Distrust as the explanation for anti-atheist prejudice.

If you have an interest in atheism, you have probably read about a study about anti-atheist prejudice done by Gervais, Shariff and Norenzayan, based on the hypothesis that the prejudice is motivated by distrust. This hypothesis was confirmed.

But it’s more complicated than that. What they found was that people distrust atheists because of “the belief that people behave better if they feel that God is watching them” (which they call supernatural monitoring). Six different studies, measuring different variables, falsified various other explanations for the distrust. They also found that the importance of God in one’s life predicted the level of distrust that someone experienced.

The supernatural monitoring criterion explains why religious believers trust each other, but not atheists:

Individuals may trust people from a variety of outgroups—including, perhaps, people from other religions—more than they would trust an atheist. After all, somebody of a different (even competing) religion would still believe in some form of supernatural surveillance. Consistent with this prediction, the predominantly Christian samples in the aforementioned polls tend to prefer Muslims, Mormons, and Jews to atheists.

Some of the studies used something called the conjunction error (where a person sometimes think it is more likely for a person to have two attributes instead of one, even though the probability is always lower) to gather subconscious impressions of distrust. They presented a little story and asked people if the person in the story was more likely to be one of various categories (such as atheist). Here is one such story:

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.

Naturally, there is a strong emphasis on whether the person is being watched. Because pedestrians are watching, he pretends to write down his insurance information, but because they can’t know if he wrote anything or not, he doesn’t write anything. No one is looking when he gets the wallet, so he steals all the money. These actions are associated with atheists, because atheists believe that when no one is watching them, no one is watching them, therefore they will do whatever they feel like doing.

As hypothesized, participants were significantly more likely to commit the conjunction error for an atheist target than for either a Christian target or a Muslim target… The atheist target did not significantly differ from the rapist target.

That’s right, atheists were evaluated to be as untrustworthy as rapists. It’s hard to make sense of this result, but the researchers explain it by saying that rapists have proven by their actions that they cannot be trusted, and as such also invoke distrust.

The result of these studies, however, raises some questions. Do Christians believe they are being watched at every moment, or do they only believe that all their actions will be judged at some point? The latter seems more likely.

Either way, this does not really make any sense from the standpoint of Christian dogma. After all, Christian belief hinges upon forgiveness for one’s sins. It does not matter what one does, as long as one is saved by believing in Jesus as the messiah. Cheating someone’s car insurance and stealing someone’s wallet are not actions for which God judges you, as long as you are saved. So why should a Christian be less likely to commit them?

This opens a larger question: what is the justification for a Christian to do good at all? I’ve debated this point before and I’ve been given the answer that anyone who loves God will naturally follow its commandments. But this doesn’t make any sense. The fact that you love something doesn’t mean you will obey it slavishly. The relation between God and humans is as that of a father and a child, and it’s impossible to believe that a child of any age should obey eir father slavishly, even if ey loves eir father.

But these things are obviously not in people’s minds, so we should try to understand how they’re really thinking. What do they actually believe is happening?

We know that Christian dogma is crafted so that it stunts people’s moral development and keeps it at a child-like level (command/obedience). In the child model, the parents must always watch over the child to ensure that ey does not hurt emself or others. A child who is not being watched is a child that represents a threat to emself and others. The analogy, I think, is obvious; a parent cannot trust a toddler without supervision any more than we can trust atheists. But consider also that the latter is an even worse model, since atheists are said not just to be amoral, but to be immoral; if you don’t watch over them, they will definitely hurt others.

Of course, this would be an unconscious model. I don’t think Christians are actually comparing atheists to toddlers in their minds, or God to parents. Indeed, it seems extremely hard for them to see this analogy at all, even though they speak of atheism as a “rebellion,” in the same way that one might speak of a teenager’s attitude towards eir parents. Atheism is also described as a form of immaturity, a temporary phase, a form of depression or low self-esteem, a form of ingratitude, a form of laziness, a desire to justify violence; all of these things are also associated with teenagehood (on the other hand, because atheism is associated with a higher level of competence, the stereotypes against teenagers’ intellect are not applied to atheists).

