When we know that somebody believes in the possibility of divine punishment, we seem to assume they are less likely to do something unethical. Based on this logic, Gervais and Norenzayan hypothesized that reminding people about the existence of secular authority figures, such as policemen and judges, might alleviate people’s prejudice towards atheists. In one study, they had people watch either a travel video or a video of a police chief giving an end-of-the-year report. They then asked participants how much they agreed with certain statements about atheists (e.g., “I would be uncomfortable with an atheist teaching my child.”) In addition, they measured participants’ prejudice towards other groups, including Muslims and Jewish people. Their results showed that viewing the video of the police chief resulted in less distrust towards atheists. However, it had no effect on people’s prejudice towards other groups. From a psychological standpoint, God and secular authority figures may be somewhat interchangeable. The existence of either helps us feel more trusting of others.
Gervais and Norenzayan’s findings may shed light on an interesting puzzle: why acceptance towards atheism has grown rapidly in some countries but not others. In many Scandinavian countries, including Norway and Sweden, the number of people who report believing in God has reached an all-time low. This may have something to do with the way these countries have established governments that guarantee a high level of social security for all of their citizens. Aaron Kay and his colleagues ran a study in Canada which found that political insecurity may push us towards believing in God. They gave participants two versions of a fictitious news story: one describing Canada’s current political situation as stable, the other describing it as potentially unstable. After reading one of the two articles, people’s beliefs in God were measured. People who read the article describing the government as potentially unstable were more likely to agree that God, or some other type of nonhuman entity, is in control of the universe. A common belief in the divine may help people feel more secure. Yet when security is achieved by more secular means, it may remove some of the draw of faith.