Atheists rally but still have a long way to go in the field of public opinion

Atheists may have held the “Reason Rally” last Saturday in Washington D.C. but data suggests they have a long way to go in countering negative public perceptions:

Atheists remain an enigma for many people. In fact, a study released last year found that religious people distrust atheists almost as much as rapists (National Post):

Researchers at the University of British Columbia and the University of Oregon conducted a series of studies that found a deep level of distrust toward those who don’t believe in God, deeming them to be among the least trusted people in the world — despite their growing ranks to an estimated half billion globally. “There’s this persistent belief that people behave better if they feel like God is watching them,” said Will Gervais, lead study author and doctoral candidate in the social psychology department at UBC. “So if you’re playing by those rules, you’re going to see other people’s religious beliefs as signals of how trustworthy they might be.” … “It’s pretty shocking that we get the same magnitude of distrust towards atheists simply because they don’t believe [in God],” said the researcher, who is himself an atheist. “With rapists, they’re distrusted because they rape people. Atheists are viewed as sort of a moral wild card.”…

So, one rally didn’t change perceptions too much … that’s not hard to believe. Gregory Paul, an independent researcher in sociology and evolution, and Phil Zuckerman, a professor of sociology, are puzzled by the dislike of atheists, but they see some positive signs for the nonbelievers’ future:

More than 2,000 years ago, whoever wrote Psalm 14 claimed that atheists were foolish and corrupt, incapable of doing any good. These put-downs have had sticking power. Negative stereotypes of atheists are alive and well. Yet like all stereotypes, they aren’t true — and perhaps they tell us more about those who harbor them than those who are maligned by them. … As with other national minority groups, atheism is enjoying rapid growth. Despite the bigotry, the number of American nontheists has tripled as a proportion of the general population since the 1960s. Younger generations’ tolerance for the endless disputes of religion is waning fast. Surveys designed to overcome the understandable reluctance to admit atheism have found that as many as 60 million Americans — a fifth of the population — are not believers. Our nonreligious compatriots should be accorded the same respect as other minorities.

It looks like there will be plenty of material to study in this area in the coming years.

I’d be interested to hear Paul and Zuckerman’s argument about surveys being titled toward religiosity. Do questions about religion suggest that the socially desirable answer is to be religious or does this pressure come mainly outside the survey? What questions produce higher results?

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