This is clearly the consequence of the child model, because the teenager is hated for trying to break out of the child model, like the atheist is hated for trying to break out of the religious obedience model. The more a parent identifies emself as a caretaker instead of an authority figure, the more likely ey is to accept eir child’s independence; in the same way, fundamentalists, who believe in God as an authority figure, are less likely to accept the expression of human values.

Alison has also pointed out that the same is true of the church environment, which serves a secondary function of behavior monitoring. In this case, however, strong peer pressure is the main motivator, not authority; one dresses, believes and talks as everyone else does in order to stop drawing their disapproval. This is an example of horizontal collectivism (rule-enforcement by equal peers), which we label with the word “culture” (e.g. “corporate culture”) instead of vertical collectivism (rule-enforcement by hierarchy). In practice, both feed on each other, as the elite in a hierarchy make the rules that influence the culture, but those rules are themselves influenced by the culture in which they are created.

So how do believers see atheists? Remember the scenario which was associated with atheists. Atheists, in their mind, will do evil if they can get away with it. They take the quote “if God does not exist, then everything is permitted” quite literally, even though it’s just a kooky hypothetical. Also, from debating many of them, they also often believe that the atheist is only consciously moral because ey (consciously or unconsciously) follows religious dogma, or because ey is being watched. This is the only way they can reconcile the belief that atheists are going to Hell with the belief that “good people” don’t go to Hell: it must be the case that atheists are not “good people.”

From this, we can identify two fundamental premises to atheist distrust. The first is that humans are innately evil. If this was not the case, then humans would not need supernatural monitoring in order to be trustworthy, and atheists would do the right thing whether they were being observed (and thus constrained by guilt or punishment) or not. The second is that supernatural monitoring (in whatever form) improves behavior to a high degree. If supernatural monitoring did not have a moralizing effect, then there would be no reason for believers to trust each other either.

I have already written on the “humans are innately evil” premise in numerous entries, because it provides fuel for statism, religions, and any other ideology which seeks to control human beings. Behind every attempt at control is a lie, and behind every attempt at mass control is the lie of innate evil, always in the background, the hidden gun held to your head: let us have power, or you’re as good as dead because everyone around you is untrustworthy.

In fact, we’ve known ever since Kropotkin published his observations of animal cooperation in Mutual Aid in 1902 that cooperation is primordial in animals, including humans, and that the sense of moral behavior evolved along with sociability in a great number of species, especially primates. More than a hundred years of studies since then, especially on babies and small children but also on adults, has proven that humans are naturally moral (see for instance The Brighter Side of Human Nature, which is basically a compendium of studies on the question).

As for supernatural monitoring, well, the positive relation between religiosity and crime in entire societies is pretty well documented, as well as the fact that seculars have always been at the forefront of egalitarian social movements. There have also been a few studies in individuals, which have found no significant difference in behavior between the religious and the irreligious. This all contradicts the claim that supernatural monitoring makes people a great deal better, or even better at all.

[R]eligious faith appears to be neither necessary for one to act prosocially nor sufficient to ensure such behavior; in fact, there is virtually no connection one way or the other between religious affiliation or belief and prosocial activities.
The Brighter Side of Human Nature, Alfie Kohn, p79-80

As atheists already know, people who are moral because it’s the right thing to do are more honest in their altruism than those who pretend to act morally under threat of punishment:

[C]hildren who come to believe that their prosocial behavior reflects values or dispositions in themselves have internal structures that can generate behavior across settings and without external pressures. By contrast, children who view their prosocial conduct as compliance with external authority will act prosocially only when they believe external pressures are present.
(cited in The Brighter Side of Human Nature, p92-93)

These premises also invoke an origin problem. If humans are innately evil, then why would they voluntarily adopt a religion which forces them to do good through supernatural monitoring? Why wouldn’t they rebel against it, as religious people claim atheists are doing today? How could religion survive, let alone flourish?

