a moral wild card,” is borne out here: Because we’re not working off of a sacred text that you can consult to get a sense of our morals, we’re supposedly theoretically capable of anything. Empirically that’s ridiculous — there are millions of atheists in the U.S., most of whom are law-abiding, and plenty of less law-abiding religious people — but it’s a theoretical data point and you know how data points get magnified when we’re thinking about presidential candidates. That’s the significance of the Gallup poll, I think. Not that it’s a perfect proxy for how all atheists are viewed but that it brings out something important by putting it under a political lens.

Update: I’d totally forgotten about this, but here’s a nifty quote from March of this year to tie this post up in a big red bow:

“I have two grandchildren — Maggie is 11, Robert is 9,” Gingrich said at Cornerstone Church here. “I am convinced that if we do not decisively win the struggle over the nature of America, by the time they’re my age they will be in a secular atheist country, potentially one dominated by radical Islamists and with no understanding of what it once meant to be an American.”