Atheists have an image problem and the Vancouver Police Department can help. In a study by the University of B.C. and published in Psychological Science, prejudice towards atheists is reduced after watching a video from the VPD.
“Atheists have long been distrusted, in part because they do not believe that a watchful, judging god monitors their behaviour,” say Gervais and Norenzayan, authors of the UBC study. Believers are on their best behaviour because they are being watched and if atheists don’t feel the same way, how can they be trusted?
However, if believers thought that atheists were being watched by agents of authority, atheists could be trusted more. To test this idea, the authors did an experiment in which a control group watched an upbeat video about Vancouver’s vibrant culture. The test group watched VPD’s Chief Jim Chu deliver a year-end
message on how vigilant the police were in handing the 2010 Olympics.
The control and test groups included a variety of religions and ethnicities. Self-described atheists were excluded. Both groups were tested for distrust of atheists before and after the experiment by a commonly used questionnaire, including questions like, “In times of crisis, I am more inclined to trust people who are religious,” and “I would be uncomfortable with an atheist teaching my child.”
Believers trusted atheists significantly more after watching the police video. The control group’s opinions were unchanged after watching the Vancouver video.
What’s going on here? Police don’t claim to be agents of God (although street protestors might think they do). The authors explain that both God and governments have a favourable effect on social behaviour. Since people can’t watch each other all the time, it’s good to have supernatural beings that can. Knowing that others are being watched, as believers feel they are, fosters trust when atheists are similarly watched.
“The interchangeable psychological functions of gods and governments have also been illustrated by recent work showing that both gods and governments can give people a sense of psychological control in the world,” explain the authors.
Watchful, moralizing gods may have served a vital function in the evolution of large co-operative groups. As governments grew more complex, they began to assume a greater role in surveillance. Gods and governments give people a sense of control in an unpredictable world. Both serve as social monitors to encourage co-operation among individuals.
Acceptance of atheists and trust in governments go hand in hand. Countries with strong secular institutions, such as Scandinavia, are less religious and more accepting of atheists. Corrupt and kleptomaniac governments, such as Nigeria, lead to stronger faith in God and more distrust of atheists.
But what about other prejudiced groups—were believers’ trust in them also enhanced? If they were, then good feelings would apply to all — not just atheists.
To test this idea the authors did a second experiment to see if trust in gays improved, this time using a technique other than the videos. They tested attitudes for gays with another standard test with questions like, “I think male homosexuals are disgusting,” and “Sex between two women is just plain wrong.” Trust in atheists improved as before but whereas trust for gays did not.
What if the results are particular to Vancouver, then? They did a third experiment using an online service to collect American test subjects and found similar results. Interesting, American trust in atheists improved slightly more than Vancouverites.
David Charbonneau is the owner of Trio Technical. He can be reached at email@example.com.