Trust in Numbers

Tom Rees

The typical American really does not like atheists—and is not afraid to say so. According to a Gallup poll in June of this year, only 49 percent of Americans would vote for an atheist for president. Atheists are at the bottom of the pile, below gays and Mormons, and so it’s hardly surprising that few politicians—and no presidential hopefuls—would dare admit to any religious doubts. That’s very different from the rest of the world where, for example, Australia’s prime minister and the United Kingdom’s deputy prime minister are open atheists.

Will Gervais, a social psychologist at the University of British Columbia, has been researching why atheists are so disliked. Gervais used something called an “Implicit Association Test” to identify the factors that contribute to the dislike of atheists. In tests like these, subjects are asked to associate a category (atheist/Christian) with nouns or adjectives, the catch being that one is told how they should be paired. You could, for example, be asked to pair the concept “atheist” with the term “friendly.” If that goes against one’s implicit, subconscious beliefs, then one will take longer to respond. By measuring how long the task takes, the researcher can get an insight into the subject’s prejudices.

Gervais found that religious people really do have a gut prejudice against atheists. In fact, Gervais was able to tease out that the specific problem religious people have with atheists seems to be that they consider them untrustworthy—rather than, say, just unpleasant. To investigate whether distrust of atheists by the religious is likely to have real-world consequences, Gervais also explored how willing religious people are to hire atheists (at least hypothetically) for a variety of different jobs. In parallel, he asked people to rate whether or not these jobs require a trustworthy person, an intelligent person, or a pleasant person. Sure enough, he found that religious people were quite willing to hire atheists for jobs that require a pleasant or intelligent person but not for jobs that require trust. To a religious person, it seems, atheists can be smart and good company—it’s just that they simply can’t be trusted.

Why do religious people feel this way about atheists? One obvious answer is that they see atheists as outsiders. People regularly distrust those whom they perceive to be in some way foreign or not members of their own group. Yet Gervais also found that atheists don’t distrust the religious, as you would expect if this were a simple story of intergroup distrust. There is clearly something more complex going on here, and what he found was quite intriguing.

Gervais wanted to explore whether beliefs about the prevalence of atheism actually affected attitudes toward atheists themselves. He gave his subjects one of three passages to read and react to—one on food, an excerpt from The God Delusion in which Richard Dawkins argued that belief is nonsensical, and a passage detailing the increasing numbers of atheists in the United States over recent decades. This last passage included the crucial fact that at least 20 percent of Americans age eighteen to twenty-five are atheists. For the religious, reading that atheism was more common than they previously believed had a remarkable effect: it effectively abolished their distrust of atheists.

Gervais discovered that the restoration of trust by this simple trick was quite profound. He then manipulated students’ beIiefs about the prevalence of atheists in their university by giving them one of two essays to read. One essay affirmed that only 5 percent of students at their university were atheist, while the other stated that 50 percent were (the true figure was roughly halfway between the two). This misdirection had a remarkable effect on attitudes toward atheists—students who had read that there were many atheists at their university were far more likely to report higher levels of trust toward atheists without any effect on their attitudes toward atheists (i.e., whether they liked them or not).

This has very real consequences. Around the world, Gervais found, in those countries where a high proportion of people are willing to tell pollsters they are godless, even the religious are more willing to vote for an atheist leader. The reason political leaders in other countries can be more open about their atheism is that their atheist compatriots are out and proud. Based on these studies, it seems that one reason Americans so dislike atheists is simply that they don’t realize how many atheists actually live among them. But actually this is rather good news. Recent years have seen a proliferation of campaigns that seek to raise awareness of atheists and atheism—from Richard Dawkins’s “Out Campaign” to a number of bus and billboard advertisements.

If Gervais is right, then there should be more campaigns like these. They could improve the standing of atheists simply by helping them to seem, well, more mainstream.

Tom Rees

Tom Rees is a medical writer and a lifelong humanist. His blog, Epiphenom, covers the latest research into the psychology and social science of religion and nonbelief.


The typical American really does not like atheists—and is not afraid to say so. According to a Gallup poll in June of this year, only 49 percent of Americans would vote for an atheist for president. Atheists are at the bottom of the pile, below gays and Mormons, and so it’s hardly surprising that few …

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