Event Report: American Psychological Association Annual Conference

Jason A. Cantone presented research on the psychology of discrimination at the annual American Psychological Association convention, held in Toronto, CA, on August 6-9, 2015. In the following, he summarizes some of the research that other psychological scholars presented on nonreligion and secularity.

Under the cloud of recent revelations that officials within the American Psychological Association (APA) colluded with Department of Defense officials to fashion ethical deadlines that did not constrain U.S. programs using enhanced interrogation (Hoffman, et.al., 2015), APA held their annual convention from August 6-9, 2015 in Toronto, Canada.

Presentations spanned many diverse areas of psychology, including presentations on religion from the association’s Division 36: Psychology of Religion and Spirituality (DIV36). While most of the religion-focused presentations and posters concerned the use of religion in therapy sessions, the convention offered some fascinating research presentations on issues of nonreligion and secularity that would be of particular interest to readers of this blog.

On Thursday, DIV36 offered a data blitz of student research presentations. The data blitz format, utilized by DIV36 for the first time this year, presents research in a rapid-fire format of six graduate student presenters in 50 minutes with only limited time for questions. David Bradley of Case Western University, presented “The Reasons of Atheists/Agnostics for Nonbelief in God’s Existence Scale (RANGES).” Bradley examined why some people do not believe in God.  He noted a variety of suggestions such as a rational rejection of God espoused by modern atheist writers such as Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, the psychological suggestion that it is an angry rejection of a pseudo-father figure, and potential weakness in the ability to detect other minds.

After reviewing the literature, Bradley developed 64 reasons for non-belief and sent them to more than 2,500 active nonbelievers identified through their participation with Internet blogs. The participants were asked to rate each reason on a 1 (not at all important) to 5 (extremely important) scale identifying how important each reason was in explaining their nonbelief in God.

An exploratory factor analysis helped reduce the reasons down to 35 items across nine subscales:

  • Intellectual reasons
  • Societal concerns
  • Agnostic
  • Intuitive (gut level responses)
  • God relational
  • Bad experiences with religion
  • Emotional
  • Early socialization
  • Current socialization

A second study of 520 participants obtained on MTurk who self-identified atheist and agnostic beliefs led to a confirmatory factory analysis confirming the Study 1 factor structure of the sub-scales. A third study of 217 atheists on MTurk added three items to improve reliability and confirmed the factory structure.

In a discussion at the end of his talk and with this writer after the convention, Bradly noted that the question of evil and why God permits unnecessary suffering is often considered an intellectual question and debated passionately. However, according to his team’s data, “the problem of evil seems to hit people as primarily an emotional reason not to believe in God, rather than a purely intellectual reason.  So the debate about the problem of evil is more about convincing people that God is loving vs. unworthy of love, rather than whether God’s existence is logically necessary vs. logically impossible.”

Bradley was not the only presenter to offer a scale addressing non-belief, an area understudied in psychology. On Friday, a paper session entitled  “On the Outside Looking In – Experiences of Nonreligious and LGBTQ Individuals” offered exciting new research from a panel led by Melanie Brewster, a professor at Teacher’s College – Columbia University and editor of Atheists in America, reviewed here.

The first presentation by Jacob Sawyer, a Columbia University graduate student, discussed potential outcomes of anti-atheist discrimination such as loneliness and psychological distress, while also detailing the Measure of Atheist Discrimination Experiences (MADE) scale. Sawyer noted that survey data has uncovered a range of 3-16% of U.S. individuals identifying as atheist, agnostic, or nonreligious and posed that atheism is a diversity issue that warrants exploration and additional research.

In discussing atheist experiences, Sawyer noted minority stress theory (Meyer, 2003), which focuses on the excess stress people in stigmatized groups are exposed to as a result of their minority position (e.g., based on race, gender, sexual orientation).  He noted that anxiety, depression, substance abuse, and suicidality are all different possible manifestations of a minority stress experience. To examine these experiences, he used the MADE scale in a study of more than 1,000 participants of ages 18-83. The scale consists of 24 items across five sub-scales of possible experiences atheists face. Below are the five sub-scales and their brief explanation:

  • Immoral: Being called evil or not knowing right from wrong
  • Shame: Being told you are humiliating to family members
  • Pretend: Being asked to not exhibit
  • Severe: Being attacked
  • Ostracized: Being excluded from clubs

Sawyer and his colleagues found that measured loneliness predicted experiences of discrimination and public self-esteem, and that experiences of discrimination and public self-esteem predicted psychological distress, results consistent with minority stress populations. This led the authors to note that nonreligious persons should be considered a diverse population in further psychological research.