Now, morality originates in the evolution of sociability. The problem is that the fanatic believers who distrust atheists also do not believe in evolution, so trying to explain this to them is a futile endeavor. You may remember I’ve identified this as the Creationist Paradox. Trust is a necessary part of cooperation; one cannot just be cooperative in the abstract, but one must cooperate with actual individuals, which requires us to believe their commitments as they believe ours.

The examples of low- and high-trust employment given in the study were waitressing and daycare work. Now, the latter example seems rather strange, since it involves child abuse. If it’s true that such work is high-trust and that thus only religious people should be hired for it (according to believers’ responses), what should we make of endemic child abuse by priests? Aren’t they benefiting from supernatural monitoring as well? Or are they all somehow immune to it, and, if so, what makes them immune and not other believers? Is it a centuries-old conspiracy to get atheists into the priesthood so they can rape children and drag organized religion down the gutter?

And how is waitressing a low-trust job? Seriously, I think any job where people handle my food is pretty high-trust by definition.

Furthermore, given the previous definitions of trustworthiness, wouldn’t a low-trust job be a job where one is always watched or supervised, and wouldn’t a high-trust job be a job where one acts without being watched or supervised? While I agree that waitressing is more watched than daycare work, I don’t think either are very representative (how about hockey players and truckers? just putting that out there).

So what are the implications of this study? Presumably we should be using the results to help us understand how to eliminate prejudice against atheists. First, we find that prejudice against atheists is qualitatively different from homophobia, so using the same strategy as the LGBT movement (which seems to be the new vogue) is counter-productive.

Second, we find that atheists are targeted for prejudice for moral reasons, not for epistemic reasons, and the solution is not to deploy argumentation against the existence of God. It seems, rather, that the solution lies in arguing morality and ethics, something I’ve always promoted. Cognitive dissonance works very well in deconverting someone, but unless you plan to deconvert everyone (a dismal prospect indeed), we have to pay close attention to the issue of distrust, and therefore the issue of morality. Unfortunately, the issue of morality is one that current atheists are ill-equipped to address.

This is exemplified by the study’s conclusion. Gervais, Shariff and Norenzayan’s position is that government takes the place of God in secular societies, and that institutional monitoring is a replacement for supernatural monitoring. They are unable or unwilling to grasp that monitoring is not a precondition for morality, and that it is more plausible that ethical people are the cause of more ethical institutions, not the reverse.

Furthermore, the law is no more a standard of morality than religious dogma, and institutional monitoring is no more effective than supernatural monitoring. Not only that, but it is not clear at all that both fulfill the same role: God can “watch” anything, but human institutions cannot. So even if the point we’re supposed to take away is that institutional monitoring gives people as much confidence in their own superior morality as supernatural monitoring does, it is not clear why this is the case.

Their final conclusion that cooperation is guaranteed by either of these forms of monitoring (and that therefore institutional monitoring is better because it does not lead to atheist distrust) is downright absurd. Rather, history and current events teach us that there is no greater cause of war and civil strife than supernatural and institutional factions. We have to wholly reject such beliefs as authoritarian twaddle.

Morality comes from evolution, empathy and learning how to living in society, not from external factors. That principle has to be made clear before we can make any progress at all against atheist distrust.

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17 thoughts on “Distrust as the explanation for anti-atheist prejudice.

  1. muslimanarchist November 11 2012 at 23:56 Reply

    Just a few comments from the muslim perspective, as am replying with phone keypad.

    In Islam, people are born with fitra, I.e a natural disposition to follow the guidance of the creator.
    We also have heaven and hell, and the day of judgement. And on the day of judgement our good deeds weighed against bad deeds. But bad deeds always outweigh good, but we beleive god is all merciful, and the source of all mercy.
    So we all will spend sometime in hell, with a few exceptions. For us it is who will eventually get heaven.
    So for us their is always accountability. And those who beleive have this accountability in all they do.

