Religious people find gay men and feminists more trustworthy than atheists, but they rank unbelievers only slightly above rapists, according to a new study that looked at prejudice against atheists from religious groups.
In the University of British Columbia study, titled "Do You Believe in Atheists? Distrust is Central to Anti-Atheist Prejudice," hypothetical questions and scenarios about trust were posed to 350 American adults and 420 Canadian students, who found atheists more representative of a "criminally untrustworthy" person than Christians, Muslims, gay men, feminists or Jews, the study said. Only rapists were found to be more untrustworthy.
Those feelings could have a large impact on how atheists are treated in society, says the study's lead author Will Gervais, a doctoral student in psychology at UBC.
"People are willing to hire an atheist for a job that is perceived as low-trust, for instance as a waitress," said Gervais, according to the Vancouver Sun. "But when hiring for a high-trust job like daycare worker, they were like, nope, not going to hire an atheist for that job."
UBC professor Ara Norenzayan, a co-author of the study, said in a press release that the reason for the distrust factor is that religious people simply view other religious people as better behaved than atheists.
"Outward displays of belief in God may be viewed as a proxy for trustworthiness, particularly by religious believers who think that people behave better if they feel that God is watching them," says Norenzayan. "While atheists may see their disbelief as a private matter on a metaphysical issue, believers may consider atheists' absence of belief as a public threat to cooperation and honesty."
However, atheists do not have the same distrustful feelings toward religious people, according to the study.
"Atheists don't necessarily favor other atheists over Christians or anyone else," Gervais told the Sun. "They seem to think that religion is not an important signal for who you can trust."
The study was inspired by a recent Gallup poll that revealed 45 percent of Americans would consider voting for an atheist as president, as well as polls that said atheists are the group that least agrees with their vision of America and the group parents would least likely approve of their children marrying.
Prejudice against atheists could have drastic effects on a large segment of the world's population.
“Where there are religious majorities – that is, in most of the world – atheists are among the least trusted people,” Gervais said. “With more than half a billion atheists worldwide, this prejudice has the potential to affect a substantial number of people.”