I have an aversion to reading academic journals… but there’s a new paper published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (April 2011 37: 543-556) that is a must-read for anyone who has access. It’s called “Finding the Faithless: Perceived Atheist Prevalence Reduces Anti-Atheist Prejudice.”
The author, Will M. Gervais of the University of British Columbia, points out that, in most cases, the larger a group gets, the more prejudice there is against them:
For example, anti-Black prejudice is stronger where Black people hold a larger relative share of local populations in the United States… Although the vast majority of this research has focused on racial attitudes, studies find positive relationships between outgroup size and prejudice against foreigners in Germany… and anti-immigrant prejudice throughout Europe…
All else equal, a competing group becomes even more threatening if it has more members.
But apparently this is not so when it comes to atheists.
For us, “increases in actual and perceived atheist prevalence could instead lead to decreased anti-atheist prejudice.”
In other words, the more of us out there — or the more people think we’re out there — the less prejudice there is against us.
Gervais cites the Gallup poll that points out that fewer than half of all Americans would vote for an atheist presidential candidate (even if they were qualified and a member of your preferred political party).
These polls illustrate a persistent exclusion of people who do not believe in God, which is especially remarkable because as a group atheists are neither powerful nor conspicuous.
But our numbers are rising quickly:
Not only that, the prevalence of atheist billboards makes it seem like we’re freaking everywhere. (Partly because we are everywhere, but the publicity might even exaggerate that.)
So both our actual numbers and our perceived numbers are growing.
How will this help us? Well, note the anti-atheist prejudice we have working against us:
In addition to displaying an unwillingness to vote for politicians who do not believe in God, American respondents rated atheists as the group that least shares their vision of America and the group that they would most disapprove of their children marrying… These authors note that although most stigmatized groups have become more accepted over the past several decades, this has been less true for atheists; as a result, atheists now rank at the bottom of large-scale polls of cultural inclusion.
But Gervais goes on to say that when more of us are out there, this prejudice goes down significantly. He cites four studies that support this theory.
Study 1 looked at different nations:
I examined anti-atheist prejudice across 54 countries with diverse religious, socioeconomic, and political backgrounds, predicting that believers would show reduced anti-atheist prejudice in countries with greater numbers of atheists.
I’m glossing over the numbers here, but the result?
Anti-atheist prejudice was reduced where atheists are more common.
Study 2 looked at individuals. Since you can’t know whether people are atheists just by looking at them, the “perceived” atheism plays a big role here:
This study investigated the relationship between perceived atheist prevalence and anti-atheist prejudice. In addition, this study controlled belief in God and belief in a dangerous world (BDW), two factors known to contribute to specific anti-atheist prejudice and prejudice in general, respectively.
Study 3 looked for a causal relationship between perceived prevalence of atheists and anti-atheist prejudice: Did thinking that more atheists are out there lead to the reduction of anti-atheist prejudice?
Even after controlling for variables known to contribute to prejudice in general (BDW) and specific prejudice against atheists (belief in God), participants who thought that atheists were more common viewed them more positively.
That means we have to remove the possibility that people treat atheists better because they know some atheists personally.
Subjects were split up into two groups: one group was told atheists were very prevalent on campus; the other was told atheists were a rare presence on campus. After controlling for people who said they knew atheists personally, what was the result?
… participants in the [atheists are common] condition exhibited significantly less atheist distrust than did participants in the [atheists are rare] condition… Information that atheists are numerous reduced distrust of atheists.
It should be noted that while people were less like to distrust atheists if they thought there were more of us out there, it doesn’t mean they automatically think we’re good people. That’s still something we have to overcome.
Information that atheists are actually quite common, both worldwide and in the immediate environment, reduced distrust of atheists. In contrast, this information did not lead people to view atheists in a generally more positive light…
Study 4 extended the results of Study 3 and answered the question: Would “learning about atheist prevalence… reduce implicitly measured distrust of atheists”?
Subjects in this study were again split into two groups, one of which was told nothing about the “growing number of atheists,” while the other was told about it.
… implicit distrust was lower in the atheist prevalence condition than in the control condition… The distrust effect in the atheist prevalence condition was not significantly different from zero… As hypothesized, reading about atheist prevalence reduced implicit atheist distrust.
So what does all this mean for us? (This is just me writing; it’s not part of the paper.)
It means we need to continue letting people know we’re out there.
Furthermore, we need to pressure atheists who keep their beliefs hidden to come out of the closet. I know “coming out” is easier said than done for a lot of us, but as more of us make our religious views clear, it becomes easier and safer for others to follow.
Gervais even quotes Richard Dawkins when talking about the “coming out” issue:
Like atheism, homosexuality is concealable, and people may similarly be uncertain of how numerous atheists and homosexuals actually are. This similarity is strongly emphasized by Dawkins (2006), who argues that anti-atheist prejudice might be overcome if atheists can find a way to “come out” and raise public awareness of atheism like the Gay Pride movement mobilized widespread support for the acceptance of homosexuality. These movements make plain how numerous atheists and homosexuals actually are.
This is true, Gervais admits, even though the atheist and GLBT communities aren’t perfectly analogous:
For instance, anti-atheist prejudice is characterized by distrust, whereas disgust is more prominent in sexual prejudice…
This paper confirms what many of us have known for a long time: If people know an atheist personally — or realize there are more of us out there than churches or popular culture would have them believe — the distrust, unelectability, and don’t-you-dare-marry-into-my-family mentality decreases.
So what are you waiting for?
Tell the people in your life that you don’t believe in a god.
Start the conversation.
Destroy their negative stereotypes about us.
There’s no better time to do it.
(Thanks to Melissa for the link!)