Most people believe in a god of some sort. Nonetheless, there are hundreds of millions of nonbelievers in the world, and they face considerable discrimination and prejudice. From a social psychological perspective, this is a puzzling form of prejudice: Atheists do not form a coherent group, they are individually inconspicuous, and they are not, in general, oppositional or threatening. Recent research in social, evolutionary, and cultural psychology, however, offers suggestions for solving the puzzle of anti-atheist prejudice, in terms of both uncovering its psychological causes and also suggesting interventions for reducing it. Antipathy towards atheists derives specifically from moral distrust – to many people, belief in a watchful, moralizing god is seen as a uniquely powerful and perhaps necessary component of morality.
Without religious belief, atheists are viewed as potentially capable of gross moral violations. These effects are not American peculiarities, as they resurface in diverse countries across the globe. Further, moral distrust may spill over, leading to behavioral aggression against atheists. At the same time, the psychological foundations of anti-atheist prejudice imply specific ways in which distrust of atheists might be ameliorated. I’ll summarize research on how greater collective and individual awareness of atheists—through campaigns such as the Openly Secular movement—might impact attitudes towards atheists. The effect of these movements could be to reduce prejudice atheists, or to counterproductively further stigmatize vocal nonbelievers and isolate less vocal nonbelievers. I’ll close with some concrete recommendations for how to potentially overcome societal stigma against religious disbelief.
Will Gervais is an evolutionary and cultural psychologist at the University of Kentucky. Broadly, he is interested in why people believe what they believe about the world. His research focuses on the cognitive, evolutionary, and cultural forces that facilitate supernatural beliefs—and how these beliefs, in turn, affect cognition, evolution, and culture.