Atheists who experience discrimination identify more strongly as atheists

Atheists who experience discrimination identify more strongly as atheists November 10, 2014

People on rocks

At The Pacific Standard, Tom Jacobs discusses recent research on how atheist identity is affected by experiences and perceptions of discrimination. Jacobs writes:

Writing in the journal Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, [the researchers] describe a study featuring 960 self-identified atheists. They responded to a long list of statements designed to measure their experience with personal discrimination, group discrimination, and their personal identification with atheism, along with their self-esteem, physical health, and satisfaction with life.

Sample statements include “I have felt isolated because I am an atheist,” “Religious people have more opportunities than atheists do,” and “Being an atheist is an important part of who I am.” Participants rated each on a five-point scale, from “strongly disagree” to “strongly agree.”

“Participants who tended to experience discrimination, and perceive atheists as a derogated group, reported lower psychological and physical well-being,” the researchers report. Those people also, on average, identified more strongly as atheists.

Jacobs goes on:

What’s more, “atheist identification was a positive predictor of both psychological and physical well-being,” they add. This suggests that identifying strongly as an atheist “appears to be helpful in reducing, but not eliminating, discrimination’s ill effects” on one’s mental and physical health.

This may help explain why atheists, who make up 2.4 percent of the American population according to a 2012 Pew Research Center survey, have become more outspoken in recent years. There is strong evidence non-believers are widely disliked and distrusted; this research suggests that many, in response, make atheism a key part of their personal identity.

It’s worth pointing out that these results can’t necessarily support the causal picture Jacobs and the researchers describe. The study can’t rule out the possibility that those who are most identified and outspoken about their atheism experience the most discrimination, though it would be easy enough to test—simply bring atheists into the lab and make them feel more discriminated against. If Jabob and the study’s authors are right, then this should increase how strongly atheists identify with their atheism.

Absent that sort of data, it’s hard to so cleanly connect this study to the literature on how other marginalized groups respond to threats. Especially since past research seems to suggest that identity, rather than beliefs, predict how likely an atheist or agnostic is to face discrimination. As the authors of this new research point out, atheism is the type of thing you can hide.

I’ve written about discrimination against atheists before (where I discussed some of this research) in my first article for The Daily Beast:

One of my favorite studies, a 2011 paper by Julia Minson and Benoît Monin, showed that 47 percent of their undergraduate subjects freely associated negative words with vegetarians. It’s worth noting that Public Policy Polling, in what I’ll admit is a tongue-in-cheek report, showed that 86 percent of Americans would be less likely to vote for a hipster president, and overall, 42 percent of Americans rated hipsters unfavorably. If the typical atheist experiences discrimination, it’s not obvious that hipsters, nerds, and vegetarians don’t.

You could imagine similar studies showing that vegetarians who report discrimination are more likely to identify strongly as vegetarians, and the same might hold for nerds and hipsters, too. This would only really go to show that being outspoken about something makes people more likely to treat you worse because of it.

Regardless, this study is an interesting addition to the literature, and meshes well with effects showing how discrimination increases group-identification, my personal scientific quibbles aside. Those with University access can read the paper here.

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