Investigating the Social Cost of Atheism in the US

Kyle Thompson discusses the findings of a recent U.S. study which examined how perceived religiosity might influence appraisalsOCBX8q of moral behaviour, considers the possible social consequences for nonreligious people, and suggests avenues for future research on this topic.

I was once dining out with my wife when a giant of a man burst into the restaurant, desperate and determined, and approached me with a humble request. ‘Hello, sir, would you be able to give me some money to buy gas? My car has broken down, and I have no way of getting home.’ Pausing, my wife and I looked at one another, telepathically communicating our mutual consent to spare the funds, when the man added, ‘Don’t worry, I’m a good Christian man.’ Was he being sincere in his attempt to validate his story with religious membership? Or was he a free-rider, playing on Christianity’s unmatched moral reputation so he could swindle naïve restaurant-goers for cigarette money? After I made my donation, fully accepting the risk of being duped, I couldn’t help thinking what would have happened to me if I were in his shoes, assuring strangers in a restaurant of my good atheist nature—I can’t imagine it would have helped my case.

Before I am accused of unjustifiably victimising my own in-group—atheists—I want to point to a recently published study conducted in the US by Wright and Nichols (2014), which adds both to the growing body of research on atheists in general and to the nature of anti-atheist prejudice in particular. In this study, entitled ‘The Social Cost of Atheism: How Perceived Religiosity Influences Moral Appraisal,’ participants—i.e., undergraduates—were asked to react to different moral and immoral behaviours on the part of either a devout, church-involved Christian or a devout atheist who is dedicated to his secular humanist chapter. And, to put it succinctly, the study found that due to people’s collective suspicion of the godless, American atheists pay a substantial social price for their irreligion. ‘This suspicion generates not only harsher judgments of specific moral and immoral behaviors, but also carries over into their judgments about the atheists’ larger world view and their community as a whole: atheists are not only people who feel less bad about their immoral actions, but they are also people from whom immoral behaviours should be expected, given their beliefs and their shared community values’ (Wright and Nichols, 2014: 112). This is highly unfortunate for atheists, who, according to the researchers, pay the price of prejudice despite there being no good empirical reason to suppose that they are less moral than religious individuals.

Given that anti-atheist prejudice is well-documented in America, from the hate mail and death threats lobbed at atheist Jessica Ahlquist for ridding her public high school of a posted prayer (Ng, 2012) to the Gallup poll data that people are least likely to vote for a well-qualified presidential candidate who is an atheist (Jones, 2012), much of this study should not come as a surprise. However, aside from the general finding that atheism carries a negative reputation, this study did produce some powerful new insights into the moral reservations people hold toward non-believers. For example, one might have expected nonreligious or liberal participants to avoid affirming negative stereotypes of atheists, but this was not the case. ‘This is especially interesting, since for the nonreligious participants this meant they were engaging in in-group (not out-group) denigration’—a phenomenon the researchers explain by referring to studies on racial preferences that concluded that stereotypes are internalised by everyone, including members of the group being stereotyped (Wright and Nichols, 2014: 111). Revisiting the scenario of the desperate man in the restaurant, it seems reasonable to conclude that proclaiming one’s good atheist nature in an attempt to validate one’s moral status would be a bad strategy, even if the person being petitioned for money were an atheist.

To make sense of the harsher judgments made about atheists, Wright and Nichols offer some compelling—if incomplete—insights. They begin by arguing that while Christians in North America do not display many overt group-identifying characteristics—Christians of the same denomination do not live together, share a language, or practice many shared rituals—they do maintain their in-group boundaries through endorsing certain moral norms and behaviours. Although this claim is uncontroversial, the researchers then conclude that atheists find themselves outside these boundaries because they are ‘the only group without any sacred text or recognizable set of moral norms that binds them together’ (Wright and Nichols, 2014: 95).

