By Gary Berg-Cross
American culture has a bit of a prejudice against secular humanists and atheists (see for example Margaret Downey’s Discrimination Against Atheists -The Facts). As widely noted the atheist/non-theist/freethinker group is highly unpopular, although it may be scant comfort to know we are more popular than the tea party.
Why this seemingly deep down prejudice, feeling of disgust and “yuck” response towards non-believers? A partial explanation seems to involve an interplay of how primitive emotions are evoked in a socially intelligent beings and how some stereotypical views frame these. Social Psychology has studied such things as part of inter-group prejudice and offers some explanations to help understand the basis of out-group perception.
A naive psychology thinks of prejudice and discrimination as a simple summative response of positive and negative affects. So if non-believers are seen as say “untrustworthy” with great affect then it may cancel out any good affects for being “intelligent”. But it turns out that a simple additive-subtractive model doesn’t capture what is observed in such things as prejudice and aversion. One obvious problem is that not all affects are the same and can’t be summed along one dimension. Anger, fear sadness and disgust are all negative affects, but they tend to produce different behaviors which seem to have a long evolutionary history. For example anger tends to prompt aggression, while fear prompts avoidance/escape. Paul Rozin, University of Pennsylvania psychology professor, notes that humans and animals express emotions in similar ways which suggests that a core of affective reactions were conserved during evolution and have a common form. Disgust, for example, produces a characteristic facial expression that includes a grimace, the lower jaw dropping, the tongue sticks out, and a wrinkled nose (part of which is seem in the picture above). A consistent emotional response is evidence that it is functional for species survival. We can easily imagine how anger and fear would serve survival. An emotion like disgust is a bit harder to understand, but probably has to do with avoiding contagious illness or consistent sickness problems with food sources. Young humans are cautious about new foods, which probably has survival value.
But it’s not just young children that show a yuck factor/response to unfamiliar food. Research suggests that while there is a core of universally repugnant items (bodily emissions like feces, vomit & spit seem like universal avoidances) but the yuck response is often culturally based too. We see that often in food biases some of which involve religious taboos, such as kosher food commands. But some are not forbidden, but discouraged. You wouldn’t expose your kids to eating insects would you? Well many cultures do. In 2007 a California referendum banned restaurants from selling dog or horse meat because the majority of voters viewed their consumption by people as repugnant. But throughout Africa & Asia, both these meats are about as popular as hot dogs and hamburgers.
The point is that disgust/repugnance is the emotional expression of something deep down and when it is evoked it seems an intuitive wisdom that people don’t need to explain - “I just don’t like it.”When cultures pick these up they can make some behaviors seem as detestable by evoking negative emotion works - "yuck".
So humans come with these deep seated animal feelings but they now lie under and serve newly social cognitive abilities used by our species to communicate and interact within a larger culture. The older emotions now have a greater sphere to play in and more than a summative pattern. When different groups argue (e.g. non-theists and theist) it matters what emotion word-concepts are used, what mix of emotions are evoked, how they are conceptualized and how the groups respond to these.
The new reality is that for a highly cognitive animal affect doesn’t remain an isolated quantity, but usually is harnesses to serve a cognitive construct that mediates understanding. Thus an affect like disgust can be dynamically framed and made to serve interpretations. Consider the idea that atheists may be “smart” but also “unethical”. People can isolate the smart aspect and categorize it as high status which may be construed as “uppity” or “too good” and thus dangerous for the rest of us. Thus positive characteristics may be interpreted in a way that categorizes them as something else, something dangerously manipulative – Machiavellian perhaps. Machiavelli, Marx these are people that "yuck" responses are attached to reflexively. This construct could be assembled to evoke a disgusting image such as intelligence being unmercifully used to batter innocent beliefs. This idea of disgustingly unethical, untrustworthy but intelligent nonbelievers may produce considerable negative feelings which, as Paul Meade suggests, trigger a defense mechanism to an assumed threat:
When a theist, who considers himself a well informed person, see's people he considers as intelligent or more intelligent than himself, who do not agree with his religious views, he may feel that his views are possibly not 100% correct. This may trigger a defense mechanism, and a necessity to pigeonhole those persons into a definition of character that is acceptable to his peer group. So atheists become immoral, untrustworthy, etc. This predefined identity is easier to accept then having to discover the truth personally.
This formulation touches on what social psychologies call the "social contamination" hypothesis of group prejudice. This is the idea that a hated group may be seen, not primarily as a direct threat to physical survival or to resources, but as a bearer of pollution or disease. Framed this way non-theists are a danger to the integrity, rightness and purity of an individual or group of theists. Likewise Marx is a danger to all right thinking capitalists. If we are successfully exposed to these "dangerous ideas" we become contaminated and therefore contagious. Something like this view may help explain the feelings of danger and the need for protection from their thoughts that freethinkers evoke. The contaminated label makes the aggressive brand of atheists and freethinkers unclean, dangerous and socially unacceptable.But all types of freethinkers get a bit of this branding.
But of course this type of construct is not unique to religious believers. The angst and disgust many atheists have with religious culture is just as likely to be based on a fear of being contaminated by dangerous religious ideas. In this way there is a symmetry of views with each having its reasons not to think well of the other. So are theists and non-theists equally guilty of prejudice towards the other? Not exactly.
One of the things that breaks this simple symmetry is that freethinkers tend to use a validated method of reason and empiricism for their concerns. Indeed on the average they seem to know more about some aspects of religion and its history that theists. This is partly due to intellectual curiosity, valuing knowledge and reasoning. Another is that religions are the majority culture and most people get to swim, often unconsciously, in its constructs enshrined in language, the arts and institutions. This cultural combination, combined with a style that does not question social conventions, makes it seem natural for theists to have a feeling of contamination-driven disgust accompanies feelings of fear and perhaps anger or sadness when something comes along to challenge their religious taste for ideas. The response then is to seek separation from these ideas and the people who espouse them. The contaminating people then are seen as a of an out-group from the larger society who evokes a mix of emotions like anger followed by aggression or sadness followed by withdrawal.All emotions we’ve probably experienced with religious friends or perhaps in debates on blogs. Understanding the phenomena helps a bit, but it still leaves open the question of how best to battle a prejudice that is felt deep down and not in need of analysis and justification by experience. As with all group conflicts actual interaction in favorable settings can help dispel the misconceptions between groups. Participating in inter-faith conversations is one direction and this may be good in that many do not know what non-theists are like and the basis of our values and beliefs. But of course to actually challenge other people's beliefs in these conversations may be perceived as out of bounds. Some inter-faith discussions seem more like pro-forma affairs than honest inquiries.
And alas changing people's prejudices is a long process.
Understanding is slow to take effect may be localized to an individual or small group.