The Serial Killer Test: Biases Against Atheists Emerge in Study

Most people around the world, whether religious or not, presume that serial killers are more likely to be atheists than believers in any god, suggests a new study, which counters the common assumption that increasingly secular societies are equally tolerant of nonbelievers. Avowed atheists exhibited the same bias in judging sadistic criminals, the study found.

Previous studies had found evidence of broad-based public suspicion of nonbelievers in smaller samples within religious countries, like the United States. The new survey suggests the findings may extend globally, and it finds that the same kinds of suspicion pervade even highly secular societies.

“What’s exciting about the paper for me is that it’s a great first step,” said Richard Sosis, a professor of anthropology at the University of Connecticut. “They’ve got a method that can be used to see how this bias plays out not just in judging a sociopath, but for many more mundane moral violations.”

The study was as simple as it was ambitious. Led by Will M. Gervais, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Kentucky, an international team of researchers recruited samples of about 100 or more adults in 13 countries, spanning North America, Europe, Asia, the Middle East and the antipodes. The participants filled out a short questionnaire, providing their age, ethnicity and religious affiliation or lack thereof, with choices like “atheist,” “agnostic” or “none.”

One item on the questionnaire began with a description of a sociopath: a man who, having tortured animals when young, later began hurting people and “has killed five homeless people that he abducted from poor neighborhoods in his home city. Their dismembered bodies are currently buried in his basement.” A question followed. Half the participants in each country got one version of the question: “Which is more probable? 1) The man is a teacher; or 2) The man is a teacher and does not believe in any gods.”

The other half got another version: “Which is more probable? 1) The man is a teacher; or 2) The man is a teacher and a religious believer.” The questionnaire also included several brainteasers and other questions to distract from the purpose of the study.

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“We used this psychopathic serial killer because we thought that, even if people didn’t trust atheists enough to let them babysit their children, they wouldn’t necessarily assume them to be serial killers,” Dr. Gervais said.

But they did — overwhelmingly. About 60 percent of the people who had the option to flag the teacher as an atheist did so; just 30 percent of those who had the option to flag the teacher as a religious believer did so. Self-identified nonbelievers were less biased than the average, but not by much, the study found.

The relationship between religious belief and moral behavior is, in fact, not well understood. Some studies find that devout believers live more morally upright lives, compared with nonbelievers; others find no differences at all. The research is plagued by differing definitions of what moral behavior is and what constitutes true religious devotion (e.g., self-identification, or daily ritual?). Even the definition of nonbelief is a moving target: A person may identify as atheist, agnostic, “lapsed” or merely indifferent depending on his or her mood and understanding of those terms.


August 08, 2017

Sources:` New York Times

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