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Global evidence of extreme intuitive moral prejudice against atheists

An Author Correction to this article was published on 18 May 2018


Mounting evidence supports long-standing claims that religions can extend cooperative networks1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9. 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 violence10, intergroup conflict11 and tacit prejudice against non-believers12,13. Anti-atheist prejudice—a growing concern in increasingly secular societies14—affects employment, elections, family life and broader social inclusion12,13. 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 countries15, 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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Figure 1: Across 13 countries, serial murder was seen as more representative of atheists than of religious believers.
Figure 2: Predicted effect of participant belief in God, marginalized across countries and adjusting for individual gender, age and subjective socioeconomic status.


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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.

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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.

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Correspondence to Will M. Gervais.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

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Supplementary Methods, Supplementary Notes, Supplementary Studies 1–3, Supplementary Tables 1–7, Supplementary References (PDF 417 kb)

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Gervais, W., Xygalatas, D., McKay, R. et al. Global evidence of extreme intuitive moral prejudice against atheists. Nat Hum Behav 1, 0151 (2017).

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