Letter

Global evidence of extreme intuitive moral prejudice against atheists

  • Nature Human Behaviour 1, Article number: 0151 (2017)
  • doi:10.1038/s41562-017-0151
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Abstract

Mounting evidence supports long-standing claims that religions can extend cooperative networks 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9 . However, religious prosociality may have a strongly parochial component 5 . Moreover, aspects of religion may promote or exacerbate conflict with those outside a given religious group, promoting regional violence 10 , intergroup conflict 11 and tacit prejudice against non-believers 12 ,13 . Anti-atheist prejudice—a growing concern in increasingly secular societies 14 —affects employment, elections, family life and broader social inclusion 12 ,13 . Preliminary work in the United States suggests that anti-atheist prejudice stems, in part, from deeply rooted intuitions about religion’s putatively necessary role in morality. However, the cross-cultural prevalence and magnitude—as well as intracultural demographic stability—of such intuitions, as manifested in intuitive associations of immorality with atheists, remain unclear. Here, we quantify moral distrust of atheists by applying well-tested measures in a large global sample (N = 3,256; 13 diverse countries). Consistent with cultural evolutionary theories of religion and morality, people in most—but not all— of these countries viewed extreme moral violations as representative of atheists. Notably, anti-atheist prejudice was even evident among atheist participants around the world. The results contrast with recent polls that do not find self-reported moral prejudice against atheists in highly secular countries 15 , and imply that the recent rise in secularism in Western countries has not overwritten intuitive anti-atheist prejudice. Entrenched moral suspicion of atheists suggests that religion’s powerful influence on moral judgements persists, even among non-believers in secular societies.

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Acknowledgements

This research was supported by a grant to W.M.G. from the John Templeton Foundation (48275). J.B. was supported by grants from the Templeton World Charity Foundation (0077) and a Royal Society of New Zealand Marsden Grant (VUW1321). D.X. acknowledges support from the Interacting Minds Centre at Aarhus University. R.T.M. acknowledges the support of the John Templeton Foundation (52257) and the ARC Centre of Excellence in Cognition and its Disorders at Macquarie University. M.v.E. acknowledges support by a Veni grant (016.135.135) from the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of its funders. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish or preparation of the manuscript.

Author information

Affiliations

  1. University of Kentucky, Lexington, Kentucky , 40506, USA.

    • Will M. Gervais
    •  & Sarah R. Schiavone
  2. University of Connecticut, Storrs, Connecticut 06269, USA.

    • Dimitris Xygalatas
  3. Aarhus University, Nordre Ringgade 1, 8000 Aarhus, Denmark.

    • Dimitris Xygalatas
  4. Royal Holloway, University of London, Egham, Surrey, TW20 0EX, UK.

    • Ryan T. McKay
  5. University of Amsterdam, Spui 21, 1012 WX, Amsterdam, Netherlands.

    • Michiel van Elk
  6. The Education University of Hong Kong, 10 Lo Ping Road, Tai Po, New Territories, Hong Kong.

    • Emma E. Buchtel
  7. American University of Sharjah, UAE Code 971, Sharjah Code 6, United Arab Emirates.

    • Mark Aveyard
  8. The University of Sydney, Camperdown, NSW 2006, Australia.

    • Ilan Dar-Nimrod
  9. University of Helsinki, PO Box 3, Fabianinkatu 33, 00014 Helsinki, Finland.

    • Annika M. Svedholm-Häkkinen
    •  & Tapani Riekki
  10. Masaryk University, Žerotínovo nám. 617/9, 601 77 Brno, Czech Republic.

    • Eva Kundtová Klocová
  11. Singapore University of Social Sciences, 461 Clementi Road, Singapore 599491, Singapore.

    • Jonathan E. Ramsay
  12. Victoria University of Wellington, Kelburn, Wellington 6012, New Zealand.

    • Joseph Bulbulia

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Contributions

W.M.G. developed the study design in consultation with all the authors. W.M.G. and J.B. performed the analyses. W.M.G., D.X., M.v.E., J.B. and R.T.M. wrote the manuscript with input from all authors. All authors were involved in data collection.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Will M. Gervais.

Supplementary information

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    Supplementary Information

    Supplementary Methods, Supplementary Notes, Supplementary Studies 1–3, Supplementary Tables 1–7, Supplementary References