People of all faith leanings, including non-believers, are apparently in general agreement on their shared distrust of atheists.
A new study published Monday in the academic journal Nature Human Behaviour found that people around the world are more likely to believe that atheists are capable of committing “extreme moral violations” than people who are religious.
The results “show that across the world, religious belief is intuitively viewed as a necessary safeguard against the temptations of grossly immoral conduct, and atheists are broadly perceived as potentially morally depraved and dangerous,” wrote a team of international researchers.
In other words, the researchers added, “people perceive belief in a god as a sufficient moral buffer to inhibit immoral behavior.”
The study surveyed more than 3,000 people in 13 countries, spanning five continents. The researchers included people from both “highly secular societies,” like China and the Netherlands, and “highly religious ones,” like the United Arab Emirates and India in the study. Altogether the countries represented populations that were predominantly Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist or secular.
“Even in places that are currently quite overtly secular, people still seem to intuitively hold on to the believe that religion is a moral safeguard.””
For the study, researchers asked participants to read a description of a fictional man who tortured animals as a child and grew up to become a teacher who murders and mutilates five homeless people. Half of the group were asked about the likelihood the perpetrator was a religious believer, while the other half were asked how likely he was an atheist.
The study found that the participants were about twice as likely to say the killer was probably atheist than to say he was religious. Researchers found these results to be true even in largely secular countries, like Australia, China, the Czech Republic, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom.
“I suspect that this stems from the prevalence of deeply entrenched pro-religious norms,” Will Gervais, a psychology professor at the University of Kentucky in Lexington and one of the co-authors on the study, told AFP. “Even in places that are currently quite overtly secular, people still seem to intuitively hold on to the belief that religion is a moral safeguard.”
And lest we assumed such attitudes hold only in cases of extreme immorality, such as murder, the researchers conducted several supplementary studies that show the opposite.
In one supplementary study, the researchers tested for lesser moral violations ― in this case, not paying a dinner bill ― and participants still associated immorality more with atheists than with believers.
Another supplementary study investigated whether people would more frequently associate certain acts of immoral behavior, such as child molestation, with religious individuals, given recent scandals of that nature regarding Catholic clergy. The researchers “found that people intuitively assume that a priest who molests young boys for decades is more likely to be a priest who does not believe in God than a priest who does believe in God,” the study stated.
The study echoes the findings of a report by Pew Research Center, published in 2014, which found that majorities in 22 countries say a person must believe in God in order to be moral and have good values.
“We secularists, who pursue goodness simply because we recognize it as the surest way to flourish, need to get a whole lot better at compellingly articulating our own good news.”
Though widespread, the belief that religiosity is a necessary component of morality isn’t generally supported by science. Studies show that moral qualities like empathy and prosocial behavior may predate the development of religion in human evolution and are representative of biological adaptation.
What sets people of faith apart where morality is concerned, says prominent Humanist and former evangelical Christian Bart Campolo, is a shared language of what goodness means.
“Whether or not our supernaturalist brothers and sisters actually love one another, care for those in need, or cultivate genuine gratitude for the privilege of human consciousness, they’ve got loads of sacred texts, theological arguments and inspirational music which clearly communicate why and how they mean to do so,” Campolo, a secular chaplain at the University of Southern California, told HuffPost.
He added that studies showing the pervasive distrust toward atheists should be a wake-up call for non-believers.
“We secularists, who pursue goodness simply because we recognize it as the surest way to flourish, need to get a whole lot better at compellingly articulating our own good news, and maybe even learn to make it sing,” he said.