Can we really coexist? Reasons why believers often dislike nonbelievers


Science of GivingBrittany Shoots-Reinhard has a PhD in social psychology with a specialization in attitudes and persuasion, and judgment and decision making. She is also Foundation Beyond Belief’s Beyond Belief Network coordinator. This is the second post in a series based on a talk Brittany recently gave for the Humanist Community of Central Ohio.

As I mentioned in my last post, everyone sees the world in terms of groups they belong to and groups they don’t belong to. Groups we belong to (i.e., ingroups) get special treatment relative to outgroups, which is one reason why interfaith activities (or comment sections on blogs) can be challenging.

There are also some additional reasons why nonbelievers are so objectionable to believers that our very existence is “too controversial.” Social psychologists Will Gervais, Ara Norenzayan, and their colleagues have explored anti-atheist prejudice (e.g., Gervais, Shariff & Norenzayan, 2011) and find that distrust is the key factor in anti-atheist prejudice. To contrast, they find that disgust drives anti-gay prejudice.

One reason for the distrust could be that religious people assume that even though they are good because of their superior morals, the threat of eternal damnation is all that’s keeping those other jerks from raping and pillaging, making it religious illusory superiority with a moral flavor. You may have heard of another specific type of illusory superiority known as the Dunning-Kruger effect (e.g., Kruger & Dunning, 1999). Indeed, Gervais and colleagues (Gervais, Shariff & Norenzayan, 2011) found that distrust (and thus dislike) of atheists depended on the belief that people behave better when God is watching.

Another factor specific to nonbeliever-believer relationships is the fact that atheists’ existence really is psychologically threatening to believers. It seems ridiculous on the surface. According to Terror Management Theory (e.g., Greenberg, Solomon & Pyszczynski, 1997), humans cope with their fear of death by supporting a worldview that gives them hope for immortality. This can be symbolic immortality, (e.g., becoming famous, producing art or literature, or being remembered by one’s family) or literal immortality (e.g., going to heaven, being reincarnated). The existence of atheists is thus a threat to believers’ worldview and their hope for immortality. In contrast, the existence of Christians doesn’t threaten atheists’ and secular humanists’ paths toward symbolic immortality. So if it feels sometimes that the antipathy between theists and atheists is one-sided, it might be!

Finally, the moral flavor of religious beliefs can also contribute to anti-atheist discrimination. Religious beliefs are often held with a high degree of certainty and universalism (i.e., the belief is a moral imperative that everyone must conform to), which is known as moral conviction (e.g., Skitka, 2001). In fact, inducing people to perceive their attitudes as having moral bases is more likely to make them distance themselves socially, professionally, and physically from those who disagree with them (Skitka, Bauman & Sargis, 2005). Many atheists see their beliefs as a matter of personal preference, so even though they might still be held with certainty and strongly defended, they do not carry the same emotional weight and consequences for discrimination that beliefs do for theists.

Challenge the GapSo where does that leave us? Well, I’ll explore this more in a future post, but one possibility is changing the focus of interactions from beliefs to values. While beliefs between groups can differ widely, values, particularly the values of fairness, equality, charity, and kindness, are fairly universal. In experiments on Terror Management Theory and moral conviction, discrimination and prejudice depend upon the perception that the outgroup disagrees. Focusing on shared values limits this disagreement, and as a result could minimize discrimination, too. The focus on shared values is the impetus behind Foundation Beyond Belief Challenge the Gap program, which allows FBB members to support high-quality, non-proselytizing religious charities.

Gervais, W. M., Shariff, A. F., & Norenzayan, A. (2011). Do you believe in atheists? Distrust is central to anti-atheist prejudice. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 101, 1189-1206.
Greenberg, J., Solomon, S., & Pyszczynski, T. (1997). Terror management theory of self-esteem and social behavior: Empirical assessments and conceptual refinements. In M. P. Zanna (Ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology (Vol. 29, pp. 61-139). New York: Academic Press.
Kruger, J. & Dunning, D. (1999). Unskilled and unaware of it: How difficulties in recognizing one’s own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77, 1121–34.
Skitka, L. J. (2010). The psychology of moral conviction. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 4, 267 – 281.
Skitka, L. J., Bauman, C. W., & Sargis, E. G. (2005). Moral conviction: Another contributor to attitude strength or something more? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 88, 895 – 917