Atheists Perceived As Less Trustworthy Than Rapists??

I may have underestimated in the past just how bad misperceptions of us are:

Consider one of the experiments. One hundred and five students read a brief vignette about a man who fails to take responsibility when he hits a parked van with his car, and then pockets money from a wallet he finds on a sidewalk.

Participants were asked whether they thought it was more probable that this clearly amoral man was either (a) a teacher, or (b) a teacher and a second identifying factor. That factor varied for individual participants; for some it was “a Christian,” while for others it was “a Muslim,” “a rapist” or “an atheist.”

“A teacher and an atheist” was the equation most likely to chosen over the simple “a teacher.” Astonishingly, it was slightly more likely to be chosen than “a teacher and a rapist.”

“This description – of an individual who commits insurance fraud and steals money when the chances of detection are minimal – was only seen as representative of atheists and rapists,” the researchers write. “(It was not seen as) representative of religious individuals, be they Christian or Muslim.”

Another experiment suggested this distrust has real-life ramifications in the job market. Forty undergraduates were asked to choose between a religious candidate and an atheist for two jobs – a daycare worker and a waitress. Beyond their religious affiliation (or lack thereof), the candidates had identical qualifications for the position.

“Participants significantly preferred the religious candidate to the atheist candidate for a high-trust job (as a daycare worker),” the researchers report. “Conversely, participants marginally preferred the atheist candidate to the religious candidate for a low-trust job (as a waitress).”




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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • Ing: HEY I’M OVER HERE!!!!!

    I question the validity of the study. I think by joining the two choices together like they did they already primed someone to make a negative association.

  • Kevin

    Where was the study conducted?

    • Kevin

      Nevermind, it was the University of Arizona.

    • Kevin

      Sorry, having an off day, it was the University of Minnesota.

    • Cuttlefish

      wait, what? Is this a different study than I have been looking at? There are more than one?

      British Columbia for what I have been reading…One author at Oregon, though.

    • Kevin

      Yea, I was wrong again. The study I looked at compared atheists to Muslims,African Americans, Asian American, Hispanics, Jews, Conservative Christians, Whites and found atheists to be the least liked out of this list. The one that included rapists was from BC.

  • Cuttlefish

    Linking the two is a standard technique; logically, of course, any linked characteristics must be less likely than the unlinked “teacher”, so what is measured is the representativeness bias. Tversky & Kahneman’s social cognition stuff from a couple decades ago used this a lot. It’s not so much a *negative* association as simply a *stereotyped* association.

    The bad news is (and this is one of the points of the Gervais, Shariff, and Norenzayan paper), the prejudice against atheists is mediated by distrust (as opposed to, say, disgust or fear, which are significant mediators of other forms of prejudice).

    The good news is, in previous work Gervais and colleagues found that exposure to individual atheists is a good way of combatting that prejudice. Be visible and good, and it makes a difference. (I almost just deleted this last paragraph, because I am relying on my memory of that paper, rather than having it pulled up in front of me. So don’t trust me… I’m an atheist after all.)

  • Cuttlefish

    Kevin–it was a sample of UBC (U. of British Columbia) undergrads. the first study in their paper used a national sample of Americans; subsequent studies (5 in all, I think) used UBC undergrads.

  • The Atheist Jew

    My guess is that if you asked the same group who is most likely to worship the devil, atheist would be the number one answer as well.

  • Graham Shevlin

    Given that we live in a country where a President (George H W Bush) stated as recently as 1988 that Atheists cannot be good Americans, and where the majority of the population has no damn clue about the existence of the “no religious test” clause of the Constitution for public office, I would not be at all surprised. I have been dismissed as Godless in the past (and this was not in a good way) by devout Christians in the USA, so I have to assume that atheists are still regarded as The Folks Most Likely To Go TO Hell.

  • Tully

    This title is very misleading. The study does not show that people think atheists are less trustworthy than rapists. It merely shows that people think it is more probable that a person that steals a wallet is an atheist than a rapist. Given that there are many more atheists than rapists (or so I hope), it seems totally reasonable (and logical, in my opinion) that more people would select atheist. I mean, if someone told you “I saw a guy hit a parked car and drive away. Do you think it’s more likely that he is an atheist or a rapist?” would you really pick rapist?

    • Camels With Hammers

      Is your point that rapists are tiny proportion of the total population so they are unlikely in any case? If that’s right then it’s not that my title is misworded, it’s that the entire experiment it refers to is invalid.

    • Tully

      I didn’t follow up and actually read the study, but I didn’t see anywhere in the parts that you quoted that suggests that they made the same conclusion that you make in your title. They posed the question, but there is no discussion as to why atheist was chosen more often than rapist. There could be a lot of factors for this, one of which could be that people think that atheists are more untrustworthy, but I personally find that unlikely. A nice follow up question would be to describe a couple of people with the same attributes as the choices given in the study and then have the subjects rank them based on their likelihood to take the money from someone’s wallet if they had the chance.

      I think what I said about there being less rapists is true, but it doesn’t necessarily make the experiment invalid. Like I said, I didn’t read it, so I don’t know what their goals and conclusions were. It seems like the findings might have been more related to the differences in perception of atheists vs. religious people rather than atheists vs. rapists. I agree that atheists are victims of unfair negative perceptions, but it seems that this title is sensationalist and not supported by the study.

    • Camels With Hammers

      The article centers around the theme of distrust. You can read it if you’d like, you know.

