Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Why are We so Unpopular?

by Gary Berg-Cross

For good or ill, for better understanding or to thwart understanding, conversations are filled with ideas about trust or really the trust – lack of trust continuum. It's an excess worthy of Thanksgiving feasts.

The failure of the super committee is blamed in part on a lack of trust between Democrats and Republicans. This lack of trust is said to fuel already deep divides between the side. Democrats came to believe that the Republicans really wanted to use the super committee to cut taxes, rather than the deficit. And Republicans members don’t trust Government period, even though they are part of it.

A lack of trust in the financial system (or government regulation) is part of the widespread, political polarization, but is also said to underlie Greek debt problems, US- Israeli relations, employee- employer relations (28% of employees don't trust the senior leaders in their organization, but maybe it’s higher now in the NBA!)

One reason I was thinking of trust, besides being bombarded by the above, was an article on the trust factor with atheists. This new work explains some of the unpopularity of atheists as I blogged on earlier comparing atheist and t-party unfavorability. Such data go back to 2006 and sociological studies by Edgell, Gerteis & Hartmann. Their survey of Americans, found that atheists “are less likely to be accepted, publicly and privately, than any others from a long list of ethnic, religious and other minority groups.” Writing in the American Sociological Review, they noted that “while rejection of Muslims may have spiked in post-9/11 America, rejection of atheists was higher.” Rejection is measured in several ways and one is whether a person would vote for a presidential
candidate of this type. Atheist are the lowest group, just under homosexuals.

This all comes despite the declining salience of divisions among religious groups. So why does the boundary between believers and nonbelievers in America remains strong? This authors ague that it is rooted in moral and symbolic, rather than ethnic or material, grounds. So atheists are seen as “others” and immorally so.

There has been some follow-up work to understand the dynamics a bit better and it turns out that trust is a key element. “Distrust Feeds Anti-Atheist Prejudice” shouts the article headline by Tom Jacobs reporting on new sociofunctional research by British Columbia psychologist Will Gervis finds that atheists are unpopular because they are widely perceived as untrustworthy. Distrust seems to be a major factor in why we are disliked more than other minorities, although this distrust of atheists generalized to like minded groups from more liberal, secular populations. They are like atheists, but who else is? Well, criminally untrustworthy individual such as rapists are. How does research get at this? They use something called the Conjunction test. You give a person a sentence like:

Amber, “an outspoken and politically active single woman.” Knowing that — and nothing else — about her, is it more likely that Amber is (a) a banker or (b) a banker and a feminist?

What if a person is some clearly immoral type (like a person who steals)? Who are they more like??? You guessed it. Rapists are not seen as people of faith (e.g. Christians, Muslims, Jews) through.

The researchers report that taken as a whole the results were consistent with a moral 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.”

You can see a video called If Atheist Ruled American that expresses many of the implications that arise from beliefs such as "America is based on faith in God and that's why we have free speech and equal rights." Or that freedom of thinking will be taken away from people since we are just animals and atheists will wage a secret war against rights.

Of course such abstract, unfounded beliefs in what atheists are like can be changed by personal interactions and discussions (such as interfaith discussions that include atheists -discussed in a previous blog). Many people of faith don’t really know atheists and kindred folk well enough to understand their moral behavior. This is generally true of positive contact with out-groups. People can change their option if the exposure is positive. It’s happened and is happening to the GLBT community and it might even happen to the less popular atheist community. So be your moral, right-thinking self and let people see your humanity. It plays well when shown in a favorable light.


Gary Berg-Cross said...

You can see a video called If Atheist Ruled American at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QHUbIGLj1BI This expresses many of the implications that arise from beliefs that America is based on faith in God. That's why we have free speech and equal rights. Or that freedom of thinking will be taken away from people since we are just animals and atheists will wage a secret war against rights.

Edd.Doerr said...

Gary, let me add some observations, in no special order. 1. Madalyn O'Hair, whom I knew personally since before her case even reached the Supreme Court, was so obnoxious that she singlehandedly contributed much to the dislike for atheists. 2. While some of the rather recent neo-atheist books have been bestsellers, they have left the impression that atheists are mainly "against" something and leave readers uncertain as to what they might be for. 3. I find it instructive to note that three of the heads important early UN agencies were Humanists -- Julian Huxley at UNESCO, Boyd Orr at Food & Ag, Brock Chisholm at WHO. 4. H.G. Wells, Isaac Asimov, Andrei Sakharov, E.O. Wilson, Francis Crick, Einstein, Ambrose Bierce, Mark Twain and other notables were/are naturalistic Humanists but never went out of their way to stress atheism. It seems to me to be largely a matter of "framing", accomplishing, and strategy. In my work on the Nigerian civil war (see the next article) I never identified myself by any religious (or nonreligious) label.

