Religious people distrust the world’s estimated 500 million atheists as much as rapists, a study found on Friday in the wake of a poll that said less than half of Americans would vote for an atheist president.
“Where there are religious majorities — that is, in most of the world — atheists are among the least trusted people,” said lead author Will Gervais, a doctoral student in psychology at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.
The study published in the current online issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that outward displays of belief in God are viewed as a proxy for trustworthiness.
This is particularly true for “religious believers who think that people behave better if they feel that God is watching them,” the study’s co-author Ara Norenzayan said. “While atheists may see their disbelief as a private matter or a metaphysical issue, believers may consider atheists’ absence of belief as a public threat to cooperation and honesty.”
The researchers posed a number of hypothetical questions and scenarios to 350 US adults and about 420 students in Canada.
Participants in the study found a description of an untrustworthy person to be more representative of atheists than of Christians, Muslims, gay men, feminists or Jewish people. Only rapists were distrusted to a comparable degree as atheists.
The researchers concluded that religious believers’ distrust, rather than dislike or disgust, was the key motivator of prejudice against atheists.
The study followed a Gallup poll that found only 45 percent of US respondents would vote for a qualified atheist president — the lowest among several hypothetical minority candidates.
Most would also disapprove of their children marrying an atheist.
“This antipathy is striking, as atheists are not a coherent, visible or powerful social group,” Gervais said.