    Which brings us to Christians and atheists and the question of distrust.
    We distrust Christians because as you mentioned their is no accountability. You can do whatever you want, as long as you beleive in jesus and you will be rapture up to heaven on the day of judgement. And you don’t need a natural disposition of good to beleive in the biblical story of reserecution, son of god and everything that is taught at primary school.
    Now it comes to atheists. They have gone completely against the natural disposition and not only reject gods guidance, but the creator himself.
    And so where is the new moral compass. Based on evolutionary theory, I.e survival of the fittest. An ever changing morality . So if you contract with an atheist, your trust only lies with, will they keep the contract. Ie will it benefit them enough to keep the contract.
    Anyway just thought I would share the perspective.

    • Francois Tremblay November 12 2012 at 0:27 Reply

      You do know there’s no such thing as an Islamist anarchist right? You can’t believe in a hierarchy of God and man and in abolishing all hierarchies.

      • muslimanarchist November 12 2012 at 3:46 Reply

        Heirachy, you mean forced heirachical structure. We don’t have a heirachy, especially in priesthood, or even on governance, let me explain

        Just as western europe has seen an increase In statism so has the Islamic world, and the framework has become one where the state as we know it is the given.

        So In the beginning in medina it was a collection of consenting communities, christian, jewish pagan and Muslim. Over time in parallel with the rest of the world it morphed into state despotism.

        Because the first principle in Islam was not the beleif in one god, but the choice to beleive in one god. So other communities were self governing.

        Even and fundementally the shariah, a guidance for Muslims was not state enforced, but was bottom up. I.e a group of salafis living in Baghdad in the 10th century would choose their own arbitrator to settle disputes. This arbitrator would be from their school of thought and be just, hence chosen. Likewise a group of Shia, or Sufi or malaki would have their own arbitrators. This applied to criminal as well as personal law. The state did not make the law or enforce it.

        • Francois Tremblay November 12 2012 at 3:51 Reply

          I obviously meant the hierarchy between man and god, not religious communities.

          • muslimanarchist November 12 2012 at 5:48

            It’s a bit different between human and authority and god, unless you have a priestly heirachy which we don’t have. But if it where the fact that it is consensual is the key factor. So early Islamic communities had no state control, but regulated themselves by a set of rules that they beleiver in. Pretty much how muslim communities try and liver under state coercion in the west and east

  2. bj November 12 2012 at 10:16 Reply

    and what is a ‘good’ deed?

    killing and torturing all non-believers?

    raping and beating your 12 year old wife?

    I mean, I guess as long as you are oppressing and murdering non-muslims – none of those deeds count as ‘bad’. Just behave within the ‘tribe’ and you will go to heaven.

    • muslimanarchist November 12 2012 at 14:34 Reply

      There’s always one useful idiot huh bj

      • Francois Tremblay November 12 2012 at 15:01 Reply

        I dunno MA… you’re the self-labeled anarchist who doesn’t understand what a hierarchy is…

  3. muslimanarchist November 12 2012 at 18:22 Reply

    your confusion regulating your life by certain principles voluntarily with hierarchy. Totally different things. yes?

    • Francois Tremblay November 13 2012 at 1:11 Reply

      No, voluntaryism and hierarchy are perfectly compatible. I’ve discussed the fallacies of voluntaryism many times on this blog, look it up.

  4. bj November 12 2012 at 18:31 Reply

    quote: ” So early Islamic communities had no state control, but regulated themselves by a set of rules that they beleiver in. ”

    ie tribal law, right?

  5. Smartest Dumbass November 13 2012 at 17:22 Reply

    “Furthermore, the law is no more a standard of morality than religious dogma, and institutional monitoring is no more effective than supernatural monitoring. Not only that, but it is not clear at all that both fulfill the same role: God can “watch” anything, but human institutions cannot. So even if the point we’re supposed to take away is that institutional monitoring gives people as much confidence in their own superior morality as supernatural monitoring does, it is not clear why this is the case.”

    Religions aren’t supposed to make sense, Frank.

    • Francois Tremblay November 13 2012 at 23:03 Reply

      No… my point is that the study writers are wrong on that point. It makes sense.

  6. sbt42 November 14 2012 at 21:12 Reply

    Although your explanation(s) are thorough and profound, it’s adequately summed up to me in the tenets of tribalism…Atheists are the Other, and so are marginalized by the majority. It seems pretty simple to me.