A second presentation also discussed a new scale. Zhen H. Cheng of University of Oregon discussed how America is “a very religious nation”, citing findings from Gallup polls that 86% of Americans believe in God. At the same time, while the nonreligious are a small number, their numbers have increased from 15.3% in 2007 to 19.6% in 2012. This growing disparity between the religious and nonreligious can lead to subtle biases coming through as microaggressions, defined by Cheng as “people’s everyday behaviors that are interpreted by members of a group as denigrating, invalidating, and prejudicial”  (see also Wing, 2010).

Scales regarding microaggressions and race, gender, and LGBTQ populations exist, but this was the first focused on nonreligious individuals, created by Cheng and colleagues to determine if microaggressions predicted negative mental health outcomes in nonreligious individuals. Their studies asked nonreligious individuals to note how often they experienced 109 possible microaggressions  (such as “others have assumed that I am untrustworthy because of my lack of religion”). The items represented assumption of moral inferiority, denial of nonreligious prejudice, assumption of religiosity, and nonreligious stereotypes.

Study 1 was an exploratory factor analysis with 255 participants; Study 2 was a confirmatory factor analysis with 304 participants. Overall, they found that experiences with microaggressions correlated with poor mental health outcomes, higher levels of depression, and perceived stress. There was also a brief discussion of causality that is worth further research, as depressed nonreligious people might be more likely to see something as a microaggression and/or nonreligious people experiencing microaggressions might have poorer overall mental health.

These issues of discrimination and microaggressions against nonreligious persons were particularly potent as the convention took place the same day a Bangladeshi secular blogger was hacked to death (BBC, Aug. 7, 2015). However, while Brewster noted a need for a safe space for people to congregate to discuss nonreligion, she also said it has been a recent and growing trend. One woman in the audience noted that there is a large community of atheists in Oklahoma City that meets for social events and that there is hope for more events in the future.

While there were many presentations at the conference dealing with religion and many dealing with discrimination, the area of secularity and non-religion remains understudied in psychology. With the above presentations and a promising group of graduate students, however, future conferences might benefit from such research. For information on other presentations or to learn more about the 2016 American Psychological Association Conference, to be held in Denver, CO, see: http://www.apa.org/convention/index.aspx.


BBC. (Aug. 7, 2015). Bangladesh blogger Niloy Neel hacked to death in Dhaka. Available at http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-33819032.

Hoffman, D.H., Carter, D.J., Viglucci Lopez, C.R., Benzmiller, H.L., Guo, A.X., Latifi, S.Y.,

& Craig, D.C. (2015). Report to the Special Committee of the Board of Directors of the American Psychological Association: Independent Review Relating to APA Ethics Guidelines, National Security Interrogations, and Torture. Available at http://www.apa.org/independent-review/APA-FINAL-Report-7.2.15.pdf.

Meyer, I.H. (2003). Prejudice, social stress, and mental health in lesbian, gay and

bisexual populations: Conceptual issues and research evidence. Psychological Bulletin, 129, 674-697. doi:10.1037/0033-2909.129.5.674

Wing, D. W. (2010). Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Race, Gender, and Sexual

Orientation. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons. p. 169. ISBN 9780470491409.

Jason A. Cantone is a Research Associate in the United States and serves on the Committee on Legal Issues for the American Psychological Association. The focus of his research is how to identify and prevent discrimination based upon religion or non-religion in the workplace, the social psychology of discrimination, and the use of alternative dispute resolutions in federal courts. His opinions expressed here are his own, written outside of his current employment, and do not necessarily represent those of his employer. For more information, contact him at jasoncantone@gmail.com.

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