Exposure to Atheists Matters

This post is by Jesse Galef, who works for the Secular Coalition for America.  He also blogs at Rant & Reason

This was a fascinating and eye-opening chart from Gallup:

There are other findings on the site, but the implications are consistent: when people spend time around gays or lesbians, they’re more comfortable around them and more willing to support their rights.

Need I go on?  I’m sure you see the parallels.

This is why things like the  Out Campaign are so important.  We need to let people get to know us as nontheists so they can see firsthand that we’re not immoral cannibals; we’re pretty much like them.

In college at UNC, our club set up a table in the middle of campus and had a sign “Meet an Atheist”.  The reaction was friendly but curious – you would be amazed at how many people had questions about our worldview.  I think my favorite question is still “What do you guys think of the devil?”  We explained that we didn’t believe in the devil, either.  He nodded thoughtfully before walking off.

It’s difficult to demonize an entire group of people when you know one of them personally.  If you’re comfortable doing it – or perhaps only mildy uncomfortable with the idea -  make yourself known as a nontheist!

About Dr. Denise Cooper-Clarke

I am a graduate of medicine and theology with a Ph.D in medical ethics. I tutor in medical ethics at the University of Melbourne, am an (occasional) adjunct Lecturer in Ethics at Ridley Melbourne, and a voluntary researcher with Ethos. I am also a Fellow of ISCAST and a past chair of the Melbourne Chapter of Christians for Biblical Equality. I have special interests in professional ethics, sexual ethics and the ethics of virtue.

  • Kate

    I’m failing to see any causal relation here…

    It’s highly possible that some gay people don’t come out to ignorant bigots who are against gay marriage – thus, these people might actually know someone who is gay, but not know it. Or isolate themselves in a bubble where they make a point not to be around gay people.

    Until you can experimentally expose gay people to other people and see how their views change, you can’t make assumptions like that. ;)

  • Aj

    Yes, correlation does not imply causation. Cultural segregation and closeted homosexuality could play a role. The documentary series 30days did expose a homophobe to gay people. Mark Steel, a British comedian, once suggested that everyone should live as a homosexual for a year before they’re allowed to be homophobic.

  • littlejohn

    I think it’s a near certainty that everyone knows a gay person. They just aren’t aware of it. Why would gays come out to bigots?
    Likewise, I imagine everyone knows an atheist, but they may not know it.

  • Anonymous

    Why would gays come out to bigots?

    With rudely rational comments like that you’re going to undermine the goal of the Out Campaign (for atheists to come out to bigots). Just who’s side are you on? :)

  • http://supercheetah.livejournal.com Rene Horn

    @Kate: Touché. There could certainly be a bias towards those who live in communities where gays feel more comfortable coming out (I forget the statistical term for this), but, while correlation is not causation, it often has a leering eye towards something intriguing.

  • http://www.rationalmoms.com Julie

    There is data to suggest that interpersonal interaction with minority groups by “majority” groups enhances positive feelings toward the minority groups. Yep! Data. I wrote a paper about this in film school, of all places. Here’s a little quote from my paper:

    A 1954 study by G.W. Allport called The nature of prejudice found that, “under appropriate conditions interpersonal contact is one of the most effective ways to reduce prejudice between majority and minority group members.” Two years after this study, D. Horton and R.R. Wohl published another study that furthered the idea of the “para-social interaction.” Horton and Wohl argued that new mass media (radio, TV, and movies) are able to provide the illusion of a face-to-face encounter, thus achieving possibly the same effect parasocial s as personal interaction. In their study, Schiappa, Gregg, and Hewes did find that contact led to lower levels of prejudice in audience members, proving their hypothesis that, “If people process mass-mediated parasocial interaction in a manner similar to interpersonal interaction, then the socially beneficial functions of intergroup contact may result from parasocial contact.”

    I was writing about Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, and it turns out there is not only evidence that personal contact combats prejudice but that media “contact” will also work:

    The Parasocial Contact study measured attitudes toward gays and lesbians among straight people before and after a viewing of Queer Eye. This was a quantitative data study that attempted to measure the effect viewing the show might have on viewers with little to no actual experience with gay men. As academic Kylo-Patrick R. Hart has explained, one of the ongoing debates in cultural studies is whether representations of gay men on television can provide “ideological guidance” to viewers about, “how they should think about and respond to gay men and their lived realities.” While such representational influences can impact all viewers, they are, “believed to have the most extreme influence on individuals with little or no firsthand opportunity for interacting with and learning about gay men as they go about their everyday lives.” The Parasocial Contact Hypothesis study attempted to prove this qualitative statement with actual data.

