Anti-atheist stigma can even harm Christian political candidates

According to new research, religiously affiliated people tend to be less supportive of candidates who they believe are associated with atheism — even if the candidates are religious themselves. The findings have been published in Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied.

“Both anti-atheist bias and presidential politics have been consistently strong research interests for the duration of my academic career,” said study author Andrew Franks, a visiting assistant professor of psychology at Pacific Lutheran University.

“I have been conducting research at the intersection of these issues since early in graduate school, and my interest in the topic was initially sparked by public polling indicating that a majority of U.S. voters would categorically reject an atheist candidate for president.”

“More recently, I noticed trends in the Democratic Party’s decisions, such as continuing to use religious language in their party platforms, which suggested to me that they were attempting to downplay their party’s association with secular and non-religious individuals,” Franks said.

“That brought me to thinking about the possible political cost of merely being associated with atheism or non-religion.”

Across three studies, the researchers found that associations with atheism were linked to decreased support for political candidates among religiously affiliated — but not unaffiliated — participants. This decreased support was partly explained by reductions in both explicit and implicit (or unconscious) measures of trust.

The researchers’ initial study of 101 undergraduates found that religiously affiliated participants viewed hypothetical candidates as less trustworthy when their photo appeared next to words related to atheism.

A second study of 157 undergraduates found that religiously affiliated participants also showed reduced support for an explicitly Christian candidate who espoused support for atheist rights.

A third study of 144 undergraduates, which was conducted 4 weeks prior to the 2012 U.S. presidential election, found that religiously affiliated participants who perceived Barack Obama to be associated with atheism were less likely to support him.

“People should recognize that stigma-by-association with marginalized groups can elicit bias in many forms, both explicit and implicit, and in important contexts such as electoral politics,” Franks told PsyPost.

“I do not want people to think that this is a reason to avoid being associated with marginalized groups, however,” he added. “Rather, I want people to recognize that bias against groups such as gays, atheists, and racial minorities is so powerful among a substantial portion of the population that it can extend to friends and supporters who are not members of such groups, and I would like that realization to increase the urgency of fighting against these detrimental biases.”

The study, “Godless by Association: Deficits in Trust Mediate Antiatheist Stigma-by-Association“, Andrew S. Franks, Kyle C. Scherr, and Bryan Gibson.