People unconsciously stereotype atheists as more likely to be serial killers, yet pin them as open-minded, scientific, and fun at parties

Research published in Social Psychological and Personality Science suggests that people can hold both positive and intensely negative stereotypes about a stigmatized group. The findings suggest that people stereotype atheists as immoral — unconsciously believing a serial killer is more likely to be an atheist than a religious person — while simultaneously stereotyping atheists as more open-minded, scientific, and fun at parties.

For some time, atheists have found themselves the subjects of numerous negative stereotypes. Importantly, these stereotypes seem to involve a distrust of non-religious people to the extent that they are unconsciously seen as dangerous. This may lead to discrimination in certain contexts — for example, atheists may be denied employment in childcare positions under the assumption they lack morality.

A study led by Jordan W. Moon was motivated by the perspective that stereotyping is complex and that people can hold both negative and positive stereotypes about a group of people. Certain groups might be perceived as a threat in one context, but as an advantage in another. The researchers wanted to uncover whether people might hold both positive and negative stereotypes about atheists.

“Past research on anti-atheist prejudice has shown so many negative stereotypes — atheists are associated with immorality, narcissism, etc.,” explained Moon, a PhD student at Arizona State University. “Even atheists tend to show some level of intuitive distrust toward atheists. Yet many people are open about their disbelief in public, and there are organizations that promote disbelief. My coauthors and I reasoned that, at least in some contexts, being an atheist must be viewed positively.

An initial experiment had a sample of participants read several vignettes that described people with certain positive or negative traits. These traits were open-minded/closed-minded, scientific/non-scientific, and fun/not fun. After reading each vignette, the participants were shown two statements and asked to choose which one was the most probable. In the atheist condition, two example responses were “Henry is a teacher” and “Henry is a teacher and is an atheist.” In the religious condition, two responses were “Henry is a teacher” and “Henry is a teacher and believes in God.” By asking the questions this way, the researchers were tapping into participants’ unconscious stereotypes without explicitly addressing them.

Moon and his colleagues found that participants tended to associate the positively valenced traits (open-minded, scientific, and fun) with atheists and to associate the negatively valenced traits (closed-minded, non-scientific, not fun) with religious people. Importantly, the effect more or less held whether the respondent was religious or not.

A second experiment using vignettes again found that atheists were associated with science and open-mindedness. The experiment additionally found that a vignette describing the gruesome actions of a serial killer was more likely to be associated with an atheist than a religious person. Notably, this suggested that subjects were harboring extremely negative stereotypes about atheists, while at the same time endorsing positive stereotypes about them.

In a final study, the researchers found evidence that there are contexts in which people positively discriminate toward atheists. Participants tended to choose “an atheist” over “a religious person” when asked whose party they’d prefer to attend, who they would prefer to discuss politics with, and who they’d prefer to have as a science tutor. Interestingly, while people low and average in religiosity showed a strong bias toward atheists for the three scenarios, those high in religiosity preferred religious people for science tutoring and discussing politics, and showed no bias toward either religious people or atheists for party hosts.

“Even though there is prejudice toward atheists, and many negative stereotypes, it is not necessarily the case that atheists are viewed negatively in every way. Atheism might not necessarily boost perceptions of trustworthiness, but it might make people be viewed as more fun, open-minded, or scientific. In those contexts, people are probably more open to interacting with atheists,” Moon told PsyPost.

Moon and his team take their study as evidence that people can simultaneously endorse positive and negative stereotypes toward targeted groups. Still, the researchers note a limitation to their study — while being fun, open-minded, and scientific tend to be perceived as positive traits, it is possible that they represent negative traits in some contexts. For example, being fun might be associated with short-term mating and thus be interpreted as a negative trait by some religious people. It remains an open question whether these “positive” stereotypes are indeed in atheists’ favor.

“It’s an open question whether these results apply to highly religious people—our results were mixed for people who reported high levels of religiosity,” Moon said. “Perceptions of atheists are also almost certainly different outside the U.S., where it might be more or less normative to be nonreligious.”

The study, “Is There Anything Good About Atheists? Exploring Positive and Negative Stereotypes of the Religious and Nonreligious”, was authored by Jordan W. Moon, Jaimie Krems, and Adam Cohen.

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