Hemant calls attention to a new study from Will Gervais, a psychologist at the University of Kentucky who has focused much of his scholarly attention to atheism and atheists. That study finds that people will jump at the chance to view a bad person as an atheist even in the absence of any evidence of that — and that atheists do it too! The abstract:
Scientific research yields inconsistent and contradictory evidence relating religion to moral judgments and outcomes, yet most people on earth nonetheless view belief in God (or gods) as central to morality, and many view atheists with suspicion and scorn. To evaluate intuitions regarding a causal link between religion and morality, this paper tested intuitive moral judgments of atheists and other groups. Across five experiments (N = 1,152), American participants intuitively judged a wide variety of immoral acts (e.g., serial murder, consensual incest, necrobestiality, cannibalism) as representative of atheists, but not of eleven other religious, ethnic, and cultural groups. Even atheist participants judged immoral acts as more representative of atheists than of other groups. These findings demonstrate a prevalent intuition that belief in God serves a necessary function in inhibiting immoral conduct, and may help explain persistent negative perceptions of atheists.
As Hemant points out, the use of the term “intuition” here is unnecessary. We usually describe common human beliefs as “intuitive” to mean that they are somehow build-in or hardwired, but this is almost certainly a learned response built in by culture, not nature.
Gervais did a series of experiments that began by telling a story and then asking respondents what they would infer about the person in the story. Here’s the first one:
When Dax was young, he began inflicting harm on animals. It started with just pulling the wings off flies, but eventually progressed to torturing squirrels and stray cats in his neighborhood.
As an adult, Dax found that he did not get much thrill from harming animals, so he began hurting people instead. He has killed 5 homeless people that he abducted from poor neighborhoods in his home city. Their dismembered bodies are currently buried in his basement.
Hemant describes the next step in the experiment:
Then Gervais asked the subjects what they could infer about Dax just from reading those two paragraphs.
They were given two options and asked which one was more likely: that Dax was A) a teacher or B) a teacher who does not believe in God.
Five other groups were asked to choose between A) a teacher and B) a teacher who was either Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, or Buddhist.
Now, the correct answer — 100% of the time, for every group — is always Option A. No matter what option B says, it is mathematically guaranteed that Dax is more likely to be a teacher than “a teacher and something else.” (This is commonly known as the “Linda problem” or “Conjunction fallacy.”)
So what did Gervais do with the results? He looked at how many people chose Option B in each group — the wrong answer every time — and calculated the error rates.
It turns out when subjects had to choose between Dax being a teacher and Dax being a teacher who was also something else, nearly half the people chose the wrong answer when “atheist” was offered up as an option.
I’m not sure I buy that this is a really good methodology and I’d be curious to hear from Dr. X, Kate Donovan and some of the other folks with some expertise in psychology on what they think about it. I have no doubt that in this culture people really do distrust atheists, we certainly have a great deal of evidence for that. But I’m not sure how much this really helps us quantify or understand that distrust.