Scientific American summarizes studies which locate people’s distrust of atheists in their fears that atheists are more likely to act deviously in secret because they fear no god is watching them. We have talked about such research before. Then this article explores other research which gives indications about how to combat this problem:
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.
The findings on why we distrust atheists also point towards another potential way of reducing such prejudice: by reminding people of charitable and altruistic acts committed in the name of atheism. In recent years, there has been a growing number of virtual communities dedicated to those interested in atheism.
This is a little bit more confirmation for my hypothesis that the dominant religious institutions lose their grips slowly as each of the myriad of psychological and social functions they serve are stably replaced by secular alternatives. Social and political stability with sufficient means of guaranteeing pro-social behavior and punishments for antisocial behavior alleviates the anxieties which keep gods around. Now if atheists can provide outlets for people’s metaphysical wonder and for their longings for identity-shaping community, grounded values, rituals, meaning, and ecstatic and meditative practices, we can take away the last bargaining chips that authoritarian and superstitious faith-based religions use to win human minds in the modern world.
It makes some sense from a pragmatic perspective that the basically conservative human mind generally will not discard any beliefs—no matter how unfounded by evidence—until it is assured that even without them it can get the practical benefits which it used those beliefs for. A great deal of brutal and stupid human beliefs, institutions, and practices have always gained their justification from the fear that the alternative to keeping them was a fate much worse. This is why it is prosperity, stability, and security which grant us the luxury to have increasingly true and increasingly humane ways of behaving and believing. And fortunately, because of our fundamental interconnectedness, on the long run it seems like truthful and humane beliefs and practices in turn further advance the aims of prosperity, stability, and security. Progress seems to me to be a matter of these things mutually reinforcing each other without anyone hitting the panic button at first signs of insecurity.
For more on the typical mind’s naturally tight association between pro-social behavior and belief in gods who are watching, see my post, Pascal Boyer on Imaginary Friends and Supernatural Agents. I fear it’s going to take quite a bit of social compensation for all the regulating functions that our naturally fictitious thinking serves if we are ever going to get the majority of people to be psychologically reassured enough that they shut it down for good. We need to think constructively about how to thread this psychological needle, against the stubbornness of the essentially conservative and risk-averse brain which fears insecurity far more than falsehood.
I’ve written several times on related themes connected to the struggle between religious and secular institutions, and done so most saliently in the posts below: