What Could Atheists Do to Be Perceived as More Trustworthy?

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.

Category: Q&A

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4 Responses

  1. V. V. Raman says:

    Supplement to the above posting
    What Could Theists Do to Be Perceived as More Respectable?
    I think the simplest way for theists to be perceived as more respectable is to regard their belief in God as a personal enriching experience for themselves and their groups. There’s a wealth of social psychological evidence that shows contact with members of disrespected groups can reduce prejudice. Simply knowing that there are lots of theists in the world does not make them more respectable in the estimation of atheists.
    As more people accept that there are lots of theists around, living peaceful, trustworthy lives, the perception that theists are all bigoted may erode. In addition, more should be done to encourage people of all religious and anti-religious persuasions to cooperate in solving the many problems that humanity faces. And open theists might be able to help remind people that there are lots of solid, religious motivations for moral behavior.
    That said, being an open theist isn’t necessarily the same thing as being a strident, “in your face” bigot. Nobody really likes having their core beliefs attacked. My hunch is saying “I’m here, I’m a theist, and it’s really not that big of a deal, given that I care as much for marginalized and disenfranchised people and for social justice as enlightened humanists,” would be a more effective approach to gain respectability from enlightened atheists than to insist that the world was created 6000 years ago, that evolution should not be taught in schools, that people not belonging to my version of religious belief will rot in hell, etc. Of course there are always fringes in both theist and in atheist clans who will despise and demonize the other, no matter what.
    V. V. Raman
    November 26, 2011

  2. Jean B says:

    Great reply, V.V.Raman!! So much better than the condescending article.

  3. Shawn says:

    Or….Religious folks could take one big step out of the dark ages and figure out that morality does not come from the fear that the big, all powerful guy is looking over your shoulder and might punish you eternity for being naughty.
    Morality stems from feelings of compassion and empathy for others, not from fear of punishment.

  4. David Stoeckl says:

    “given that I care as much for marginalized and disenfranchised people and for social justice as enlightened humanists”

    Ah, yes. If only everyone were as morally superior as “enlightened atheists”. I’m an atheist, and I grow weary of the implication that atheists have the moral high ground.

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