Nov 23, 2011
I think the simplest way for atheists to be perceived as more trustworthy is to be open about their lack of belief in God. There’s a wealth of social psychological evidence that shows contact with members of disliked groups can reduce prejudice. In addition, my own research (published last year in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin) has revealed that simply knowing that there are lots of atheists in the world makes atheists seem more trustworthy.
As more people realize that there are lots of atheists around, living peaceful, trustworthy lives, the perception that atheists lack a moral compass erodes. In addition, Ara Norenzayan and I have some research (forthcoming in the journal Psychological Science) demonstrating that reminding people of other institutions that help keep people cooperative—secular institutions like police, contracts, and courts—also reduces distrust of atheists. And open atheists might be able to help remind people that there are lots of solid, nonreligious motivations for moral behavior.
That said, being an open atheist isn’t necessarily the same thing as being a strident, “in your face” atheist. Nobody really likes having their core beliefs attacked. My hunch is that “I’m here, I’m an atheist, and it’s really not that big of a deal” would be a more effective approach than a Dawkinsian “I’m here, I’m an atheist, and religions are mass delusions” approach, in terms of increasing acceptance and trust of people who don’t believe in God.
Will Gervais is a doctoral candidate in social psychology at the University of British Columbia.