Shared identities: Strategies to reduce anti-atheist prejudice


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 third post in series based on a talk Brittany recently gave for the Humanist Community of Central Ohio.

In the previous posts, I covered reasons for anti-atheist prejudice and discrimination. These included general psychological processes leading to ingroup favoritism and specific factors about atheists that cause theists discomfort. In this post, I’ll describe a few ways in which atheists can gain acceptance of theists.

One strategy is to come out to the people you know well. It’s not always possible or even advisable to have a public atheist identity, but consider telling loved ones if no one else. Support for marriage equality appears to be strongly linked to having close friends or family members who are gay (e.g., Gallup, 2009; Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, 2007, 2013). It seems likely that atheists could see a similar benefit.

The one drawback from this approach is that stereotypes can resist change through a process called “subtyping” or “re-fencing,” in which a person who disconfirms a stereotype is perceived as an exception to the stereotype (Richards & Hewstone, 2001). So the key is to confront people with multiple instances of disconfirmation (like multiple friends coming out as atheist).

Similarly, Foundation Beyond Belief’s mission is to demonstrate humanism at its very best. With nearly 1,500 members and approximately 3,000 volunteers (through Volunteers Beyond Belief), FBB represents quite a bit of stereotype disconfirmation. I’d like to highlight Volunteers Beyond Belief and the Beyond Belief Network as a whole, because BBN teams are the public face of compassionate humanism in their communities. Not only that, but activities teams do in concert with other groups are critical in fighting stereotypes and prejudice.

Indeed, quite a bit of research (e.g., Allport, 1954; Brown & Hewstone, 2005; Pettigrew & Tropp, 2006; Stephan & Stephan, 1985) shows that contact between groups can reduce prejudice, particularly when certain conditions are met. In general, the contact should occur in a situation in which groups are not competing. The atmosphere should be fun and supportive with equal status between groups. It’s also beneficial for individuals from each group interact with multiple individuals from the other group or groups and for individual group members to be representative of their groups to reduce the likelihood of subtyping. If you read the first post in this series, you might be reminded of the research on minimal groups and ingroup favoritism and wonder how accentuating group membership can reduce prejudice. However, the point of contact is to reduce outgroup derogation and intergroup anxiety rather than completely undoing ingroup favoritism.

It is possible to “undo” ingroup favoritism. To do so, groups can identify with a shared superordinate identity so that the outgroup and ingroup become part of a larger identity (Gaertner, Dovidio, et al., 1993). In other words, outgroup members become ingroup members as a result of a little psychological recategorization. While the conditions of successful contact mentioned above do facilitate formation of a common ingroup identity, the advantage of invoking a shared identity is that direct contact is not strictly necessary. Shared identities can include geographical identities (e.g., American, Ohioan), shared activities (e.g., Light The Night walker, community volunteer), social groups (e.g., family, class in school) or strong preferences (e.g., “Gleeks,” “Deadheads,” foodies, etc.). Christian and Atheist are two identities that seem on the surface to be very different, but by focusing on shared values and invoking a superordinate identity based on charity, compassion, and freedom, atheists will be able to find common ground with most theists, even without meeting them directly.

For these reasons, interfaith work can be a powerful tool in decreasing anti-atheist prejudice and combatting negative stereotypes. Working with religious groups to support a worthy cause or benefit the community is the perfect situation for intergroup contact to occur. The individuals participating are representatives of their respective religious groups, but they must cooperate to be most effective. As an added bonus, interfaith charity work also encourages formation of a shared ingroup identity based on both the shared activity and the underlying values of compassion and charity motivating the activity. Foundation Beyond Belief supports interfaith cooperation through several means. First, every quarter a non-proselytizing religious organization is chosen as a Challenge the Gap Humanist Giving featured beneficiary. In addition, we encourage Volunteers Beyond Belief and Light The Night teams to be active in their communities.

If you are interested in fighting negative atheist stereotypes, consider coming out to your loved ones if you haven’t already (and if you are in a position to do so). You can also help Foundation Beyond Belief highlight the values of secular humanists by becoming a member, spreading the word to your friends and secular groups, and encouraging your local secular groups to join Beyond Belief Network and Light The Night.

Allport, G. W. (1954). The nature of prejudice. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Books
Brown, R., & Hewstone, M. (2005). An integrative theory of intergroup contact. In M. P. Zanna (Ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology (Vol. 37,pp. 255–343). San Diego, CA: Elsevier Academic Press.
Gaertner, S. L., Dovidio, J. F., Anastasio, P. A., Bachman, B. A., & Rust, M. C. (1993). The Common Ingroup Identity Model: Recategorization and the Reduction of Intergroup Bias. European Review of Social Psychology, 4(1), 1-26.
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Gervais, W. M. & Norenzayan, A. (2012b). Reminders of secular authority reduce believers’ distrust of atheists. Psychological Science, 23, 483-491
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.
Pettigrew, T. F., & Tropp, L. R. (2006). A meta-analytic test of intergroup contact theory. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 90, 751-783.
Richards, Z., & Hewstone, M. (2001). Subtyping and Subgrouping: Processes for the Prevention and Promotion of Stereotype Change. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 5(1), 52-73.
Stephan, W. G. and Stephan, C. W. (1985). Intergroup Anxiety. Journal of Social Issues, 41, 157–175.