Psych Evidence that Supports New Atheism

By Chris Mooney | April 21, 2011 8:53 pm

In general, I believe what we know about human psychology runs contrary to the New Atheist approach and strategy. However, I do my best to follow the data, and here’s a study that suggest at least one aspect of their approach may work. The tactic finding support here is not necessarily being confrontational–that would tend to prompt negative emotional reactions, and thus defensiveness and inflexibility towards New Atheist arguments–but rather, making it more widely known that you’re actually there–as “out” atheists try to do:

Although prejudice is typically positively related to relative outgroup size, four studies found converging evidence that perceived atheist prevalence reduces anti-atheist prejudice. Study 1 demonstrated that anti-atheist prejudice among religious believers is reduced in countries in which atheists are especially prevalent. Study 2 demonstrated that perceived atheist prevalence is negatively associated with anti-atheist prejudice. Study 3 demonstrated a causal relationship: Reminders of atheist prevalence reduced explicit distrust of atheists. These results appeared distinct from intergroup contact effects. Study 4 demonstrated that prevalence information decreased implicit atheist distrust. The latter two experiments provide the first evidence that mere prevalence information can reduce prejudice against any outgroup. These findings offer insights about anti-atheist prejudice, a poorly understood phenomenon. Furthermore, they suggest both novel directions for future prejudice research and potential interventions that could reduce a variety of prejudices.

Full study here.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science and Religion

Comments (25)

  1. Excellent. In general, we know from lots of psychological research that increased exposure to outgroups over time tends to reduce lots of negative things typically associated with how we relate to outgroups. I’m not surprised that this extends to the domain of religion as well.

  2. Chris you’re definitely correct that the in your face locker room mentality of the four horsemen and others won’t do anything to quickly turn the masses into critical thinkers that examine the evidence. However, I think it is necessary for those with the capacity to think critically to be challenged. We can hold those with knowledge and skills responsible for their actions. This seems like a great side effect in the general public.

    Thank you for sharing this with your readers in such a non-confrontational way. I hope they read it.

  3. Mark

    I’ve been arguing this for years. Being out, and non-confrontational has worked for the gay community; it will work for atheists too.

  4. M Burke

    “anti-atheist prejudice among religious believers is reduced in countries in which atheists are especially prevalent.”

    Could it be that anti-atheist sentiment (why label it prejudice?) is reduced in countries where atheists are prevalent because, over time, atheists proselytize and inject their views into social situations, schools etc? (If you bristle at the thought of using the term proselytizing, just consider the number of pro-atheistic books, videos, comedy shows and the like taking prominence in recent years.) Every year at this time the major networks and cable television networks trot out some new crazy theory about Christianity. Another year, another Jacobovici claim to discredit.

    This onslaught of bad arguments and zingers seems to feed a general population fed up both with new age subjectivism and evangelical self-help messages. One need only peruse a few internet debate forums to see the arguments of Dawkins et al repeated en masse.

    That said, I believe that theists in general have a difficult time dealing with atheistic claims because of the general lack of education and the prevalence if fideism and anti-intellectualism within theistic circles. To suggest that only atheists are ‘critical thinkers’ shows this fundamentalist attitude that exists in atheistic as much as in theistic circles.

    American Christianity, for example, has fallen a long way since it founded Princeton, Harvard and other renown places of scholarship that taught critical thinking and prepared pastors to do the same. Now, however, the majority of American Christians belong either to liberal or anti-intellectual evangelical denominations which focus on personal growth rather than critical thinking and apologetics.

    When New-Atheism is challenged by serious Christian scholars and apologists it’s often shown to be foundationally weak and often borrowing from a theistic meta-physic. Good examples of this are the Bahnsen vs Stein, James White vs Barker or Silverman, and the Hitchens vs Wilson debates. Hearing Stein’s angry poem to the god he didn’t believe in, or Silverman discrediting his own written work just to prevent losing a debate, one has to ask on which side the “critical thinkers” really are.

  5. is that even ‘new atheist’? i’m pretty open about my views and i don’t consider myself a new atheist. seems like common sense. a lot of people don’t know any atheists, so they think of atheism as an abstraction. we’re just humans. no horns even :-)

  6. I absolutely agree that being “out” as an atheist is an imperative. I take issue with the premise that there is a “new” atheist. This is a false construct made up to label those atheists that merely finally spoke up. This label wasn’t used for any other group that “came out” I reject it.

