In America and probably many other countries, though much less so in the United Kingdom and probably most of Western Europe, Atheists are amongst the least trusted of all people. Some surveys even putting them on a par with Islamic extremists.
The reasons given are usually that Atheists don't have a moral framework and therefore have no way of knowing that rape, theft, murder, etc are wrong and that complete selfishness and disregard for others is to be expected. That this is manifest nonsense when the actual behaviour of known Atheists is observed will show does not seem to affect the underlying cultural assumption that a hoped-for reward or the threat of punishment are the only things which motivate people to behave well and that no-one knew how to behave before we had the Christian Bible.
A paper published in the journal, Social Psychology and Personal Science in September 2015 sheds some light on this strange and irrational attitude. The authors cite 'Terror Management Theory' as the likely cause:
Terror management theory posits that the uniquely human awareness of death gives rise to potentially paralyzing terror that is assuaged by embracing cultural worldviews that provide a sense that one is a valuable participant in a meaningful universe. We propose that pervasive and pronounced anti-atheist prejudices stem, in part, from the existential threat posed by conflicting worldview beliefs. Two studies were conducted to establish that existential concerns contribute to anti-atheist sentiments. Experiment 1 found that a subtle reminder of death increased disparagement, social distancing, and distrust of atheists. Experiment 2 found that asking people to think about atheism increased the accessibility of implicit death thoughts. These studies provide the first empirical link between existential concerns and anti-atheist prejudices.
Corey L. Cook, Florette Cohen, and Sheldon Solomon
What If They’re Right About the Afterlife? Evidence of the Role of Existential Threat on Anti-Atheist Prejudice
Social Psychological and Personality Science September 2015 6: 840-846, first published on April 27, 2015 doi:10.1177/1948550615584200
Copyright © 2016 by Social and Personality Psychology Consortium. Reprinted by kind permission under licence #4001331203306
A group of student from Staten Island, New York were asked to identify their religious affiliation. Those identifying as Atheists were excluded from the analysis. The others were divided into two groups, one given a questionnaire in which they were asked to think about their own death, what would happen to them and how they felt about it. The second group were given a parallel set of questions concerning extreme pain.
Both groups were then required to complete a questionnaire designed to assess their attitude towards both Atheists and Quakers. In every case, the group which had been contemplating their own death immediately before had a more negative attitude towards Atheist than the group which had been contemplating extreme pain. Attitudes toward Quakers become more positive in most cases and always more so with the 'death' group compared to the 'pain' group.
There was a very clear increase in antipathy towards Atheists and towards approval for Quakers when contemplating death compared to those contemplating pain. Contemplating their own death had increased the polarity of the group. This had nothing to do with what any atheist had actually said or done, and we can see from crime figures that Atheists tend to be less criminal and more socially responsible than religious people.
People find Atheists threatening not because of what Atheists actually do or might do but because they undermine elaborate efforts to cope with the fear of death. By showing that they live perfectly happy lives free from the fear of death (which is not the same thing as a fear of dying, which every rational person has) Atheist force Christians to confront the idea that there may not be an afterlife after all, so death really is the end with no hope of anything better. It also means that there is no point in living your life trying to ensure you get a good deal in the afterlife either. In other words, the considerable investment people have made in the belief that there is an afterlife and you can live in such a way that you can influence what sort of afterlife you have, is a wasted. The steps taken to lessen the terror were all in vain and the terror is back to be confronted again when all seemed to be being managed.
This evokes hostility towards the 'messenger', in this case the Atheist who doesn't need to say or do anything other than to appear to be living a perfectly happy life, which, because the sufferer can't confront the terror is interpreted as mistrust and rationalised. The Atheist doesn't have a conscience and represents evil; the atheist doesn't have any morals.
Contrast this with an Islamic extremist. There is no question that the Islamic extremist believes in an afterlife, so that belief isn't challenged at all. There is no need to confront or question the steps taken to manage the terror of death. The only disagreement is how best to ensure a good afterlife. There is plenty of reason to mistrust a Muslim extremist but an existential threat isn't one of them.
The curious thing is that in a country such as the United Kingdom, where Atheists now comprise the largest demographic, Atheists are actually trusted more by most groups including Christians, so Terror Management Theory clearly doesn't produce the same effect in the United Kingdom as it did in those religious Staten Island students. The authors acknowledge as much in their discussion with:
It is important to acknowledge that these findings might not hold in other, more secular societies.
Maybe where Atheism is commonplace, even the social norm, those suffering from the fear of death have had to adopt a different strategy for explaining away the presence of happy Atheists. It would be interesting to repeat this experiment in, say, London, Manchester or Edinburgh and to test to what extent attitudes such as a patronising pity have replaced the mistrust seen in America.
It's obvious now why so many 'loving' Christians are so deeply prejudiced against Atheists; it's not that they think we are wrong, it's that they are literally terrified that we are right!
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