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.
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.
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
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.
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.