    “Could it be that anti-atheist sentiment (why label it prejudice?) is reduced in countries where atheists are prevalent because, over time, atheists proselytize and inject their views into social situations, schools etc”

    And why not label it “prejudice” It certainly is! Simply speaking our views and having counter-points is now considered proselytizing and injecting our views. This is how the “new” atheist label came to be!

  7. Jim

    Speaking as a Christian, I have to agree that atheists being out and open about their stance is a good thing. I contend that anyone who leads a life that is whole and complete – that is, one who considers their actions and the effects they will have on others, and who does well and encourages the same in others – is as “saved” as I am and it has been refreshing to see that the vast majority of atheists are as whole and complete as any theist.

  8. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    That is all good and well, but it doesn’t test your hypothesis:

    The tactic finding support here is not necessarily being confrontational– that would tend to prompt negative emotional reactions, and thus defensiveness and inflexibility towards New Atheist arguments –but

    (Which btw is confrontational, ie promoting STFU without supporting it from findings, which makes some comments to the contrary seem odd.)

    On the contrary it is noted in a study that “Information about atheist prevalence did not significantly increase the degree to which participants felt generally positively toward atheists.” (p7) The findings shows that the area of the hypothesis (increase or decrease of positive feelings) is completely orthogonal to the question of how to reduce prejudice by facts.

    “This latter case is particularly intriguing, as there may be strong parallels between attitudes toward atheists and attitudes toward homosexuals. Like anti-atheist prejudice, sexual prejudice is consistently associated with religion (e.g., Herek, 1987; Rowatt et al., 2006). Like atheism, homosexuality is concealable, and people may similarly be uncertain of how numerous atheists and homosexuals actually are.

    This similarity is strongly emphasized by Dawkins (2006), who argues that anti-atheist prejudice might be overcome if atheists can find a way to “come out” and raise public awareness of atheism like the Gay Pride movement mobilized widespread support for the acceptance of homosexuality. These movements make plain how numerous atheists and homosexuals actually are. Nonetheless, it is possible that these superficial similarities obscure more fundamental differences. … ”

    Gay Pride is fairly confrontational, prompts negative emotional reactions, and yet worked to mobilize widespread support for the acceptance of homosexuality. That is examples we know of, the suffragettes before them, which is why these are patterned from. It works, simple as that.

  9. Jon

    I’ve been arguing this for years. Being out, and non-confrontational has worked for the gay community; it will work for atheists too.

    You have to be careful about drawing sloppy analogies. There are some ways in which the two are analogous, in some ways they’re not. For one, the NAs are proselytizing. In contrast, “we’re queer and we’re here” is just announcing that you are who you are and you’re part of the community, like it or not. Unlike with the NA’s, this kind of statement is not denigrating anyone else.

    Also, I would argue that the NA’s position is based a lot on selective knowledge. Empiricism is just one philosophical position. Some would argue that scientific empiricism isn’t the only way to knowledge and (that old fashioned word) wisdom. These opposing arguments can’t be dismissed with a sneer, the way New Atheists usually handle them. It’s as if you don’t agree with Hume, Russell and Dennett, for the most part, you are treated with contempt. If you’re not fortunate enough to have enough education to respond to the arguments of Hume, Russell, and Dennett, you are treated with contempt (which introduces issues of class and privilege).

    So, are the NA’s like the gay rights movement? Maybe not so much.

  10. Jon

    Apologies, you said out and “non-confrontational.” I didn’t see the “non” part. (Sorry, maybe too early for me.)

  11. Ken Nardone

    I’m gay and an atheist. I think that coming out on both identites is important on many levels. First and foremost, when you hide or closet who you are, you fall into an apethetic view of yourself as well as the rest of society. Being proud of your life, your thoughts, your actions is important for your own well being. Finding self … I think go hand in hand with free thinking.

    On another note, I find that religious supersitcions and myths are dangerous in a global society. Religion and god(s) served their purpose when humans were evolving and incapable of understanding complicated stuff. There’s just no reason, evidence or justification to support religion today.

  12. Don

    Where’s Nisbett? He could cough up his defense of “Left Behind” and his 2008 attack on PZ?

  13. mcb

    Seems to me the gay civil rights movement has used confrontational and non-confrontational techniques, protest and legislation, legal precedent and social suasion, gradual accretion of political power and the simple act of being good neighbors to the straight community. The atheist, agnostic, freethinker movement is doing all those things too. The four horsemen are a lot like the leather buddies float in a gay pride parade in San Francisco – very much in everybody’s face and proud of it. Good for them, but not everybody rolls that way. There are other “nones” pursuing the full range of methods, each according to his or her personal philosophy, comfort level, and skills. The four horsemen, along with all of us, will dead and buried before the work is done, but in another generation or two a “nontheist” will be as electable to high public office as our LGBT neighbors. A true meritocracy might take two or three generations…

  14. Jon

    The four horsemen are a lot like the leather buddies float in a gay pride parade in San Francisco…

    Or bloodshot stoners with their fists in the air at a NORML rally. You can form an identity group around a lot of things, not all of them positive.

