Skepticism about the existence of God is on the rise, and this might, quite literally, pose an existential threat for religious believers.
It’s no secret that believers generally harbor extraordinarily negative attitudes toward atheists. Indeed, recent polling data show that most Americans view atheists as “threatening,” unfit to hold public office and unsuitable to marry into their families.
But what are the psychological roots of antipathy toward atheists?
Historically, evolutionary psychologists argue that atheists have been denigrated because God serves as the ultimate source of social power and influence: God rewards appropriate behaviors and punishes inappropriate ones.
The thinking has been, therefore, that believers deem atheists fundamentally untrustworthy because they do not accept, affirm and adhere to divinely ordained moral imperatives (ie, “God’s word”). Research has backed up this deep distrust believers feel toward atheists. For example, in this study, Canadian undergraduates, who are typically less religious than their US counterparts, rated atheists as untrustworthy as rapists!
Still, it hasn’t been clear why the leeriness of atheists is so profound. We decided to find out, and through two separate studies, discovered that believers’ overwhelming scorn of atheists may come from a surprising source: a fear of death.
According to the terror management theory (TMT), human beings are unique in that we are self-aware and can anticipate the future. For the most part, these are highly beneficial cognitive adaptations. They allow us to formulate plans and foresee the consequences of our actions. But they also make us realize that death is inevitable and unpredictable.
Such unwelcome thoughts give rise to a potentially paralyzing terror: the fear of death. This fear, then, is “managed” by embracing cultural worldviews—beliefs about reality that we share with others—that provide us with a sense of comfort. It could mean becoming involved in religions that espouse spiritual immortality, or by strongly valuing one’s national identity.
The process works the other way around, too: When confronted with threats to our cherished worldview beliefs, our protective “terror management” shield drops and our apprehension about death resurfaces. We then cling to those beliefs more tightly, and respond more negatively to those who threaten us. For example, research shows that in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks, Islamic symbols increased thoughts of death in non-Muslim Americans. Likewise, concern for death increased hostility toward Islam.
So how do existential concerns about death relate to atheism? Past research has shown that hostility toward atheists is partly driven by the fact that many perceive atheists as a threat to morals and values. So we reasoned that if atheists threaten values, then they also likely threaten worldview beliefs. We then hypothesized that atheists, simply by existing, would likely elicit intimations of mortality—which, in turn, would promote increased negativity toward atheists.
We tested this idea in two different experiments. In the first, we recruited 236 students from the College of Staten Island CUNY. We excluded the few participants who reported as atheist or agnostic, and we asked half of the remaining participants to answer two questions: “What do you think will happen to you as you physically die?” and “What are the emotions that the thought of death causes for you?” The other half responded to similar questions about being in extreme pain.
After thinking about either death or pain, half of the 236 participants were asked to provide their attitudes toward atheists, while the other half responded with their attitudes toward Quakers—a nonthreatening religious group. Participants reported their overall warmth, their levels of trust, and behavioral avoidance by indicating how they felt about these people “marrying into their family” or “working in their office.”
As expected, participants were more negative toward atheists overall than toward Quakers. More importantly, however, we found that thinking about death increased negativity toward atheists—but not toward Quakers. Those who had pondered their own death showed less warmth, greater behavioral prejudice (also known as social distancing) and greater distrust toward atheists, while thoughts of death did not affect reactions toward Quakers, a fellow theistic group.
In the second experiment, we directly measured whether simply thinking about atheism would increase unconscious thoughts of death. We asked 174 Staten Island students (excluding atheists and agnostics) to describe their emotions toward one of three topics: pain, death, or atheism. We then presented them with a word completion task designed to capture thoughts of death. For example, the word “SK – – L” could be completed as either “skill” or “skull” and “COFF – -” could be “coffee” or “coffin.”
Not surprisingly, those who pondered their own mortality indicated greater thoughts of death than those who thought about being in pain. However, thinking about atheism also increased thoughts of death—to the same extent as thinking about death itself.
These findings suggest that there is something deeper to the overwhelming negativity people hold toward atheists. Yes, on the conscious level, they’re deemed untrustworthy because in the eyes of believers, they have no God or values.
But at an unconscious level, it seems that atheists threatens our beliefs about the nature of existence itself. They serve as a constant reminder of death by denying the presence of a supernatural power who regulates human affairs and monitors the gateway to immortality.
Of course, atheists are no less moral or trustworthy than their theistic counterparts. In light of these findings, we hope that perhaps believers might temper their contempt for atheists.