How would you sell atheism to someone

Study of PrejudiceEven atheists distrust atheists

The ten commandments in Christianity or the five silas in Buddhism offer the believer orientation for a good life. In many societies there is this close connection between religion and morality. The downside: a certain basic distrust of atheists.

"There have been big polls: Would you elect someone to be president or prime minister if they were an atheist? And it turns out that atheists are much less popular than other peer groups," said Will Gervais, a psychologist from the University of Kentucky in Lexington, USA.

"A serial killer can't believe in God"

The polls come from the USA. Gervais wanted to know: what about the rest of the world? He examined 3,000 people in 13 countries on five continents for unconscious prejudice. The details are complicated, but ultimately the participants were indirectly asked whether they think a serial killer is more of a believer or an atheist.

"It was as we expected," said Gervais. "In most countries people assume that a serial killer cannot believe in God."

Religion as the basis of morality

The effect was greatest in countries such as India, Singapore, the United Arab Emirates and the United States, where religion plays a large role in society. But also in more secular countries like the Netherlands, the Czech Republic or China there are considerable reservations about atheists. Gervais: "I think people assume that religion is the basis of morality." This idea is very widespread. So common that it is shared even by atheists.

"In our experiment, even atheists mistrusted the values ​​of atheists. That's interesting: there is a prejudice against one's own group here," reports Gervais. "This is due to the long-established cultural norms. Even societies that are now secular were once religious, and that's why there are these pro-religious norms that even atheists adopt."

exceptions prove the rule

According to the theory of the great moral gods, it was only in early history that common belief made possible cooperation in larger groups of people and thus the first societies. But that time was a long time ago, emphasizes the Canadian social psychologist Ara Norenzayan, who put forward this thesis. Today believers behave no differently than atheists in investigations into moral behavior.

"Today you no longer need religion as the basis for the wide-ranging cooperation - it is rather the other way round," says Norenzayan, who conducts research at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. "Very secular countries with effective legal systems are more cooperative than traditionally religious societies." This is slowly changing the unconscious reservations in these societies, as the exception in Will Gervais' data shows. In secular Finland there is no prejudice against atheists. "The cultural norms have already adapted there," said Gervais.

Strong unconscious reservations

But only in Finland and a little in New Zealand too. In the other countries examined, the unconscious reservations are still very strong, with Will Gervais emphasizing that this has hardly any consequences: "In our experiments and the surveys, the atheists are the least popular group. Nevertheless, little is heard of hate crimes against atheists."

Probably also because atheists do not attract attention. Belief is much more private than gender or skin color, for example. As long as atheists remain invisible, however, the prejudices will not change much. In the USA, the group "Openly Secular" is therefore calling for people to stand by their disbelief. After all, objectively speaking, atheists were neither more nor less moral than believers.