Monday, December 26, 2011

Good minus God - distrust of atheists

Gervais et al offer yet another study on us poor atheists. I follow their abstract with some comments on such studies:
Recent polls indicate that atheists are among the least liked people in areas with religious majorities (i.e., in most of the world). The sociofunctional approach to prejudice, combined with a cultural evolutionary theory of religion's effects on cooperation, suggest that anti-atheist prejudice is particularly motivated by distrust. Consistent with this theoretical framework, a first study using a broad sample of American adults revealed that distrust characterized anti-atheist prejudice but not anti-gay prejudice. In subsequent studies, distrust of atheists generalized even to participants from more liberal, secular populations. In three further studies description of a criminally untrustworthy individual was seen as comparably representative of atheists and rapists but not representative of Christians, Muslims, Jewish people, feminists, or homosexuals. In addition, results were consistent with the hypothesis that the relationship between belief in God and atheist distrust was fully mediated by the belief that people behave better if they feel that God is watching them. In implicit measures, participants strongly associated atheists with distrust, and belief in God was more strongly associated with implicit distrust of atheists than with implicit dislike of atheists. Finally, atheists were systematically socially excluded only in high-trust domains; belief in God, but not authoritarianism, predicted this discriminatory decision-making against atheists in high trust domains. These 6 studies are the first to systematically explore the social psychological underpinnings of anti-atheist prejudice, and converge to indicate the centrality of distrust in this phenomenon.

In the New York Times online Opinionator, Louise Anthony makes some interesting points about such studies. A few brief clips:
I gather that many people believe that atheism implies nihilism — that rejecting God means rejecting morality. A person who denies God, they reason, must be, if not actively evil, at least indifferent to considerations of right and wrong. After all, doesn’t the dictionary list “wicked” as a synonym for “godless?” And isn’t it true, as Dostoevsky said, that “if God is dead, everything is permitted”?

Well, actually — no, it’s not. (And for the record, Dostoevsky never said it was.) Atheism does not entail that anything goes.

We “moralistic atheists” do not see right and wrong as artifacts of a divine protection racket. Rather, we find moral value to be immanent in the natural world, arising from the vulnerabilities of sentient beings and from the capacities of rational beings to recognize and to respond to those vulnerabilities and capacities in others...many theists, like many atheists, believe that moral value is inherent in morally valuable things. Things don’t become morally valuable because God prefers them; God prefers them because they are morally valuable.


  1. Interesting post, these studies describing anyone who is an atheist as a morally defunct child rapist are usually good for a chuckle. If the only reason the religious are 'good' is because they fear that a God is watching, I would argue that perhaps they are not quite the 'good' people that they think they are.

  2. Part 1

    Seems to me that a fundamental aspect of human nature is the belief that we inherently need the "carrot and the stick".

    Whether this belief is innate or is the product of indoctrination I have no idea. Perhaps it's a bit of both.

    The funny thing is that this sort of belief is incredibly irrational because it only applies to "other" not to self. I will explain with some anecdotes.

    I used to travel the world quite a bit and i was a heavy user of taxi cabs. Knowing my way around and knowing some of the cues that marked a driver seeking to distract me I was frequently aware of when we deviated from shortest routes. Being that I'm a talkative sort and a student of religion I'd often asked or guessed (from hanging icons etc) the religion of the driver. I got it in my head that the only drivers that tried this trick on me were either Christians or Russians (I will explain). Not Muslims, Israeli, Buddhists or anyone else (including atheists). Hindus? I’m still deciding there but they have a decidedly Christian feel to them. After a while I got into a habit of asking drivers before I got into the cab what religion they were. If they told me that they were Christian or I detected a Russian accent I would close the door and look for another cab. Application of this rule of thumb has resulted in me almost never having to get into an argument with drivers seeking to divert from best route. Note that this rule of thumb does not work in places like Vietnam where almost every person will scam you given the chance.