Gary Berg-Cross said...


For many people what atheists are for is uncertain and I guess the presumption that they are just anti whatever and disruptive. This would seem to leave some nice positive territory for atheists who are secular humanists, and are thus for many things. But it also seems true, as Edward Tabash wrote, that :

"There is no rational basis for providing religious dogma with its own special exemption from harsh criticism. We do secular humanism an immense disservice if we buy into the mindset that criticism of religion has to be more muffled than criticism of other ideologies.....Because religion is so entrenched, in order to dislodge it, we have to use all available tactics, including destroying the misconception that religious beliefs are entitled to some special immunity from piercing criticism." http://www.secularhumanism.org/index.php?section=library&page=tabash_12_3

So I agree that framing is important and getting a positive message out should be a priority, but within a degree of philosophical honesty that recognizes the errors and imperfect understanding that society as a whole may have.

Perhaps you can come to the next WASH MDC meeting in the Wheaton Library on Dec 3 (2-4) where we have our annual open discussion and this topic of confrontational vs non-confrontational positions for freethinkers can be discussed.

Edd.Doerr said...

Tabash is right. However, there are many things that need to be criticized, not just some religions. And there are areas where we can and should be working with people who agree with us on some things and not others. The trick is to focus on the right things at the right time in the right order. Screwing up the targets or the right sequence can mean setbacks. These are problems with which I have been dealing for many years and about which there is room for disagreement. I do not pretend that this is simple.

I may be able to get to the meeting.

Gary Berg-Cross said...

And I think that Edd Doerr is right to say "The trick is to focus on the right things at the right time in the right order." That takes a strategy and some pretty good understanding of some complex dynamics mixed with some degree of patience and good will since it takes time for pragmatic understanding to spread and be accepted.

One thing that I might not agree with Tabash about is when he talks about "harsh criticism". I guess I would prefer a concept like firm criticism tempered, as you imply, by time, place and situational usefulness.

lucette said...

I don't think that people in general don't trust me, and I am not afraid to say I am an atheist, when it is NEEDED. Maybe it pays not to be an accommodationist.

lucette said...

I am very sad that the Secular Perspectives Blog is taken over by anti-atheists.
I thought you might need to watch this video:
Greta Christina Skepticon 4 Why Are You Atheists So Angry?
This idea that atheists stand for nothing is extraordinary. An atheist is someone who does not believe that there are gods. With this exception, atheists can be anything else, even secular humanists!!! Why is this so hard to understand?

Don Wharton said...

Lucette, I don't think is is fair to call either Gary or Edd anti-theists. Frankly I regard Edd as one of the most elegant spokesman in our nation for the premise that we should work cooperatively with religious people on progressive causes. The only reason to not call him an accomodationist is that the more militant atheists tend to use accomodationist as a swear word. And Gary is just trying to find the evidence to understand what is happening.

Gary Berg-Cross said...

I believe it was Dawkins whpo made the point that if you were not a stamp collector you wouldn't have to go around defining yourself as as an a-stamp collector. You may choose to identify your full range of beliefs,interests and activities in a way in which not stamp collecting plays a role but is not the only thing you believe in.

If you are not a theist you may define your self fully. I find that Secular Humanism is one of the categories that provides a fuller frame for my interests and beliefs.

lucette said...

Don, I am not talking about anti-theism. I am talking about anti-a-theism. I am very impressed by Edd's accomplishments but his comments about SOME atheists are a little disturbing because so many anti-a-theists will be happy to generalize his comments to all atheists. On the other hand, Gary is just afraid to come out of the atheist closet . He is hiding under accommodationism, warts and all :(

Don Wharton said...

Ooops! Sorry Lucette! I misread your comment. I think both Gary and Edd have also taken strong positions against a great many theistic beliefs and nothing that I recall against atheists as atheists. Obviously Edd is not terribly fond of the Dawkins style with emphasizes intellectual confrontation. However, I am quite fond of including the more militant perspectives. I think that end of the spectrum is quite needed. Frankly, I am happy to solicit additional more militant posts from yourself or anyone else who wants to write an essay.