Unsplash/Stefan Kunze

Even Atheists Think Atheists Are Bad People, Study Finds


I’m an atheist, but I usually don’t advertise it. When I do, I tend to say I’m “secular” instead of outright saying “I’m an atheist,” because — let’s face it, even in 2017, even in America — “atheist” is still a dirty word.

A new study shows I’m right to be careful identifying as a nonbeliever: People of all stripes are still deeply suspicious of those of us who don’t believe in God. Even atheists themselves.

The details of the study are pretty terrifying.

Listen to this: A team of researchers — led by a University of Kentucky psychology professor named Will Gervais, who has studied anti-atheist prejudice in depth — surveyed over 3,200 people in 13 different countries, including secular nations (like Finland and Australia) and uber-religious ones (like India and the United Arab Emirates). The research team deliberately surveyed people of differing religious beliefs, ages, genders and socioeconomic backgrounds in order to get the most comprehensive data possible.

The survey told a gruesome story to study participants: There was a kid who was fond of torturing animals, it said. When he grew up, he turned into a full-fledged psychopath, murdering homeless people (and even mutilating their bodies).

The researchers then asked half the participants if they thought it was more likely that the murderer was 1) a teacher, or 2) a teacher who didn’t believe in God.

The other half were asked whether it was more likely that the killer was 1) a teacher, or 2) a teacher who did believe in God. That way, no one was straight-up asked if they thought the murderer was a believer or a nonbeliever — because being that obvious about it might have given away what the psychologists were driving at. (The team also asked a slew of unrelated questions, so as not to be so dang obvious about what their purpose was. Very clever, guys. Very clever indeed.)

The initial results of the study — published Aug. 7 in the journal Nature Human Behaviour — weren’t all that surprising. About 60% of the people who had the choice of saying that the killer was an atheist did so. For the group that had the option to flag the killer as a believer, it was only 30 percent.

In other words, people across the world — no matter their age, gender, religion or level of wealth — were twice as likely to think an atheist was capable of immoral behavior than a religious person.

Like I said, that’s not super surprising. Past studies have revealed similar biases.

What’s surprising is that even atheists were more likely to think the psychopath was an atheist. “Anti-atheist prejudice was even evident among atheist participants around the world,” the study’s authors write.

WTF, atheists?! Way to throw your own kind under the bus.

So why are atheists suspicious of other atheists? “Even as secularism reduces overt religiosity in many places, religion has apparently still left a deep and abiding mark on human moral intuitions,” the authors write.

In other words, religion is so deeply entrenched in society that even atheists are kind of brainwashed by it.

Which is pretty ironic, when you think about it.

I mean, I get it. There’s a perception that, if you don’t believe in God or heaven or hell, nothing will stop you from robbing and stealing and basically doing whatever you want.

But the truth is that — no matter what Fox News says — there’s almost no evidence to back up the belief that nonbelievers are somehow more prone to criminal behavior. In fact, inmates who identify as atheists make up just .07% —.2% of the US prison population. That’s a pretty tiny fraction.

On the flip side, look at how much religious violence there is nowadays. The headlines are dominated by news of Islamic terrorists bombing buses and crowded markets. In the US, Christian fundamentalists have shot up abortion clinics, and the US-led “War on Terror,” which has killed hundreds of thousands — maybe even millions — of people since 9/11 is often framed as a kind of crusade, a battle of good versus evil. Just the other day, Trump’s evangelical advisor basically told him he had God’s permission to nuke North Korea.

If you look further back in history, of course, there are all kinds of bloody conflicts that were driven (or at least exacerbated) by religion. Look at the Spanish Inquisition, the Crusades, the wars between Protestant England and Catholic Ireland, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The list goes on.

So maybe it’s time for all of us to rethink atheism — it might not be such a bad thing after all.