Even other atheists suspect non-believers are more likely to be immoral, study finds

Americans reflexively assume the worst about atheists, according to new research – and even other atheists share the prejudice.

Participants in five experiments conducted by researchers at the University of Kentucky read a description of a person committing an immoral act and “readily and intuitively assumed that the person was an atheist,” according to a report in the online journal PLoS One.

“Even atheist participants judged immoral acts as more representative of atheists than of other groups,” said UK psychologist Will Gervais.

The researchers recruited 1,152 participants through Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, which recruits workers to perform tasks that computers cannot.

Gervais said previous studies have found users of the marketplace tend to be less religious than most Americans, in general.

Participants in the first experiment read a description of a man who had harmed animals as a child and then killed a series of homeless people as an adult.

The 237 participants were asked whether the man was more likely a teacher or a teacher described as a Buddhist, Christian, Jew, Muslim, or non-believer.

The question’s formulation clearly indicates bias against religious (or non-religious) groups, because the first answer – “teacher” – is always correct, but those who hold prejudices will be more tempted to select the more specific but illogical description.

The vast majority of participants selected “teacher,” but when asked to choose between teacher and a teacher who does not believe in God, nearly half of them chose the non-believer.

Gervais said the study duplicated those results in other surveys that examined a variety of moral violations, including incest, and atheists consistently fared poorly.

In fact, Gervais said, those who self-identified as atheists and rated their belief in God at zero “viewed immorality as significantly more representative of atheists than other people.”

“Participants (in one experiment) found descriptions of a moral transgressor to be more representative of atheists than of gay people,” Gervais said.

One of the experiments suggests belief in God, rather than church membership, is the key factor for most people.

The researcher said history and psychology suggest religion influences morality in two ways – by creating communities with expectations of ethical standards and believing in a higher power watching over individuals and punishing them for transgressions.

[Image: Closeup portrait of sneaky, sly, scheming young man, boy, worker trying to plot something via Shutterstock]