Atheists can win your trust by appealing to secular authority

Illustration for article titled Atheists can win your trust by appealing to secular authority

Everybody hates atheists. One recent study found that atheists are trusted about as much as rapists — or maybe even less. Why do people find atheists so untrustworthy? Maybe it's because they don't believe there's an all-seeing judge monitoring their actions.

Top image: Pond5/1@henrischmit

Now new research has found that when you remind people of police, judges, courts and other earthly, secular authorities helped reduce distrust of atheists.


Scientists had volunteers watch a video talking about the many successes of the Vancouver Police Department during 2010, or had them subtly reminded about the authorities with a word game that included words such as "jury," "court," and "police." When later asked about their opinion of atheists, those who had experienced these reminders of a higher earthly authority distrusted atheists less than those who had not. The researchers will detail their findings in the May issue of the journal Psychological Science.

These findings suggest that watchful gods and watchful governments can serve similar social and psychological functions. Past research has noted that both gods and governments can give people a sense of control in an unpredictable world — and by serving as monitors to encourage cooperation, they may have served a key role in the cultural evolution of large groups.

The scientists do caution that their analysis depends on how much people actually find their governments worthy of trust. "Had the present experiments been conducted in a country where people have little trust in their government (e.g., Nicaragua or Nigeria), reminders of an inept government might instead have increased distrust of atheists, a hypothesis that we leave for future research," they wrote.

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Corpore Metal

So having read through all the comments here, I notice an emerging feeling of exhaustion with the whole controversy and a strong dislike of anything viewed as proselytizing from any quarter. But as long as we are homo sapiens, I don't think the controversy will ever go away and there were will always be jerks in any discussion.

As an atheist, it's my feeling that the religious or, even more basically, the spiritual or mystical impulse is far more ancient than the atheistic one. I think these mental processes stem from ancient biological and evolutionary roots in early hominid brains. Perhaps its even older than language. Perhaps it only started as a mental shortcut, in complicated world, to assign agency and meaning to things were there was none. Who knows? It's my feeling that mysticism (And by that I mean the broadest most basic roots of religious thought.) is the factory default for the brain of homo sapiens.

It's atheism that is unusual. It's atheism that is recent.

It's my theory that our philosophical and cultural sophistication has grown to a point where atheism is now more viable than it was in our pre-literate, pre-agricultural days.

There may have been atheists in our hunter gather days but they didn't have the philosophical sophistication to logically lay out their views and analyze flaws in them. I think atheism really only became possible after the invention of literacy and education. It's only in the last 500 years that science has turned atheism into a cultural force powerful enough to be reckoned with.

But if you agree with this view of mine, you can see the problem: The controversy is never going away. There were never be some grand enlightenment where everyone will say, "Reality doesn't have to mean anything. Reality doesn't have to have a goal, there is no intent behind it." That's never gonna happen because most humans are hardwired to be religious and have been for at least 7 million years.

I agree with Dan Dennet that the scientific investigation of the roots of spiritual thinking might be very enlightening. But I think the more interesting investigation will be to find out what is about atheist brains that makes them that way. What is it that makes people like me the exception and not the rule? I think that question can be approached scientifically.

But having said that, even if we arrive at answers to those questions. As long as we're human, a billion years from now, we'll still be arguing about where God exists or not. Sorry to be a bummer.