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.