Are Atheists Trusted Less Than Rapists?

The distrust of atheists is well known, but did you know that atheists are distrusted as much as or possibly a bit more than rapists? When presented with an apparently random person doing illegal and unethical things, few people were willing to identify the person as a Christian, more were willing to identify them as a Muslim, and the most were willing to identify them as a rapist or an atheist.

Conjunction Error

These are the results of research done by Will M. Gervais, Azim F. Shariff, and Ara Norenzayan, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology ("Do You Believe in Atheists? Distrust Is Central to Anti-Atheist Prejudice"). They surveyed 105 undergraduates at the University of British Columbia by showing them these descriptions of an untrustworthy person:

Richard is 31 years old. On his way to work one day, he accidentally backed his car into a parked van. Because pedestrians were watching, he got out of his car. He pretended to write down his insurance information. He then tucked the blank note into the van’s window before getting back into his car and driving away.
Later the same day, Richard found a wallet on the sidewalk. Nobody was looking, so he took all of the money out of the wallet. He then threw the wallet in a trash can.

Participants were asked whether it was more probable that Richard is a teacher or a teacher and something else. Logically the right answer is always "teacher" because it's always more likely that a person is just one thing (like a teacher) than two things (teacher and motorcycle rider, teacher and musician, teacher and skier, etc.).

People miss this, though, and group the innocuous "teacher" label with other categories. This is called a "conjunction error" because it is erroneously creating conjunction between two different traits. People seem to be distracted by the "teacher" which allows their prejudices and assumptions to rise to the surface when it comes to the second part of the conjunction.

So if you think that the unethical person is more likely a biker and a teacher than just a teacher, this indicates prejudice against bikers. It says that you don't think that just any old teacher would be so unethical — it takes the added attributes which you assume to come with being a "biker" to cause a person to start behaving unethically.

Christians and Muslims

The researchers were looking to compare how often people committed the conjunction error with four groups: Christian, Muslim, rapist, an atheist:

  • Teacher & Christian: 4%
  • Teacher & Muslim: 15%
  • Teacher & Rapist: 46%
  • Teacher & Atheist: 48%

The number of people who thought that Richard was a Christian was pretty small. Given how common Christianity is in society, though, this may be the conjunction which is most likely to be true. It's still technically an error, but if 80% of people in a society are members of some group, then chances are good that some random person is a member of that group. If a teacher is seen doing something, good or bad, chances are better than they are a Christian than that they are a non-Christian.

Refusing to think that Richard could be a Christian might suggest that people were acting on the prejudice that Christians couldn't possibly do unethical things. This is the flip side of the prejudice that non-Christians are less moral than Christians and that's no better than thinking that non-whites are less moral than whites.

Rapists vs. Atheists

It's the numbers for atheists and rapists which are most significant. The numbers for "rapist" and "atheist" are usually presented as equivalent in a discussion about this survey, but this is only because of the margin of error creates a lot of overlap between the two. The chart in the original study graphically depicts the median values for all the conjunction errors and in that rapists come in at a slightly lower number than atheists. So while the two groups are close, it still looks like rapists might be a little more trustworthy than atheists on the whole.

Both atheists and rapists are relatively few in number in both America and Canada. For any random person you encounter on the street, the chances that they are an atheist or rapist are pretty low; the chances that they are a teacher or anything else and an atheist or rapist will be far lower. This means that people see something inherent in being an atheist and in being a rapist which adds the necessary attributes to explain the unethical behavior.

God and Morality

What's more, the researchers found that the likelihood that a person will attribute unethical behavior to an atheist teacher is far higher when that person doesn't merely believe that a god exists but believes that there is a god which monitors people's behavior. Thus it's not simply unfamiliarity with atheists produces distrust, but rather a more fundamental attitude towards morality.

This is important because it's been widely thought that distrust of atheists should drop as more atheists become more visible and active in public as atheists. There may still be some truth to that approach, but it probably won't have as much effect as people hope when it comes to theists who also think that a god monitoring everyone’s behavior is important for morality.

Since atheists do not believe in any gods, much less a god that is watching them, then a person who thinks that belief is necessary for morality may never trust atheists. At best, increased exposure to atheists — and in particular atheists behavior morally — might cause them to question that assumption.

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Your Citation
Cline, Austin. "Are Atheists Trusted Less Than Rapists?" Learn Religions, Sep. 20, 2021, Cline, Austin. (2021, September 20). Are Atheists Trusted Less Than Rapists? Retrieved from Cline, Austin. "Are Atheists Trusted Less Than Rapists?" Learn Religions. (accessed March 26, 2023).