As more and more people come out of the closet as atheists, a great deal of hatred and distrust of atheists continues to be a real problem. Tom Jacobs reports on a new psychology study that might explain why. The study says that encountering atheists tends to trigger a believer’s fear of death:
But it turns out that’s not the whole story. Newly published research finds another dynamic driving antagonism toward atheists: They threaten the comforting narratives that gives meaning to so many people’s lives, and make the thought of death bearable.
Humans instinctively search for ways of “mitigating the potential terror arising from the uniquely human awareness of death,” writes a research team led by psychologist Corey Cook of the University of Washington-Tacoma. Atheists “pose a fundamental threat” to the belief systems that perform this vital function.
Writing in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, the researchers report “hostility toward, and mistrust of, atheists is particularly pronounced when existential concerns are involved.” Even more tellingly, they also find that “among believers, the mere contemplation of atheism can arouse intimations of mortality.”
The first of their two experiments featured 236 American college students (including 34 self-proclaimed atheists, whose answers were not included in the analysis). Two-thirds reported they were Christians; Muslims, Buddhists, and Jews made up the bulk of the final third.
In a nutshell, what the study found was that if you primed people by having them talk about death and what happens to us when we die, their response to atheists is much more negative than if you don’t.