In a recent study published in the journal Nature Human Behavior (2017), an international team of researchers found extreme intuitive moral prejudice against atheists.
Attitudes were measured in 13 countries (including secular countries) on 5 continents. What was disturbing to me was that “atheists” also suspected atheists as being “potentially morally depraved and dangerous” more than they suspected Christians, Muslims, Hindus or Buddhists.
“Notably, anti-atheist prejudice was even evident among atheist participants around the world. The results contrast with recent polls that do not find self-reported moral prejudice against atheists in highly secular countries, and imply that the recent rise in secularism in Western countries has not overwritten intuitive anti-atheist prejudice. Entrenched moral suspicion of atheists suggests that religion’s powerful influence on moral judgements persists, even among non-believers in secular societies.”
Phys.org notes the co-author of the study, Will Gervais, a psychology professor at the University of Kentucky in Lexington:
“It is striking that even atheists appear to hold the same intuitive anti-atheist bias. I suspect that this stems from the prevalence of deeply entrenched pro-religious norms. Even in places that are currently quite overtly secular, people still seem to intuitively hold on to the belief that religion is a moral safeguard.”
So what’s going on here?
Except for a very recent comment I read from an “unbeliever,” I’m not aware of any atheists who think the religious have the upper hand on morality. A study published in the journal Science (2014), found that religion does not make people more moral. They also found that both believers and unbelievers reported committing, or being a receiver of, a moral act rather than an immoral act.
Other studies have found religious people to be less moral.
The Middle Ground
This past March a study was published in the journal Religion, Brain, and Behavior. The study was a meta-analysis of 100 existing science articles on people’s experience with death anxiety. Researchers analyzed data on over 26,000 people between the years 1961 and 2014. They found that the super-religious believers were not afraid of dying.
But they also found that to be the case with strong atheists. From Inverse:
“The far right side of the graph takes the super-religious people into account, and atheists are acknowledged on the left. This model suggests that the people who are most afraid of dying are the people who aren’t quite sure — the people in the middle ground between staunch atheists and believers. Sure enough, almost 100 percent of the studies that were robust enough to test this idea supported the theory.”
“What seems to protect atheists and religious people from their crippling fear of dying isn’t what they believe but the fact that they believe in anything at all. The researchers note that this is the central concept in “Terror Management Theory,” which has been proposed to explain how exactly humans deal with the crippling reality of wanting to live but knowing they’re going to die. The theory says that we do so by bolstering our “worldview”: When we’re faced with the terror of death, we try to root ourselves as firmly as possible in what we believe (regardless of what it is), and this staves off our fears of dying.”
Plot twist ahead!
In another study published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science (2015), researchers found that death anxiety played a role in the stigma against atheists:
“We propose that pervasive and pronounced anti-atheist prejudices stem, in part, from the existential threat posed by conflicting worldview beliefs. Two studies were conducted to establish that existential concerns contribute to anti-atheist sentiments.
Experiment 1 found that a subtle reminder of death increased disparagement, social distancing, and distrust of atheists.
Experiment 2 found that asking people to think about atheism increased the accessibility of implicit death thoughts. These studies provide the first empirical link between existential concerns and anti-atheist prejudices.”
It makes me wonder if there’s a link between the first study and this one. Does this stigma towards atheists by other atheists have more to do with “religion’s powerful influence on moral judgements” or more to do with the influence of religious teachings about the afterlife?
Don’t get me wrong — I think religious indoctrination has played a significant role in perpetuating disparagement, disdain and distrust of atheists.
“Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness?” 2 Corinthians 6:14
Could it be that the self-described atheists in the first study I linked, who stigmatized other atheists, were actually “in the middle” — claiming to be atheists but lacked a strong worldview that curtailed death anxiety?