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Atheists judged immoral

Corrupt guyPrejudice against atheists is an odd phenomenon: atheists don't form a cohesive group in a positive sense the way ethnic or religious groups do. Affirming that God doesn't exist doesn't mean that atheists have all that much in common with each other, never mind a culture from which one could readily develop stereotypes. Fortunately, research by psychologist Will M. Gervais (University of Kentucky) may shed some light on this puzzle. He found that Americans intuitively judge atheists as immoral.

Gervais conduct a series of five experiments to test Americans’ intuitions of atheists’ morality. Each experiment operated on the same principle – namely, the conjunction fallacy. The conjunction fallacy occurs when someone fails to realize that the probability of one statement necessarily exceeds the probability of that statement conjoined with another. For instance, one could narrate a story about person x being a liberally minded woman, and then ask someone which statement is more likely: “person x is a bank teller” or “person x is a bank teller who’s an active feminist.” People who mistakenly choose the latter do so because they strongly associate the additional attribute (in this case, feminism) with the person described. Likewise, additional attributes with no relationship (such as being a big game hunter) greatly reduce the chances of falling into the conjunction fallacy. In other words, psychologists can employ the conjunction fallacy to determine how participants view others.

The first experiment presented participants with the story of a character who as a child tortured animals and then as an adult abducts, kills, and dismembers homeless people. After reading this, the participants answered whether they thought it was more likely that the character in the story was either (1) a teacher, or (2) a teacher who x, where x was one of six possibilities: “does not believe in God,” “is a Buddhist,” “is a Christian,” “is a Hindu,” “is Jewish,” or “is a Muslim.” Gervais thought it wise to avoid using the word “atheist” because of possible knee-jerk reactions. Participants ended the survey by completing demographic information.

As expected, participants committed the conjunction error much more frequently when x was “does not believe in God” than for any other option. In fact, “does not believe in God” accounted for 48.6% of all conjunction errors, meaning that it nearly equaled all of the other conjunction errors combined.

The second experiment followed the first, except that it told the story of consensual incest (a “victimless” crime) instead of abduction and murder. Like the first experiment, the results showed that participants overwhelmingly associated atheists with incest, with atheists accounting for 50.0% of conjunction errors.

Gervais varied the third experiment by switching the contrast groups from religious groups to ethnic groups (specifically, Asian, Black, Hispanic, Native American, and White). Similar to the second experiment, experiment three featured a “victimless” act (necrobestiality), which went as follows:

On the way home from work, Jack decided to stop at the butcher shop to pick up something for dinner. He decided to roast a whole chicken. He got home, unwrapped the chicken carcass, and decided to make love to it. He used a condom, and fully sterilized the carcass when he was finished. He then roasted the chicken and ate it for dinner alongside a nice glass of Chardonnay.

However, changing religious groups to ethnic groups made no real difference. In fact, atheists in the third experiment made up nearly 60% (57.6% to be exact) of all conjunction fallacies.

The fourth experiment underwent even more drastic changes than the third. First, atheists would now be compared with gay men, who, like atheists, have a concealed identity and are perceived as having low moral standards. Second, rather than relying on just one narrative, the fourth experiment would use narratives that communicate the five themes of Moral Foundation Theory: harm (kicking a dog), fairness (cheating at cards), loyalty (renouncing familial ties), authority (disrespecting police officers), and purity (cannibalism). Despite these two changes, participants committed the conjunction fallacy more for atheists than gay men to a statistically significant degree for each of the five moral foundations. In other words, it was atheists 5, gay men 0.

Finally, the fifth experiment aimed to figure out why exactly people intuitively judged atheists as immoral. Is it because they do not believe in God, or alternatively because they do not belong to a moral community? To answer this question, the fifth experiment told the same narrative story as the first (the guy who abducts and kills homeless people), but introduced more possible conjunction errors. Instead of the usual “does not believe in God” attribute tacked on, the fifth experiment added the “goes to church” variable, creating four options: (1) belongs to a church and believes in God, (2) belongs to a church and does not believe in God, (3) does not belong to a church and believes in God, and (4) does not belong to a church and does not believe in God. The results yielded a perhaps unsurprising answer: belonging or not belonging to a church had no statistically significant effect, meaning that atheists are intuited as immoral simply because they do not believe in God rather than because they do not belong to a moral community (of course, there are other possibilities that were not tested).

Interestingly enough, atheists themselves intuitively judged atheists as immoral! After isolating all participants who self-identified as atheists, Gervais found that “even atheist participants viewed immorality as significantly more representative of atheists than of other people.... Even atheists seem to share the intuition that immoral acts are perpetrated by individuals who don’t believe in God. This suggests an intuitive association between morality and belief in God is not an exclusively religious intuition.” If atheists’ own intuitions are skewed against atheists, it'll be an uphill climb for everyone else, too.

For more, see “Everything Is Permitted? People Intuitively Judge Immorality as Representative of Atheists” in PLOS ONE.


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