Americans Simultaneously Hold Both Positive And Negative Stereotypes About Atheists

By Emily Reynolds

What — or who — do you think about when you hear the word “atheist”? Someone scientific, rational, and open-minded? Or, instead, someone who lacks morality, or who is less trustworthy than your average religious person? Prior research hasn’t been wholly positive for non-believers, finding serious levels of distrust of atheists — even among atheists themselves.

But the real picture might be slightly more complicated. According to a new study, published in Social Psychological and Personality Science, positive and negative stereotypes abound when it comes to atheists. And for many, these stereotypes exist at the same time: people can believe atheists to be fun and open-minded just as they find them to be immoral.

Although past work has mainly looked at negative stereotypes of atheists, there is reason to believe that people could, simultaneously, hold positive stereotypes. You might perceive atheists as uninhibited and rebellious and want to invite them to a party or have them serve you at a restaurant, for example — but you may not want them to look after your children for exactly the same reason.

The first study looked precisely at these traits, testing the hypothesis that people see atheists as fun, open-minded and scientific (and the religious as the opposite). Participants were randomly assigned to read three vignettes in which a character either displayed one of these three traits (e.g. fun), or its opposite (e.g. not fun). They were then asked which of two sentences about the character seemed more probable. One statement was standalone and the other was linked to religion or atheism: e.g. “Henry is a teacher” or “Henry is a teacher and [an atheist/believes in God]”.

Participants were more likely to link being fun, open-minded and scientific to atheism, while they viewed the opposite traits as more representative of religious people. The extent to which this was true varied based on how religious the participants were themselves: people of high and low religiosity believed atheists were fun and scientific, but highly religious people were less likely to consider atheists as particularly open-minded. A second study replicated these findings, as well as adding another element: the stereotype of atheists as immoral, which participants tended to agree with. 

A third study looked at the contexts in which people prefer atheists or religious people. Participants were presented with a choice between the two in a number of hypothetical situations, each related to the positive stereotypes identified in the first two studies: e.g. “which would you choose if you wanted to attend a fun party: one thrown by an atheist or by a religious person?”, “which would you choose if you wanted to have an open-minded political conversation with someone?” or “which would you choose if you wanted a tutor for a high-level college course in the physical sciences?” To disguise the purpose of the study, five distractor scenarios (e.g. hiring a mechanic) were included with five different targets (e.g. Mac users vs. PC users).

As expected, participants preferred atheist partners in fun, open-minded and scientific situations. This was not the case for highly religious participants, however — while they had no bias towards religious or atheist party hosts, they did strongly favour conversational partners and science tutors who shared their beliefs.

The team suggests that the results could have serious implications for non-believers: though being considered fun is hardly the worst thing in the world, it could also lead to negative ramifications like being passed over for career opportunities or being seen as an inappropriate romantic prospect. It would be interesting to explore how much positive and negative stereotypes actually stand in the way for atheists in the real world, and in what domains.

Overall, the study paints an interesting picture of how we see both atheists and religious people — and how our own beliefs colour those pictures. While some certainly do have firm, rigid ideas about certain groups, these results suggest that for many of us stereotyping is somewhat more fluid.

Is There Anything Good About Atheists? Exploring Positive and Negative Stereotypes of the Religious and Nonreligious

Emily Reynolds is a staff writer at BPS Research Digest