Even Atheists Think Atheists Are More Likely to Be Serial Killers, Says Study

Suppose I told you that there was a man named Bob who tortured animals as a child. His violent tendencies never left him, and he eventually murdered and mutilated several homeless people.

What’s more likely: That Bob is (A) a teacher or (B) a teacher and an atheist?

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The right answer — 100% of the time — is going to be (A). The word “atheist” is essentially useless in that question because it’s a mathematical certainty that you’re more (or equally) likely to be a teacher than a teacher and something else. (This is commonly known as the “Linda problem” or the “Conjunction fallacy.”)

Psychologist Will Gervais has conducted a number of studies using that setup over the past several years. He lays out a similar scenario and replaces the word “atheist” with different religions to see how the responses change. Because if people choose Option B, they’re 100% wrong — but the question is whether they’re more wrong (if that’s such a thing) when the word “atheist” is thrown into the mix.

His most recent study, published today in the journal Nature Human Behaviour, is all about anti-atheist bias around the world. He asked participants essentially the same question I asked you at the beginning of this post, with the choices for Option B being “a teacher and an atheist” or “a teacher and a religious person.” His team did the same experiment in 13 countries around the world with more than 3,000 participants.

What did they find?

In all 13 countries, participants were more likely to be wrong (by choosing Option B) when the word “atheist” was in the mix. Only in Finland were the differences almost indistinguishable.

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Look at the vertical axis. It’s saying that, on average, about 60% of people who had the option of saying Bob was a teacher and an atheist did just that. But only 30% of people said Bob was a teacher and a religious person when that was one of the choices.

Gervais’ team also found that even atheists hold this anti-atheist bias. Check out the left side of the graph below, which represents people who don’t believe in God. Their responses, on average, weren’t all that different from those who absolutely believe in God (on the right side).

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What can we learn from all this? Simply put, there’s a lot of anti-atheist bias when it comes to immoral actions. Even atheists think atheists are more likely to be serial killers. That doesn’t mean it’s true; it just means the stigma persists, even
though secular societies around the world are generally less violent than religious nations.

Says Gervais:

participants intuitively assume that the perpetrators of immoral acts are probably atheists. These effects appeared across religiously diverse societies, including countries with Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Muslim and non-religious majorities, showing that intuitive moral prejudice against atheists is not exclusive to Abrahamic or monotheistic majority societies. To the contrary, intuitive anti-atheist prejudice generalizes to largely secular societies and appears globally evident even among atheists.

In 2011, Gervais published a study (using similar methods) showing that atheists were more distrusted than Christians, Muslims, and rapists. (Yep. Seriously.) It’s sad to see that we’ve made little headway in changing those perceptions even as other studies find the number of religious “Nones” to be on the rise. Those two things aren’t contradictory, but it means we have a long way to go in countering religious slander of what it means to be an atheist.

Religion is not synonymous with morality. Readers of this site are well aware of that. But too many people think a lack of religion is synonymous with immorality.

It’s all the more reason for good, kind, decent people to come out as atheists (if it’s safe for them to do so). The simplest way I can think of to change these perceptions is making sure people associate atheists with decency, and the more atheists they know personally, the less likely it will be that the A-word pops into their heads when told a story about a serial killer.

(Image via Shutterstock)

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