Study Shows Anti-Atheist Prejudice Goes Down When Our Numbers Go Up March 26, 2011

Study Shows Anti-Atheist Prejudice Goes Down When Our Numbers Go Up

I have an aversion to reading academic journals… but there’s a new paper published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (April 2011 37: 543-556) that is a must-read for anyone who has access. It’s called “Finding the Faithless: Perceived Atheist Prevalence Reduces Anti-Atheist Prejudice.”

The author, Will M. Gervais of the University of British Columbia, points out that, in most cases, the larger a group gets, the more prejudice there is against them:

For example, anti-Black prejudice is stronger where Black people hold a larger relative share of local populations in the United States… Although the vast majority of this research has focused on racial attitudes, studies find positive relationships between outgroup size and prejudice against foreigners in Germany… and anti-immigrant prejudice throughout Europe…

All else equal, a competing group becomes even more threatening if it has more members.

But apparently this is not so when it comes to atheists.

For us, “increases in actual and perceived atheist prevalence could instead lead to decreased anti-atheist prejudice.”

In other words, the more of us out there — or the more people think we’re out there — the less prejudice there is against us.

Gervais cites the Gallup poll that points out that fewer than half of all Americans would vote for an atheist presidential candidate (even if they were qualified and a member of your preferred political party).

These polls illustrate a persistent exclusion of people who do not believe in God, which is especially remarkable because as a group atheists are neither powerful nor conspicuous.

But our numbers are rising quickly:

Not only that, the prevalence of atheist billboards makes it seem like we’re freaking everywhere. (Partly because we are everywhere, but the publicity might even exaggerate that.)

So both our actual numbers and our perceived numbers are growing.

How will this help us? Well, note the anti-atheist prejudice we have working against us:

In addition to displaying an unwillingness to vote for politicians who do not believe in God, American respondents rated atheists as the group that least shares their vision of America and the group that they would most disapprove of their children marrying… These authors note that although most stigmatized groups have become more accepted over the past several decades, this has been less true for atheists; as a result, atheists now rank at the bottom of large-scale polls of cultural inclusion.

But Gervais goes on to say that when more of us are out there, this prejudice goes down significantly. He cites four studies that support this theory.

Study 1 looked at different nations:

I examined anti-atheist prejudice across 54 countries with diverse religious, socioeconomic, and political backgrounds, predicting that believers would show reduced anti-atheist prejudice in countries with greater numbers of atheists.

I’m glossing over the numbers here, but the result?

Anti-atheist prejudice was reduced where atheists are more common.

Study 2 looked at individuals. Since you can’t know whether people are atheists just by looking at them, the “perceived” atheism plays a big role here:

This study investigated the relationship between perceived atheist prevalence and anti-atheist prejudice. In addition, this study controlled belief in God and belief in a dangerous world (BDW), two factors known to contribute to specific anti-atheist prejudice and prejudice in general, respectively.

The result?

Even after controlling for variables known to contribute to prejudice in general (BDW) and specific prejudice against atheists (belief in God), participants who thought that atheists were more common viewed them more positively.

Study 3 looked for a causal relationship between perceived prevalence of atheists and anti-atheist prejudice: Did thinking that more atheists are out there lead to the reduction of anti-atheist prejudice?

That means we have to remove the possibility that people treat atheists better because they know some atheists personally.

Subjects were split up into two groups: one group was told atheists were very prevalent on campus; the other was told atheists were a rare presence on campus. After controlling for people who said they knew atheists personally, what was the result?

… participants in the [atheists are common] condition exhibited significantly less atheist distrust than did participants in the [atheists are rare] condition… Information that atheists are numerous reduced distrust of atheists.

It should be noted that while people were less like to distrust atheists if they thought there were more of us out there, it doesn’t mean they automatically think we’re good people. That’s still something we have to overcome.

Information that atheists are actually quite common, both worldwide and in the immediate environment, reduced distrust of atheists. In contrast, this information did not lead people to view atheists in a generally more positive light…

Study 4 extended the results of Study 3 and answered the question: Would “learning about atheist prevalence… reduce implicitly measured distrust of atheists”?

Subjects in this study were again split into two groups, one of which was told nothing about the “growing number of atheists,” while the other was told about it.

The result?

… implicit distrust was lower in the atheist prevalence condition than in the control condition… The distrust effect in the atheist prevalence condition was not significantly different from zero… As hypothesized, reading about atheist prevalence reduced implicit atheist distrust.

So what does all this mean for us? (This is just me writing; it’s not part of the paper.)

It means we need to continue letting people know we’re out there.

The billboards, the OUT Campaign, A Week — these things are helping us reduce anti-atheist prejudice. We need to keep them going.

Furthermore, we need to pressure atheists who keep their beliefs hidden to come out of the closet. I know “coming out” is easier said than done for a lot of us, but as more of us make our religious views clear, it becomes easier and safer for others to follow.

