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Prejudice against atheists

Prejudice against atheists

Words by Alexi Barnstone

Battles against the many faces of prejudice are being fought every day. It is a subject that sits at the forefront of social activism, whether it be discrimination against race, religion or sexual orientation. However, there are less overt types of prejudice that exist that have yet to be the focus of media campaigns and that are not the foundation of any activist organisation. One of these types has been found to be similar in prominence to prejudice against Muslims and African Americans in the USA. Surprisingly, it is prejudice against Atheists.

Will Gervais, a Social Psychologist whose expertise is in prejudice against atheists, ran a series of experiments where he investigated expressions of prejudice against non-believers and how religion plays a role in this phenomenon. He found that even in secular nations, prejudice against atheists was rampant. In a study ran in 2017, Gervais found that the amount of prejudice was highest in three groups: Muslims, African Americans and Atheists. In another study he found that atheists where the most likely group to be stereotyped as murderers, even by other atheists. The University of Minnesota ran a poll run in 2003 investigating atheists’ relationship with the American people. When asked who was least likely to share their vision of American society, citizens identified Atheists more frequently than Muslims, recent immigrants or homosexuals. They also found that people disapproved of their child hypothetically marrying an atheist more than any other of the aforementioned groups.

The statistics are surprising, and they beg the question: why?

It has been hypothesised that implicit distrust in atheists stems from a concern over the moral foundations of the group. For the entirety of civilisation religion has been used as a mechanism to establish a moral groundwork for people to operate under. Many anthropologists and psychologists view religion as playing a crucial role in the creation of large functioning societies. Though each religion is vastly different, each is similar in one specific way: it provides a base moral code for people to abide by. Psychologists have theorised that people express prejudice against atheists as a result of them not being able to identify atheists clear moral code. The inability to identify a set of life values leaves people questioning what atheists stand for, leading to a deep seeded distrust in the group. This distrust then manifests itself expressions of prejudice against atheists.

The truth is that there are many examples of the prevalence of this implicit prejudice if we just take a closer look at society. For example, all of the 100 American senators claim to be religious. In a country where only 44% of households attend church, this is extraordinarily unlikely. The reality is that politicians know something that they don’t often disclose: that admitting to be an atheist is a form of political suicide. If they were to be honest about their beliefs, they would risk planting the seeds of distrust in them as candidates for an elected position. 

The second question that must be asked: if prejudice is so rampant against atheists, why has no one addressed it? Why isn’t it a social issue woven into our modern fabric such as discrimination against Muslims, Africans, or women? Firstly, and most importantly, there is no historical subjugation of the outgroup. Unlike African Americans and Muslims, atheists have not suffered distinct institutional pushback for their identity. Secondly, prejudice against atheists tends to be far subtler than against other groups. It is usually an expression of distrust, which encompasses behaviours such as distancing oneself from the group or dissociation. It is far less frequent for us to witness overt prejudice against non-believers.  Furthermore, atheism is discovered only as a facet to someone’s personality if you talk to them, where as other forms of discrimination are against characteristics that are represented visually by the subject. A Muslim dresses a certain way, women look different to men and skin colour is easily distinguishable.

Prejudice against atheists is far more prevalent than the majority of society is consciously aware of, however, it is not a societal issue that needs be addressed in the same manner as other forms of prejudice. In time however, if other types of prejudices are mitigated, the implicit prejudices citizens hold against this group may become a social issue much like those currently circling the media spectrum. Maybe one day we will have atheists protesting against discrimination down the streets.

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