Atheists might be seen as less attractive romantic partners compared to their theist counterparts, at least among college students in the Southern United States, according to new research published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships.
“A litany of negative stereotypes exists about atheists’ social value despite what many would consider a surprising number of them in society,” said study author Mitch Brown, a psychology instructor at the University of Arkansas.
“This prevalence made me think about the manner in which atheism could be seen as advantageous in meeting social goals, which led me to consider work on positive stereotypes of atheists as fun and open-minded. These conflicting perceptions made me think about how this tradeoff emerges in mating domains and whether the pervasiveness of negative stereotypes toward atheists would win out in mate selection, especially considering how any kind of religious belief in a mate is valued by so many people (and their families).”
In two studies, which included 237 undergraduates from a public university in the Southeastern United States, participants viewed and evaluated prospective partners from a hypothetical dating website. Some dating profiles indicated that the prospective partner believed in God while others indicated that the person did not believe in God.
Atheists were perceived as more desirable for short-term relationships compared to long-term relationships, but theists were perceived as more desirable than the atheists overall. Moreover, physically attractive theists and atheists were both perceived as more prone to infidelity compared to their unattractive counterparts, but this effect was significantly larger for attractive atheists.
“Atheists are regarded as more desirable in short-term mating domains relative to long-term mating domains. However, this does not necessarily translate to atheists being highly desirable in short-term contexts,” Brown told PsyPost. “It is interesting to note that this desirability occurs for both theistic and atheistic individuals. There are also accompanying stereotypes of atheists as more prone to infidelity, which undermine their desirability in long-term contexts.”
The results are in line with previous research, which has found that nonreligious people are less likely to be viewed as trustworthy, as a “faithful romantic partner” or as a “dedicated” parent.
But it is unclear how well the new findings generalize to other populations. The majority of the participants reported that they believed in God.
“The largest caveat is that the study was conducted in the Southern United States,” Brown explained. “Though anti-atheist prejudice has a degree of universality to it, other research shows that environments that are less religious than the South are less prejudiced. I would want to conduct a version of this study in other parts of the world to see how large the effect could emerge, particularly when considering individual differences in religiosity. Though atheists and agnostics espouse similar prejudices toward atheists, it would stand to reason these effects would be muted.”
“This work is not meant to justify prejudice against atheistic individuals, nor is it designed to disparage theists,” Brown added. “This is merely an investigation into understanding how shared belief systems (or lack thereof) can functionally shape preferences.”
The study, “Preliminary Evidence for an Aversion to Atheists in Long-Term Mating Domains“, was published October 13, 2021.