Study of Christians uncovers the key moral intuition behind anti-atheist prejudice

Believers’ prejudicial attitudes toward atheists is heavily influenced by one moral intuition, according to research published in the European Journal of Social Psychology.

The study of 630 U.S. Christians was based on the Moral Foundations Theory, which holds there are five moral foundations: compassion/harming, fairness/cheating, ingroup-loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation.

The researchers found that anti-atheist prejudice was linked to atheists’ perceived incapacity to be kind, caring, and compassionate. However, the four other moral foundations appeared to have little effect.

PsyPost interviewed the study’s corresponding author, Ain Simpson of Ohio University. Read his responses below:

PsyPost: Why were you interested in this topic?

Simpson: My research is driven by an interest in human morality, intergroup relations, and how these topics intersect. Hence, and in light of much evidence to suggest that moral distrust underlies religious believers’ attitudes toward nonbelievers, I find the topic of anti-atheist prejudice very interesting. Research on this topic is still quite nascent, and given my interest in moral psychology, I was drawn to the question: “If moral distrust underlies anti-atheist prejudice, does this implicate morality in general or only certain types of morality?” Indeed, much research by Jesse Graham, Jonathan Haidt and colleagues strongly suggests that the human mind is equipped with multiple, discrete domains of moral intuition, each geared toward processing certain types of moral information (specifically: harm vs. care; fairness vs. cheating; group loyalty vs. betrayal; authority vs. subversion; and sanctity vs. degradation). These naturally translate beyond moral intuition into distinct sets of real-world moral traits and values (e.g., compassion; loyalty), leading me to ask: If atheists are perceived as caring about a particular set of moral values, does this reduce anti-atheist prejudice?

An impressive array of prior research (W.M. Gervais, 2014, PLoS ONE) has demonstrated that rather extreme moral violations were more readily attributed to atheists than to other social groups, and this occurred for all types of moral violation. This demonstrates an implicit association people hold that links theistic belief with morality: I.e., a belief that being moral depends in part on believing in God. Nevertheless, my research question diverges from Gervais’s, as I was interested not so much in the intuitive associations between atheism and immorality, but rather in the role of perceived atheist morality in understanding variability in anti-atheist prejudice.

What should the average person take away from your study?

Although there are many factors that affect anti-atheist prejudice, my studies focus specifically on the role of perceived atheist morality. In this context, I found that anti-atheist prejudice depends mainly on atheists’ perceived capacity to be caring, kind, and compassionate. There were little to no effects of atheists’ perceived capacity to be fair and just, loyal and selfless, respectful and supportive of social hierarchy, or to adhere to mores of sanctity, decency, and self-restraint. This is somewhat surprising, because the latter three types of moral concern (group loyalty, deferential respect, and purity/sanctity) are rather emblematic of religious morality, representing the sharpest divide between religious and secular moral systems.

These results were found in two studies: (a) a correlational study, in which U.S. Christians’ levels of anti-atheist prejudice were associated with their perceptions of how a typical atheist would respond to an array of morally-loaded survey items; and (b) an experimental study, in which U.S. Christians were primed to believe that either atheists or ‘people in general’ (control condition) endorsed one of the five categories of morality. In short: Anti-atheist prejudice can be reduced if atheists are portrayed as kind, caring, compassionate, and averse to harm.

Are there any major caveats? What questions still need to be addressed?

In other research (Simpson & Rios, 2016, Int. J. Psych. Relig.), I asked Christians to openly express their views about “atheist morality”. Consistent with the research discussed herein, I found that moral values pertaining to caring and compassion vs. callousness were discussed more than most other moral values, with an even mix of favorable and unfavorable discussion. However, I also found much discussion about atheists’ perceived capacity (or lack thereof) for deferential respect. So this has encouraged me to further investigate theists’ beliefs about atheists’ moral concerns for authority and subversion.

Moving beyond the Christian-atheist intergroup context, we are now interested in the more general question of how perceptions of an outgroup’s moral values predict attitudes toward that outgroup. One possibility is that perceived concern for values of caring and compassion (as opposed to perceived concern for other types of values) is central to understanding prejudice against all or most social groups. An alternative (supported by “socio-functional” theories of prejudice) is that each outgroup presents a unique array of perceived threats to the ingroup, so we would expect the link between prejudice and perceived morality to manifest via different moral values for different outgroups. Although we have found some evidence in favor of the latter hypothesis, more research is needed.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

My co-author (Dr. Kimberly Rios) and I are currently researching this topic further, with regard to the issues I discussed above. In one follow-up study, we have replicated the experimental effect we found in Study 2 of the published manuscript, but with an alternative experimental design. This gives us confidence that the effects we reported in the published manuscript are true and are not merely artifacts owing to issues of statistical power or experimental design. We are also investigating the topic in different countries and cultures, recruiting participants of non-Christian religions and addressing attitudes toward groups other than atheists.

The study, “The moral contents of anti-atheist prejudice (and why atheists should care about it)“, was also co-authored by Kimberly Rios