Bias Beyond Belief

Many people have doubts about the morality of atheists–including atheists!

Posted Aug 11, 2019

Source: wikicommons

Is Anti-atheist Prejudice Universal?

According to political pundits, the one thing that no successful American politician can be is an atheist.  Poll after poll shows that American voters are deeply skeptical about the morality of atheists.  Presumably, that skepticism is born of the assumption that morality is rooted in religious belief.  One question, though, is whether this is a peculiarly American phenomenon or do all human groups exhibit skepticism about atheists’ morality. 

Different theories about human groups and behavior offer different answers.  Evolutionary theories of religions predict that such anti-atheist bias will probably arise in all human groups.  These theories count such attitudes as one of a number of socio-cultural adaptations that have evolved to foster in-group cooperation among religious participants.  By contrast, standard social psychological accounts of behavior in human groups suggest that such anti-atheist bias will be confined to religious people and, of a piece with theories about the rise of secularism in the modern world, is unlikely to persist in secular societies. 

Religious People, Atheists, and Serial Murderers

Will Gervais and a team of researchers from around the world have tested these theories’ predictions by conducting a cognitive experiment with 3,256 participants across twelve countries that vary considerably with regard to geography, history, culture, wealth, political systems, and levels of religious belief.  Among the dozen are countries that have Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, and secular majorities.

The Gervais team’s experiment exploits a well-known finding, viz., the conjunction fallacy, to assess participants’ intuitive biases concerning the moral standing of atheism and religiosity.  Experimental participants read an account of a man who from childhood commits increasingly violent, immoral acts throughout his life, including “the murder and mutilation of five homeless people.”  Afterward, some participants are asked to decide whether it is more likely that this man is a teacher or that he is both a teacher and a religious believer.  By contrast, other participants must decide whether it is more likely that he is a teacher or both a teacher and an atheist.  Opting for either conjunction (teacher and religious believer or teacher and atheist) over one of their conjuncts (teacher) is fallacious because the probability of conjunction is never higher than the probability of its least probable conjunct.   Researchers (not just the Gervais team) maintain that when participants fallaciously opt for conjunction, they, in effect, provide evidence about their intuitive assumptions regarding the associations between the categories in question–in this case, religious people, atheists, and serial murderers.    

Even Atheists are Biased against Atheists

The Gervais team’s findings corroborated the evolutionary theories’ predictions.  Overall, participants in their study were basically two times more likely to associate atheists (as they were to associate religious people) with such profound immorality.  Even participants in putatively secular countries, such as the Czech Republic, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom exhibited the same pattern.  Although the moral skepticism about atheists in Finland and New Zealand was not as stark as elsewhere, the participants in those secular countries showed the same trend. 

Perhaps the Gervais team’s most surprising finding was that individuals’ levels of religiosity had no impact on the finding.  Let that sink in.  Even participants who self-identified as atheists exhibited considerably greater intuitive skepticism about atheists’ morality than they did about the morality of religious believers.  It is not just religious American voters who are morally skeptical of atheists.


Gervais, W., D. Xygalatas, R. McKay, M. van Elk, E. Buchtel, M. Aveyard, S. Schiavone, I. Dar-Nimrod, A. Svedholm-Häkkinen, T. Riekki, E Kundtová-Klocová, J. Ramsay & J. Bulbulia. (2017).  Global evidence of extreme intuitive moral prejudice against atheists. Nature Human Behaviour 1(8): 0151

Tversky, A. and Kahneman, D. (1983).  Extensional versus intuitive reasoning—the conjunction fallacy in probability judgment. Psychological Review 90, 293–315.