Religious people harbour deep mistrust of atheists, about equal to rapists, says study

Steve Mertl
National Affairs Contributor
Daily Brew

Would you trust an atheist to date your sister? If you're a religious person, there's a good chance you wouldn't.

A study by researchers at the University of British Columbia found believers distrusted atheists more than members of other religious groups, gays and feminists.

The only group study participants distrusted as much as atheists was rapists, lead author Will Gervais told the Vancouver Sun.

"People are willing to hire an atheist for a job that is perceived as low-trust, for instance as a waitress," said Gervais, a doctoral student. "But when hiring for a high-trust job like daycare worker, they were like, nope, not going to hire an atheist for that job."

The study was published online in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

By contrast, Gervais said atheists did not seem to have the same level of mistrust. They were indifferent to religious belief in assessing someone's trustworthiness.

"Atheists don't necessarily favour other atheists over Christians or anyone else," he said. "They seem to think that religion is not an important signal for who you can trust."

The results of the study surprised Gervais. He speculated religious believers were simply more comfortable dealing with people who believed a higher power was watching who could reward or punish people for their actions.

"If you believe your behaviour is being watched (by God) you are going to be on your best behaviour," said Gervais. "But that wouldn't apply for an atheist. That would allow people to use religious belief as a signal for how trustworthy a person is."

Gervais got the idea for the study after seeing a U.S. poll that suggested a majority of Americans would not vote for an atheist for president. He and his colleagues conducted a series of studies on 350 American adults and 420 UBC students.

While Americans are thought to be more religious than Canadians, researchers found the level of distrust of atheists was also high in Canada.

"We see consistently strong effects," he said. "Even here in Vancouver, our student participants still say atheists are really untrustworthy."

In its report on the study by Science Daily noted researchers said religious behaviours of others may provide believers with important social cues.

"Outward displays of belief in God may be viewed as a proxy for trustworthiness, particularly by religious believers who think that people behave better if they feel that God is watching them," it quoted study researcher Ara Norenzayan.

"While atheists may see their disbelief as a private matter on a metaphysical issue, believers may consider atheists' absence of belief as a public threat to cooperation and honesty."