Gervais even quotes Richard Dawkins when talking about the “coming out” issue:

Like atheism, homosexuality is concealable, and people may similarly be uncertain of how numerous atheists and homosexuals actually are. This similarity is strongly emphasized by Dawkins (2006), who argues that anti-atheist prejudice might be overcome if atheists can find a way to “come out” and raise public awareness of atheism like the Gay Pride movement mobilized widespread support for the acceptance of homosexuality. These movements make plain how numerous atheists and homosexuals actually are.

This is true, Gervais admits, even though the atheist and GLBT communities aren’t perfectly analogous:

For instance, anti-atheist prejudice is characterized by distrust, whereas disgust is more prominent in sexual prejudice…

This paper confirms what many of us have known for a long time: If people know an atheist personally — or realize there are more of us out there than churches or popular culture would have them believe — the distrust, unelectability, and don’t-you-dare-marry-into-my-family mentality decreases.

So what are you waiting for?

Tell the people in your life that you don’t believe in a god.

Start the conversation.

Destroy their negative stereotypes about us.

There’s no better time to do it.

(Thanks to Melissa for the link!)

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  • JB

    I thought ME was the abbreviation for Maine. I wonder why it was colored “South” in the chart?

  • Grendels Dad

    So, does this mean that the ’new atheists’ are on the right track? Best-selling books seem like a good way to increase visibility. And they have certainly caught the attention of a lot of critics (a few of the critics even seem to have read the books.)

  • That’s DE (3rd) that’s listed as south, ME (4th) is correctly listed.

  • TheBlackCat

    I haven’t read the study yet, but those error bars look awfully big compared to the differences seen.

  • Maverick

    The error bars in those graphs overlap, so it does not appear that the difference is significantly different.

    Was there any discussion of why the effect atheist prevalence on prejudice was abnormal when compared with the effect of the prevalence of other groups?

  • Ryan

    They are confidence intervals, different then the standard error

  • Julianna

    Yeah, I haven’t read it either, but those confidence intervals do overlap quite a bit. The study might be right, but the numbers don’t seem all that convincing, at least to me.

  • Cents

    Very informative Hemant. This is the kind of information we need to help get more people to speak out for our rights.
    We are making progress. The Gnus are really helping but so are all Atheists that will make themselves know.

  • I think i might have access to this journal, but the latest issue I have is Vol. 37 No. 3, 2011, and this article is in Vol. 37 No. 4 🙁

  • Visibility is helping

  • Wesley

    I believe it would be so great if we could organize a full internet campaign for people to take pics of themselves with an atheist sign. Seeing all the pictures of smiling, happy, normal people would help a LOT to break misconceptions.

    It could be very similar to the It Gets Better project. Imagine many people (of many different ages and backgrounds) posting pics online for the world to see.

    It wouldn’t be about trying to change the beliefs of others… it’s just about changing the misconceptions of atheists.

  • Kristi

    Makes complete sense. When there is something around no one is quite sure of or they have not been exposed to, people tend to fear that… from fear comes hatred and discrimination. The more people think of atheists as “normal” or the more they are used to us being around, the more they will see we are not ogres under the bridge waiting to spoil their day as they have been told.

    We can all see the massive power in numbers just by studying religious history alone. The more of us that are open and honest about our “belief” with people, the more we are “there”. They get used to us and they learn not to fear us.

  • Non-Litigious Atheist

    I don’t find much to disagree with in your post. But there does seem to be a contradiction here – correct me if I’m misunderstanding.

    Study 3 found the more prevalent people think atheists are, the less prejudiced people are against atheists. But you add, and correctly if I’m understanding the Gervais explanation:

    That means we have to remove the possibility that people treat atheists better because they know some atheists personally.

    That supports:

    It means we need to continue letting people know we’re out there.

    But contradicts:

    Furthermore, we need to pressure atheists who keep their beliefs hidden to come out of the closet.

    (As an aside, I find the desire to pressure atheists to do one thing or another very disconcerting – morally, that’s just short of outing them against their will.)

    If I’m understanding study 3 correctly, atheist billboards and ‘outing’ yourself anonymously online would be effective, but outing yourself personally to friends or relatives would not be more effective.

    So it would be enough just to make friends and relatives aware of the the rise of the nones or the rise of the new atheists, without letting them know that you personally are an atheist.

    Am I getting that part of the study right?

    It’s not a trivial question since outing yourself personally can have quite profound consequences for you that people need to seriously think about before actually doing it. It might open a Pandora’s box you wish you hadn’t, so if there is a safer alternative, why not avail yourself of it?

  • Sad to see that MS(the state I live in) has so few atheists, but I’m glad to see something like this. I am very open about my atheism even though most of my friends are devout Christians and I live in an area where there are at least 5 churches on every street(not exaggerating). At least they accept me.