    (Side track on Russians - I suspect this was mostly about timing - I'm not sure - but most of the Russians that tried to scam me had escaped from the terrible post-Glasnost era of Russia where millions starved and survival rates above niceties such as morals. Habits formed in such conditions die hard)

    Next. In every case where I have been severely stolen from the perpetrator has been a self proclaimed Christian - and this usually in areas with low proportion of practicing Christians. I'm talking about professionals - financial advisers, accountants, businessmen - you name it. It has got to where I have another rule of thumb - if a person ever tells me that they are Christian (without me asking) then I flag it as an indicator that there is a high probability that the person is not to be trusted whatsoever.

    Don't ask me to explain it - I have lots of ideas but nothing concrete - these are just rules of thumb that apply in my life and in the places I spend my time. It might be about me - maybe I have a face that Christians and Russians see and interpret "schmuck" - who knows.

    My favorite guess is that Christians have a belief system (as opposed to other religions which are primarily action (or ritual) and not belief) and that at some level they understand that this belief system permeates their world such that if they employ the strategy of cheating (a la prisoners dilemma) they will outperform others.

    In other words, a world of "believers" is a world ripe for cheaters. Look at the USA for proof of that - a nation of believers being ripped off constantly by self proclaimed Christians.


  3. Part 2

    I believe that the carrot and stick (heaven and hell) does not stop people from behaving badly. I believe that it is how much fat there is in the land (a la Solzhenitsyn) - in a land rich in milk and honey everyone can afford to be nice. The tougher things get the more likely people will choose not so nice paths to survival. Those who first adopt cheating in environments that are deteriorating are most likely to outperform. Those who cling to fading belief systems for safety fall further and further behind until at some stage they too abandon their rules of morality. When this happens you have a world of dog eat dog chaos.

    Those religions that are “archaic” and lean towards very harsh application of Law (ie heavy use of the death penalty) find fertile ground in places that have degenerated into chaos. We all want a safe place to live and raise our kids. In a world of lawlessness the sheriff who comes in with the six-gun and Winchester rifle and systematically guns down the bad guys is a world we all recognize though even this archetype has been stolen by the God-less Christians in their attacks on the poor peoples unfortunately living on top of vital resources like oil.

    I can understand those who so fear what seems to be coming to our world that instead of following the path that seemed to be forming since the time of Nietzsche – ie towards universal atheism – they are retreating into what they falsely believe is a place of safety: “God”. The more the world showers harshness upon them the more they desperately seek safety in the pictures painted by those who can profit from their fears and the more those who need them for their power profess their Christianity.

    At some stage the nakedness of their “God” will be impossible to deny. At that stage people will turn on each other as they move from one extreme to another. When this happens there will be no salvation until civilization has collapsed far enough that the imposition of very harsh law (probably taken from another “book”) is imposed at the point of gun or sword or spear.

    when all of what we are today
    is dim dim distant past
    a racial memory mostly myth
    known to the shaman caste

    i wonder what they'll think of us
    when sitting by the fire
    and hearing of the things we did
    like gods but so much higher

    "the great great gods of long ago
    they walked upon the moon
    they drank the very blood of earth
    from death they were immune"

    "they did not walk upon the ground
    but through the air they flew
    and everything there is to know
    the ancient gods they knew"

    i guess the stories that they tell
    the children will devour
    they'll dream that they were just like us
    and had enormous power

    i doubt they could imagine though
    the real truth to tell
    of how we raped their planet
    and we made our lives a hell

    they'll never know the polar bear
    the tiger or the crane
    and countless other creatures
    to which we were the bane

    they'll also never know the stars
    because we stole their chance
    because we'd rather party on
    and live upon advance

    oh what a sad sad species
    we "gods" of planet earth
    we stupid kings of overshoot
    what really are we worth?

    just look around at what you see
    and ask yourself "where now?"
    and if you have an answer
    it better tell you how

    'cause i can't see a future
    that is anything but grim
    and even bare survival chances
    often seem so slim

    i hope that future stories
    are told around the fire
    that kids enjoy just living
    and old folk just retire

    i hope we're not the last of us
    i really really do
    i hope that there's a future
    for our sons and daughters too