    • Tully

      I just tried to go and read the original study, but sadly I could only find the abstract without paying $12. I’m interested, but not that interested!

    • anteprepro

      Yes , I would pick rapists.
      1. There are 190,000 rapes documented in the United States per year.
      2. It is estimated that 60% of rapes go undocumented/unreported (revise to roughly 410,000 rapes annually)
      3. 1 out of 6 women are raped in their lifetime (estimated 25 million rape victims, which is consistent with the annual rape statistics [being equivalent to a 50 year period]).
      4. Additionally, one out of every 8 rape victims are male (meaning that there is another 3.5 million male rape victims, for roughly 28.5 million victims).
      5. There is also this: “Rapists are more likely to be serial criminals than serial rapists. In one study, 46% of rapists who were released from prison were rearrested within 3 years of their release for another crime — 18.6% for a violent offense, 14.8% for a property offense, 11.2% for a drug offense and 20.5% for a public-order offense.”

      Those that strictly identify as atheists make up 1.5% of the population (4.5 million). Include agnostics, and they are 4% (12 million). It’s only if you include secular, no religions that we get to 10% (30 million), and get to the point where atheists outnumber possible rapists, but just barely. So, in order to go on from here, you need to believe
      1.That percent of the population is an important factor for only rapists and atheists (the odds are FAR more likely that the person is Christian on the basis of population, with 235 million fitting that bill, almost 10 times the size of atheists or rapists).
      2. That the category “atheists” includes agnostics and other people who don’t affiliate with any religion (i.e. they accept the atheists’ definition of atheist, even if 80% of the group in question apparently doesn’t).
      3. That the mere identification of someone as an atheist makes them as likely, or more, to commit crimes compared to a rapist, despite point 5 above.

      No, none of this logical. Yes, all of this is bigoted.

    • Tully

      Well, those are some interesting statistics, and even if you are guilty of some double counting it may very well be true that there are more rapists than there are non-religious people. That still doesn’t mean that the people that taking the test thought that was the case. Additionally, I think it’s likely that when most people hear the word “rapist” they think of people that commit violent rape. It may be unfortunate, but I wouldn’t be surprised at all if this were the case, and that would cause the number of people to fall into that category to be quite small. I just think that this is greatly oversimplifying a complex question. The question that was posed to these 105 simply does not figure out who they think is more trustworthy between atheists and rapists. There are many other factors that could have gone into their decision process.

      Also, I definitely think it’s possible that people considered population size only when comparing atheists to rapists. You don’t have to convince me that atheists are victims of unfair negative perceptions. I wouldn’t be surprised if people would pick out the atheist and rapist from the list as the “immoral” people and then pick the atheist based on some other factor. It could be because they think that it’s more probable for someone to be an atheist, it could be because they think that stealing is something that is more associated with atheism.

  • Alf

    This study doesn’t really say that much. First of the sample size is quite small and the sample group varies very little.
    I would particularly like to criticize the last experiment regarding the jobs. Once again a tiny sample size (40). The participants are given two options: atheist or religious person. They are being forced to choose one over the other and if the opposite results were found one could claim that religious people are more discriminated against, well to be specific more distrusted, than atheists. My opinion as to why someone would choose one over the other has nothing to do with bigotry, but rather what one is familiar with. Personally, as an atheist and someone who is friends with many atheists, I am familiar with atheism and in such a study would choose an atheist for high trust job based on my experience with atheism and the atheists I have encountered. However, to come to the conclusion that this “distrust has real-life ramifications in the job market” is quite a leap from this study to reality.

    • anteprepro

      The suggested minimum sample sizes for t-tests/ANOVA is 30. It’s pretty standard for individual psychology experiments to not exceed 50 participants per condition, unless exceptionally well-funded.

      My opinion as to why someone would choose one over the other has nothing to do with bigotry, but rather what one is familiar with.

      It’s essentially the same thing. One is considered “bigoted” (i.e. prejudiced, biased) if one trusts their own in-group so much that they will systematically favor them over any out-group members. Or if they distrust out-groupers so much that will systematically disregard them. If it were white vs. black candidate, or gay vs. straight candidate, I doubt very much we would hesitate to call favoring one over the other “bigotry”.

      The article itself focuses on distrust of atheists. However, it distinguishes it from dislike in one of their experiments, so it’s a special kind of bigotry that doesn’t involve actual hatred, but still involves distrust based, not just on in-group bias, but on the kind of propaganda they’ve gotten from their in-group. One of their experiments resulted in this observation: ” In addition, results were consistent with the hypothesis that the relationship between belief in God and atheist distrust was fully mediated by the belief that people behave better if they feel that God is watching them “.

      That being said, I agree that the bigotry involved isn’t particularly intense, and that it isn’t clear that it proves job market discrimination. It would have been much better to have a larger sample size and divide them into groups where they have only one candidate to choose from. That way, they could look at whether people will systematically give atheists the job where trust is less of a factor, without worrying about whether they are simply favoring the religious person for the job.

    • Alf

      I would like to add, and let me preface this by saying that I have not read the original study and am only going off of what Fincke has posted/quoted and I am referring to the study with the high trust/low trust job, but ANOVA was not applied here as there is no influence variable. An appropriate influence variable could have been the religious affiliation of the participant.

    • anteprepro

      I have no idea what kind of test they used, since the full article is behind a pay-wall. I believe just using a t-test would work, but I don’t know if that’s what they did.