    Schiappa, Gregg, and Hewes used an assessment called the ATLG (Attitude Toward Lesbians and Gays), and gave the tests before and after viewing the show. They also gave this test to a control group. Their findings showed that after viewing the show, audience members did have decreased prejudicial attitudes towards gay men. The authors of the study admit that the inferences that can be drawn from it are somewhat limited, owing to the fact that all the participants were volunteer college students and not a truly random sample of audience members. They also point out that this data does not truly explore the method by which change in attitude may take place. They ask questions for future researchers such as, “…how many episodes of programming are necessary to influence attitudes? Is comedic, dramatic, or reality programming more likely to induce change? What sort of interactions between majority and minority characters within the programming is most productive of attitude change?”

    The block quotes are from my paper. Here’s the study I was using:

    Schiappa, E., Gregg, P.B., Hewes, D.E., “The parasocial contact hypothesis,” Communication Monographs72.1 (2005): 92.

    I don’t have a citation for the original 1954 study about face to face contact, and it’s 4:30 in the morning. But anyway, yes, there has been research that proves that interpersonal interaction with minority groups enhances positive feelings. And even media interaction can work. So hooray for gay people on TV.

  • Aj

    People actually come away with more positive feelings about anyone or anything after watching Queer Eye? I think this study increased my prejudice towards volunteer college students and humanity in general. It’s strange because I thought Queer Eye played on stereotypes which goes against the original theory, it seems counter productive. The 2005 Parasocial Contact study isn’t high quality, as is mentioned in the study, so we can take little from it.

  • http://www.rationalmoms.com Julie

    I loved Queer Eye, so I’m not objective!

    But another aspect of my paper is that while the cast started off stereotypes, they revealed their true kind personalities by the end, so the stereotyping was playful and therefore, well, helpful to break down prejudice. Blah blah blah. I won’t quote anymore, as you apparently will discount the study without reading it!

    Anecdotally, before I met my first gay boy, I was homophobic. Then I had a gay friend, so I can only believe from personal experience that contact with minorities increases positive feelings and lessens prejudice. I cannot understand why that would be difficult to believe. It’s simply common sense. We’re all just people, and when we hang out with each other, the differences become unimportant.

    Isn’t that what this site is all about? Isn’t that why we are coming out as Atheists? I know in my office, the woman next to me, a fierce Christian, now has a different view of atheists, because she knows me, and she understands that I’m moral to a fault, nice, and can bake like nobody’s bizness. So I see this theory in action. Dismiss as anecdotal if you like–I believe this one, because I must. It’s why I do what I do.

  • Aj

    Don’t get upset because I don’t like your favourite TV show. I didn’t discount any study, I considered what the authors had to say about it, that it’s nonrandom, didn’t explore method, so what can be inferred from it is limited. That’s not what I call a high quality study, I’d call that a preliminary study.

    It doesn’t matter whether something is easy or difficult to believe, just seems “right” to us, or we just “must” believe it (sounds like sihthinking to me). The point of doing studies is to gather supporting evidence for a hypothesis, not to prop up pet theories.

    I guess I’m not an expert, so missed the breaking of stereotypes on Queer Eye.

  • http://www.rationalmoms.com Julie

    Don’t get upset because I don’t like your favourite TV show.

    I am reading my comment to see if there was any upset in there. Nope, none! I was just letting you know that I did love that show. Not sure where you’re seeing any upset tone.

    I’ll try to find the original 1954 study, if I ever have a free moment. It might be more thorough. It’s certainly true that the 2005 one about media could be considered preliminary, but keep in mind it was building on previous knowledge. The point is that it’s already been demonstrated that social contact does work to lessen negative feelings. So these 2005 cats were trying to extend the theory to media.

    But you really can’t knock the 2005 study without reading it. It’s true caveats were given at the end (and I listed those), but hey, that’s a sign these researchers were honest and thorough. I did read the whole dang study for this paper. It’s pretty good, even if it does involve mere college students.

    And my point about the anecdotal stories is just to give admittedly anecdotal evidence. I just don’t understand why this kind of theory would be difficult to believe, because I have personally experienced its effects. I’m not telling you I personally experienced an alien abduction or a vision from Jesus. It’s not something that requires a tremendous leap of faith or requires that we just believe. I’ve experienced this effect at work, and I’ve demonstrated to you that in fact, the phenomenon has been studied. Go ahead and find yourself some studies that DISprove it. Or go read the ones I’ve given you. It doesn’t seem fair to try and poke holes in them when you don’t have all the information.


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