While there is little doubt that atheists are seen as the ‘other’ by people of various religions, it is quite possible that this ‘othering’ has less to do with atheists lacking a sacred text or a unified set of moral norms, and more to do with people fearing anyone who doesn’t believe in a supernatural score-keeper of some kind—whether it is the omniscient God of Abraham or the non-personal karma of various Eastern religions. Though the researchers do mention the behavioural effects of believing in supernatural punishment for wrongdoing, they fail to directly connect people’s suspicion of atheists with the fact that atheists don’t believe in gods capable of such moral punishment. Given that research from Gervais, Shariff and Norenzayan (2011) concluded that distrust of atheists is in fact linked to concerns about atheists’ disbelief in a god monitoring their behaviour, the supposition that sacred texts and ethical norms form the boundary between the religious and irreligious is inadequate in explaining anti-atheist prejudice.

Overall, the study from Wright and Nichols is a great step forward in understanding the negative social stereotype of atheism and secular humanism. As suggested by the authors, future investigations should vary the moral and immoral behaviours that are presented to participants to see how this affects the results. In such investigations, the belief system of the recipient of these behaviours should also be varied, allowing for researchers to understand the effects of negative and positive actions toward in-group members versus out-group members. In addition, I suggest investigating the effects of incorporating vignettes about atheists who consider themselves ‘spiritual’ and affirm some kind of karma-like moral monitoring in the universe. This would help pinpoint exactly what it is about atheists that people—nonreligious folk included—find so suspicious. If it is in fact their lack of a text or codified ethical system then we should expect spiritual atheists—defined for this proposed study as those who affirm some kind of supernatural scorekeeping—to be judged just as harshly as non-spiritual atheists. But if the fear stems from an atheist’s lack of supernatural monitoring, then we would expect people to be more forgiving toward spiritual atheists. Clearly there is a wealth of potential research to be added to the good work conducted by Wright and Nichols.


Gervais, W. M., Shariff, A. F. and Norenzayan, A. (2011) ‘Do you believe in atheists? Distrust is central to anti-atheist prejudice’, Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, vol. 101, no. 6, pp. 1189-1206.
Jones, J. M. (2012) Atheists, Muslims see most bias as presidential candidates: Two-thirds would vote for gay or lesbian, [Online], Available: [1 May 2014].
Ng, C. (2012) Rhode Island teen’s battle against prayer banner has gone ‘too far,’ Mayor Says, [Online], Available: [1 May 2014].
Wright, J. C. and Nichols, R. (2014) ‘The social cost of atheism: How perceived religiosity influences moral appraisal’, Journal of Cognition and Culture, vol. 14, no. 1, pp. 93-115.

Kyle Thompson is a PhD candidate at Claremont Graduate University in the Philosophy of Religion and Theology program. His interests include atheism, secularism, scientism, not taking life too seriously, exploring the globe and playing music. He lives with his beautiful wife and his two amazing dogs in Claremont, CA.


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3 Responses to Investigating the Social Cost of Atheism in the US

  1. Jessie Lyn says:

    well written and well thought out! great post!

  2. It’s sad that mistrust of atheists isn’t just an American problem. Really, it’s sad that it’s a problem anywhere. But it’s a problem in Canada too. A few years back, a study done in a university in British Columbia found that atheists are considered less trustworthy than rapists.
    I also found it interesting that the man went straight to you. My partner and I have been keeping track of how often people assume he has the money when we’re out at restaurants. They almost always give him the check, which is annoying because we alternate who pays when we go out.

  3. eyeontheuniverse says:

    I agree that a lot more research is needed, as none of the studies I have yet seen answer the questions we are looking at. What is the cause of the distrust of “atheists”? One of the main confounding factors is the label itself. I have spent several decades playing with various presentations of my beliefs and found that “non-theistic belief system” and “atheist” receive very different responses. It is not uncommon for people to say things like “I don’t care if you believe in god, but I don’t like atheists.” No amount of screaming that such a response is illogical is going to change what people think a word means…this is why groups relabel themselves all the time.

    Additionally, it is a problem that a lot of atheists define themselves “religiously” as atheist – a term that is simply a denial of another belief system. When people want to know what someone believes they want to know exactly that, not what they don’t believe. Why is it necessary to say “an atheist committed to their secular humanist society”? Why not then an “a-karmaist dedicated to their secular humanist society” or an “a-dragonist” or whatever. The very terminology by which these folks…and a number of these surveys…choose to label people is confrontational and leading in response.

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