When I read this article at Salon.com by Jesse Bering, I almost laughed out loud. Bering, who declares himself an atheist, nonetheless says that we shouldn’t trust atheists and, when faced with doing business with an overtly religious person and one that fails to show conspicuous signs of religious belief, we should go with the former. He offers this anecdote:
So now that I’ve come out of the atheistic closet, entirely undressed, how can I possibly say that I trust those who believe in God more than those whom I’d otherwise consider to be sympathetic and like-minded thinkers? Well, trustworthiness is a different thing altogether from intellect, and I suppose I’m ever the social pragmatist in my dealings with other people.
Take, for example, a situation I found myself in outside a rail station in an Irish seaside town years ago. My luggage in hand, the cold gray sky windy and threatening rain, I was confronted with two taxis at the curb waiting for passengers. One of the cars had a crucifix dangling from the rearview mirror and a dog-eared copy of the Bible on prominent display on the console.
The other taxi showed no trace of any religious icons. Now, all else being equal, which of these two taxis would you choose, considering also that you’re trying to avoid being overcharged, a practice for which this part of the country is notorious — and that being an American during the “W.” administration, I might add, elevates you one step above our forty-third president in respectability? Both drivers are in all probability devout Catholics — this is Ireland, after all. Still, there’s no way to know for certain.
Unless you’re trying to make a point about how “atheists are good people too” or you happen to despise the Catholic Church, it’s really a no-brainer: Go with God. Why is this so obvious? As the political scientist Dominic Johnson has argued, “If supernatural punishment is held as a belief, then this threat becomes a deterrent in reality, so the mechanism can work regardless of whether the threat is genuine or not.” In other words, from a psychological perspective, the ontological question of God’s actual existence is completely irrelevant; all that really matters in the above case is that the taxi driver is fully convinced that God doesn’t like it when he cheats his passengers.
Yes, your jaw should be agape at this point, staring at the screen in at least mild disbelief. He tries to justify this all with studies that apparently show that people are more likely to be honest if they’re surrounded by reminders that God is watching them:
A number of studies have offered empirical support for this supernatural monitoring hypothesis. This is a term coined by Ara Norenzayan, who in multiple studies has found that when participants are implicitly primed with God-related words (“spirit,” “divine,” “sacred” and so on), they become both more “prosocial” and less antisocial. By contrast with nonreligious or neutral words, people who see such religious words, for example, donate more money to a charity after completing a word-scramble task in which they cobble the words together into some coherent sentence. Although he and his collaborator Azim Shariff favored the interpretation that participants behaved more altruistically in the religious condition because the religious words reminded them that God was watching and therefore judging them, Norenzayan had always been cautious not to conclude prematurely that this was caused simply by concerns about heavenly spying. It’s also possible, of course, that these religious words simply activated related social concepts such as “benevolence” and “good deeds,” priming altruistic decision making independent of worrying about God’s fretful glares.
More recent work, however, has allowed Norenzayan to put those concerns to rest. Getting people to think about God — even unconsciously and even, interestingly enough, among nonbelievers — indeed triggers very specific reasoning about their being the targets of someone’s visual attention. Norenzayan and Will Gervais found that this basic effect of religious words making people feel visually exposed panned out across a variety of experimental conditions. In one study, for instance, the investigators used the same implicit God-priming method as before, assigning either a religious or a nonreligious word-scrambling task to believers and atheists. The participants then completed something called the Situational Self-Awareness Scale, and, remarkably, regardless of their explicit belief or disbelief in God, all those who’d been exposed unconsciously to the religious words — but not to the neutral words — showed a spike in their public self-awareness. That is to say, they became significantly more cognizant and concerned about the transparency of their social behaviors from an audience’s point of view.
Furthermore, in a follow-up experiment, Norenzayan and Gervais reasoned that “when people feel that their behavior is being monitored … they tend to cast themselves in a positive light.” This led them to hypothesize that reminders about God would not simply increase self-awareness but also encourage socially desirable responses. Participants’ responses to statements such as “I am sometimes irritated by people who ask favors of me” and “No matter who I’m talking to, I’m always a good listener” should reflect their beliefs about what God wants to hear, not the truth about these unrealistically positive social attributes. In this study, however, the only people who produced socially desirable responses to the implicit God primes were those who actually believed in God. This means that while nonbelievers might feel “exposed” in the wake of receiving implicit God primes, just like believers, this feeling doesn’t influence how atheists attempt to portray themselves socially.
From this weak premise, he concludes that it’s a “no-brainer” to always opt to do business with someone who makes conspicuous their belief in God. What I didn’t know when I read this is that PZ Myers had written a response to it, and it’s a pretty devastating one.
I read Bering’s anecdote completely differently, because I’m more likely to pay attention to the forest than the trees. He says right out that this region has a reputation for overcharging; it’s also a small town in Ireland, so I can safely assume that it is almost entirely Irish Catholic, and finding an atheist cabdriver would be an outlier. So I would immediately infer that being religious and overcharging customers are not mutually incompatible — and that if a behavior is the norm, you are not protected from it by associating with people who conform to other norms.
There’s also the obvious fact that religious people are not less prone to break the law or cheat. We don’t see an obvious correlation between religiosity and criminality (well, the correlation is there, but it goes the wrong way for Bering’s hypothesis, and I’m not going to go there because the causality is complex, and I do not believe that religion makes people bad). We can see an inarguable tendency for religion to cause people to check their behavior in the short term, but in the long term… human beings are really, really good at rationalizing all kinds of objectionable behavior. It seems likely to me that these small town Irish taxi drivers with a reputation for overcharging have almost certainly developed their own justifications for it — their passengers are foreigners, or too rich for their own good, or perhaps wicked godless psychologists from the big city here to corrupt the youth, and therefore deserving of a little extra billing — and that these rationalizations would not be consequences of their faith or lack thereof.
So maybe I should go with the godless cabbie (setting aside the faux pas of jumping the queue)? No, wait, there’s another problem here. Dangling a crucifix from the mirror is a cheap signal; it may also be an unnecessary signal in an area where Catholicism is taken for granted. We Americans may be accustomed to obnoxious religious people wearing their faith prominently on their sleeve, but it’s not universal — most religious people have no desire to constantly trumpet their beliefs at others. So I know absolutely nothing about the religious preferences of either driver. Basing a decision on potentially misleading cues, and on a false presumption that religious taxi drivers are more trustworthy, is pointless. Just get in the first cab and be done with it…
But let’s return to the example of our Irish taxi drivers, upon whom we’re also busily imposing our own biases about their motivations. Let’s complicate it some more. What if one of these godless taxi drivers was also a fan of Jesse Bering’s evolutionary psychology writings, and having read his latest, was placing a Bible and crucifix in his taxi specifically to fool the rubes? These could be deceptive signals!
I think the real lesson here is clear. When choosing a taxi, be sure to quiz them on basic psychology, and avoid the ones that understand the concepts at a simplistic level. I’m not worried about getting into a taxi with either a Catholic or an atheist, but the thought of being taken for a ride by a pop psychologist terrifies me — you never know what glib bill of sale you’ll be given.
In fact, we have more than enough examples of the conspicuously religious fleecing their followers and committing fraud on massive scales to know what the signals upon which Bering relies in his hypothetical world do not necessarily apply in the real world. This is pure bunk, from stem to stern.
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