    It’s not my fault the religious folks are misled; they think the same of me.

    • Francois Tremblay November 15 2012 at 1:09 Reply

      Well, yes. But the point is to figure out why, so we can find ways to counter it.

  7. bj November 14 2012 at 22:00 Reply

    speaking of doing whats “right”…based on your beliefs – beliefs from all mighty god…


    don’t know if you’ve heard about this story Francois, but Amanda nails it.

  8. Irv February 14 2013 at 23:17 Reply

    [Speaking of the rapture, here's what I ran into on the informative web recently.]

    Pretrib Rapture Pride

    by Bruce Rockwell

    Pretrib rapture promoters like Thomas Ice give the impression they know more than the early Church Fathers, the Reformers, the greatest Greek New Testament scholars including those who produced the KJV Bible, the founders of their favorite Bible schools, and even their own mentors!
    Ice’s mentor, Dallas Sem. president John Walvoord, couldn’t find anyone holding to pretrib before 1830 – and Walvoord called John Darby and his Brethren followers “the early pretribulationists” (RQ, pp. 160-62). Ice belittles Walvoord and claims that several pre-1830 persons, including “Pseudo-Ephraem” and a “Rev. Morgan Edwards,” taught a pretrib rapture. Even though the first one viewed Antichrist’s arrival as the only “imminent” event, Ice (and Grant Jeffrey) audaciously claim he expected an “imminent” pretrib rapture! And Ice (and John Bray) have covered up Edwards’ historicism which made a pretrib rapture impossible! Google historian Dave MacPherson’s “Deceiving and Being Deceived” for documentation on these and similar historical distortions.
    The same pretrib defenders, when combing ancient books, deviously read “pretrib” into phrases like “before Armageddon,” “before the final conflagration,” and “escape all these things”!
    BTW, the KJV translators’ other writings found in London’s famed British Library (where MacPherson has researched) don’t have even a hint of pretrib rapturism. Is it possible that Ice etc. have found pretrib “proof” in the KJV that its translators never found?
    Pretrib merchandisers like Ice claim that nothing is better pretrib proof than Rev. 3:10. They also cover up “Famous Rapture Watchers” (on Google) which shows how the greatest Greek NT scholars of all time interpreted it.
    Pretrib didn’t flourish in America much before the 1909 Scofield Bible which has pretribby “explanatory notes” in its margins. Not seen in the margins was jailed forger Scofield’s criminal record throughout his life that David Lutzweiler has documented in his recent book “The Praise of Folly” which is available online.
    Biola University’s doctrinal statement says Christ’s return is “premillennial” and “before the Tribulation.” Although universities stand for “academic freedom,” Biola has added these narrow, restrictive phrases – non-essentials the founders purposely didn’t include in their original doctrinal statement when Biola was just a small Bible institute! And other Christian schools have also belittled their founders.
    Ice, BTW, has a “Ph.D” issued by a tiny Texas school that wasn’t authorized to issue degrees! Ice now says that he’s working on another “Ph.D” via the University of Wales in Britain. For light on the degrees of Ice’s scholarliness, Google “Bogus degree scandal prompts calls to wind up University of Wales,” “Thomas Ice (Bloopers),” “be careful in polemics – Peripatetic Learning,” and “Walvoord Melts Ice.” Also Google “Thomas Ice (Hired Gun)” – featured by media luminary Joe Ortiz on his Jan. 30, 2013 “End Times Passover” blog.
    Other fascinating Google articles include “The Unoriginal John Darby,” “X-raying Margaret,” “Edward Irving in Unnerving,” “Pretrib Rapture Politics,” “Pretrib Rapture Secrets,” “Pretrib Rapture Dishonesty,” “Pretrib Hypocrisy,” “Pretrib Rapture Secrecy,” and “Roots of Warlike Christian Zionism” – most from the author of “The Rapture Plot,” the most accurate documentation on pretrib rapture history.
    Can anyone guess who the last proud pretrib rapture holdout will be?
    (Postscript: For another jolt or two Google “The Background Obama Can’t Cover Up.”)

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