  • dauntless

    Numbers go up, prejudice goes down. You can’t explain that.

  • Gail

    It is weird that Delaware is categorized as “South” on that first graph. I don’t know anyone in Delaware who would call themselves southern or anyone in the South who would claim Delaware. That’s just weird.

    I have some very exclusionist southern relatives who claim that you aren’t a southern state unless you actually formally seceded into the Confederacy (which would exclude Oklahoma, Kentucky, Arkansas, Maryland, and certainly West Virginia). I wouldn’t go that far because I’m not the type of person who reenacts Civil War battles or cares what your state did 150 years ago, but I’m just saying, the regions in that graph are a little off.

  • Conversely, the more atheists there are (or the more atheists they themselves think there are) the greater the increase in anti-religious (mainly anti-Christian) prejudice there is. Keep your atheism in your homes where it belongs, folks.

  • gsw

    I am only 1% more atheist than them there god-worshipping people!

    I am continually amazed by how so many Americans find atheism evil or socially unacceptable, while condoning and supporting religions that condemn the female population to the same position in society as dogs. At least here in Europe, no one blinks if you say you are an atheist, aren’t most people?

    However, whenever I hear of some ‘offended’ religious person, I wonder whether it would not be better after all to have atheism declared a ‘belief system’ (after all we ‘believe’ in truth and proof) so that we could benefit from all that tolerance floating around.
    I too want to have the right to recompense for being offended!

  • Phoebe

    @Jinx: Christians don’t keep their Christianity “in their homes”. They have made laws that changed the national motto to be a Christian motto, they made the pledge of allegiance a Christian pledge (both in the 1950’s), they are continuously trying to force Christianity into all the public schools and public places of all types.

    The gov’t and public places need to be secular, so ALL people can be free from religious coercion. That’s all atheists want, we’re not trying to force anyone to do anything except be respectful of other people…something which the Christian lawmakers don’t understand.

    This nation was founded by people who wanted freedom of belief, the constitution has no mention of “god” in it for a reason.

    We all know who it is that needs to “keep it in their homes where it belongs.”

  • Hitch

    New England charting the way. California is the surprise on the chart.

  • Kurt

    @Hitch, California’s not too much of a surprise. As much as Bay Area folks like to believe that the two Castro streets (San Francisco and Mountain View) are the foci of the universe, there’s a lot more of CA that more closely resembles Orange County.

    Can some academic type elaborate on what “belief in a dangerous world” is supposed to mean? I mean, I think exchanging waves with joggers in the park is usually safe, whereas exchanging gang signs with kids in baggy jeans at the park is usually not so safe. Do I have BDM or not?

  • Eric Dearing

    The state-by-state colored chart is not percent of atheists in the population, but percent increase of atheists in the population during the 18 year period from ’90 through ’08.

    Anyhow, I definitely agree with “Non-Litigious Atheist” in that outing oneself is not something to be undertaken lightly. It requires either significant incentive or a perception of reduced negative consequences. There is obviously a tipping point to be reached during the process of cultural acceptance when the bulk of the hidden atheists (me included) really feel the cost-benefit equation “tip” enough for them to come out.

  • Great to see! Count my husband and me and our son among the very open atheists out there. I was raised Roman Catholic and my husband was raised Orthodox Jewish. We both saw the light of atheism over four decades ago, and have been happily married for almost 43 years. Look for David’s e-book later this year: WHY I AM NOT A JEW. In that book, he, I, and our son will all detail why we do not believe in any god or religion. I should also mention that the three of us are very open about our beliefs and generally encounter no hostility. Then again, we tend to have educated, enlightened acquaintances.

  • Phred

    @Hitch, Kurt: regarding California’s position on the chart – the title of the chart seems to explain it pretty well to me. “Change in percentage…” during that 18-year period – well, if most Californians weren’t as secretive about their preferences as folks from other states, the *percentage* wouldn’t appear to *change* very much (and thus the bar on the graph would be small), even if that percentage remains among the highest of all states.

    Though Kurt’s point about the perceived liberalism of California is well-taken. Unfortunately, we Californians aren’t waving the banners of tolerance throughout the state – large parts of the state (particularly the Central Valley and the extreme north) are as red as any red state on the map. We progressives along the coast have been able to counter-balance them so far, but they reproduce faster… 🙂

  • A coworker, who about 6 weeks ago told me that since I don’t believe in God I must worship the devil is now trying to set me up with her sister.

    Its a slow process, but if people know we’re atheists and see that we are good people, we can change their minds.

  • WishinItWas

    NH, how I miss you

  • Does this follow that as theistic groups decline in numbers and visibility they will become less acceptable? I would think so and cite Europe as full of nations where this is the case. As Christianity declines it becomes something that you know some people have but you just don’t talk about it.

  • Roy

    That was funny!

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