Saturday, April 28, 2012

Reminders of Secular Authority Reduce Believers' Distrust of Atheists

A friend sent me this paper (by Will M. Gervais and Ara Norenzayan) that he saw published in psychological science. I found it really interesting and figured it would be a good topic for a blog post. I'm going to do my best to summarize what I find interesting about the article, if you find it interesting I highly encourage you to go check out the article yourself as I will surely leave out stuff. It is also written really well, so it is not difficult to understand as academic papers so often are. I also recommend checking out his other papers, there are other ones there that I think also look quite interesting.

The paper starts by pointing out that trust is very important in our social lives. We want to make sure that we trust the right people and don't trust the wrong people, and largely to figure out who is who we use indirect cues. Given that we know everyone else is looking for indirect cues in us, we are hypersensitive to being watched. Even to the point where having pictures of human eyes makes people act better, on the other side subtle things such as ambient darkness can make people act worse.

So how does God figure in? Basically, thinking of God has a similar effect as thinking of someone watching you. Even subtle reminders of God and religion can promote pro-social behavior in religious people. A result is religious people believe that if you also believe in a watchful God, you can be trusted. This plays out in studies as atheists are among the least trusted groups.

If the watchful eye of God is a source of distrust of atheists, then perhaps the watchful eye of a secular authority can counteract that. It seems that it does "In the lab, priming secular concepts (e.g., “civic,” “jury”) promotes prosocial behaviors just as effectively as do reminders of a watchful God" (note: everything I have said so far is in the introduction of the paper and cites a bunch of other papers to justify the claims)

The idea the authors of this paper wanted to explore was whether secular authority reduces all prejudices or if it is specific to atheists. They ran 3 experiments.

Experiment 1

Depending on which condition they were in, participants either watched a video of someone's first impressions visiting Vancouver, or they watched a video detailing successes of the Vancouver police department. Then they were asked to fill out questionnaires (which they thought were unrelated) which included questions about how much they trust certain groups. The groups that viewed the police video had a lower distrust of atheists, but there was no effect for their distrust of other groups.

Experiment 2

In the second study they used a more subtle priming technique, I think this was to head off complaints that the video was too obvious in the first experiment. Also, the reaction to various outgroups is different, so they compared distrust of atheists to disgust of gays. Similar results were found, after priming there was less distrust of atheists but not less disgust at gays

Experiment 3

This one is similar to experiment 2 except they were looking at distrust of atheists and gays rather than distrust of atheists and disgust of gays. They also used mturk to gather data. They got similar results as experiment 2.

Final Discussion

This study shows that not all prejudice is created equal. If something works to stop one kind of prejudice, it may be completely useless for another, researchers and policymakers should be aware of this fact. This study joins other previous ones to suggest that as governments do better to ensure cooperation religion becomes less important. Religious people from secular societies should be more accepting of atheists. This seems to be generally true in reality.


Well, I hope you found this paper as interesting as I did. I also want to state one more time that I am simply summarizing it quickly, there is much more detail in the paper and if something seems a bit off or if you want to see more detail don't take my word for it, go check out the source.


  1. An interesting article, Hausdorff. It reminds me of this question:

    If you were walking down a dark street late at night by yourself in a rough part of town and you saw a group of young men coming toward you, would you be less likely to be afraid of them if they were each carrying a Bible in their hands instead of baseball bats or knives or anything else that could be used as a weapon?

  2. Thanks for reading MaryLou.

    I think anything apart from weapons would be good :) But to answer your question more directly, yes I would be happy to see a group with bibles, I think it would suggest the group either came from a bible study, or maybe some kind of youth group or whatever. However, I think I would be just as happy to see textbooks instead of bibles for example, because that would suggest a group who just came from a study group for school.

  3. Fascinating.. It might come down to just people feeling more comfortable if they feel others are "kept in check" with fear of punishment.

    Mary Lou. That is a good point. I've heard it before expressed as such:

    "Imagine yourself," he said, "walking alone down a dark alley in south central Los Angeles, when a gang of about 10 young men suddenly and loudly emerge into the alley from between two garages, and walk directly toward you. Each one is holding something in his hand, but because of the darkness you can't tell what it is. Your heart beats faster; your breathing gets shallower and more rapid; your eyes dilate; your mind races. You wonder fearfully what they will do. Wouldn't you feel better,if you knew they had just come from a Bible study?"

    Generally, I'd say yes, but it would really depend on where we were. I have a few Irish friends who would probably say that they'd be terrified. There is still some really awful stuff happening over there. While the base issue of the conflict isn't religion, it is more or less what is used to seperate the communities. If you are born into a Protestant family, you will almost always be a loyalist. Likewise for Catholics being republican. I get a monthly newspaper from there and it saddens my heart when I read a blurb about a loyalist mob beating a teenager to death because he was a Catholic. Both sides have done terrible things. Sadly, these kinds of things happen so often, they will take of a paragraph or two. I usually skim past them. =/ So to sum up, it would really depend on the circumstances.


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