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Watchful gods, watchful governments, and the peculiar psychological properties of anti-atheist prejudice Gervais, Will Martin

Abstract

Recent polls indicate that atheists are among the least liked people in areas with religious majorities (i.e., in most of the world). An evolutionary approach to prejudice, combined with a cultural evolutionary model of religion’s effects on cooperation, suggest that anti-atheist prejudice is particularly motivated by distrust. Consistent with this theoretical framework, a broad sample of American adults revealed that distrust characterized anti-atheist prejudice, but not antigay prejudice (Chapter 2). Furthermore, a description of a criminally untrustworthy individual was seen as comparably representative of atheists and rapists, but not representative of Christians, Muslims, Jewish people, feminists, or gays (Chapter 3). Results were consistent with the hypothesis that the relationship between belief in God and atheist distrust was mediated by the belief that people behave better if they feel that God is watching them (Chapter 3). In sum, atheists have long been distrusted, in part because they do not believe that a watchful, judging god monitors their behavior. However, in many parts of the world, secular institutions such as police, judges, and courts are also potent sources of social monitoring that encourage prosocial behavior. Reminders of such secular authority could therefore reduce believers’ distrust of atheists. Participants who watched a video about police effectiveness or were subtly primed with secular authority concepts expressed less distrust of atheists than did participants who watched a control video or were not primed, respectively (Chapter 4). Furthermore, political intolerance of atheists is reduced in countries with effective secular rule of law (Chapter 5). These studies are among the first to systematically explore the social psychological underpinnings of anti-atheist prejudice, and converge to indicate the centrality of distrust in this phenomenon.

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