  15. Blamer ..

    Yes, to Hindus we are proselytising our more reliable view of reality so you regard all your gods as metaphor instead of fact… even that nice one you added rather recently, what was his name again? Oh yes, Jesus.

  16. Jon

    Two good recent pieces on/by New Atheists published recently:

    A review of attempts by New Atheists to substitute culture with science:

    http://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/2011/03/blackburn-ethics-without-god-secularism-religion-sam-harris/

    Hitchens on the King James Bible:

    http://www.vanityfair.com/culture/features/2011/05/hitchens-201105

  17. vel

    reminds me of how my parents find anyone of color “bad” except for those they are aware of. This is the reason I like the FFRF’s “out” campaign: http://ffrf.org/news/releases/raleigh-nontheists-come-out-of-the-closet-in-myth-dispelling-ffrf-bill/ I’m also for being confrontational since no one will change their mind if they don’t know they can be (and are, if evidence for and against be accepted) wrong. There’s a reason echo chambers are bad.

  18. From comment #3- “I’ve been arguing this for years. Being out, and non-confrontational has worked for the gay community; it will work for atheists too.”

    The idea that the gay rights movement was non-confrontational is false. The catalyst for the movement was the Stonewall Riots, and, as the name suggests, were anything but non-confrontational. We may not be rioting now, but the gay community didn’t get to where it’s at by simply “agreeing to disagree” with those that view us as deviants.

    The same can be said for the new atheist movement. Dawkins, Hitchens, and others may be blunt at times, but so are the Christian right that like to tell us were going to hell. They’re sure not holding back in regards to pushing their creationist agendas’ through the public school system and restricting marriage on the federal and state level. Why should we continue to play with the kids gloves on, when they’re clearly playing for keeps?

  19. TTT

    Jon: [The "four horsemen" are a lot like] bloodshot stoners with their fists in the air at a NORML rally. You can form an identity group around a lot of things, not all of them positive.

    Whereas sentencing nonviolent college kids to be raped in prison because they “committed” a harmless, victimless, trivial “crime” which everybody condemning them has already done themselves….. is positive?

  20. bad Jim

    Chris, thanks for posting this. It was such an act of honesty and generosity that it would be utterly unremarkable if we were half as good as we think we are, but in fact stands out and has been widely noted.

    It’s encouraging to note that atheists become less threatening the more common they are, unlike racial minorities. Perhaps we’re simply becoming more tolerant of diversity and more open to considering belief a matter of choice. Perhaps the lapses of clergy, without respect to denomination, have dulled the luster of professions of sanctity enough to allow the suspicion that the conspicuously pious aren’t dependably good.

    Once we godless are understood to be approximately like everyone else in their quotidian concerns [only eating babies in kitten sauce on Tuesday afternoon] then what? It will be easier to teach biology – evolution, ecology and sex included; people won’t turn up their noses at relativity and uncertainty, and it will be generally appreciated that hummus can be as tasty as guacamole.

  21. Jon

    TTT: For the record, I don’t support the war on drugs. I think a lot of it is political grandstanding with the result of a heavy handed policy that often ruins lives that would have been fine otherwise.

    I just agree with Josh Rosineau’s recent comment: “It’s a myth that there’s no such thing as bad publicity: if no one knows who you are, it’s all the more crucial to present yourself well.”

    If NORML thinks that the best face of its movement is a bunch of youngish stoned people with their fists in the air storming the public square–what are they, high? Why yes they are. And those college kids forming an identity group around pot should get a life too.

    And I don’t think that Dawkins and Dennett are analogous to pot activists or “leather buddies”–I’m just saying identity groups aren’t necessarily all goodness, or all effective, even when I agree with some of their goals.

  22. TTT

    I just agree with Josh Rosineau’s recent comment: “It’s a myth that there’s no such thing as bad publicity: if no one knows who you are, it’s all the more crucial to present yourself well.”

    Rosineau hardly presented himself well when, confronting data that challenged one of his core assumptions and one of the foundational elements of his internet persona, he invoked centuries-old cliches to try to make it look like he was really right after all.

    The whole point is that there is no real evidence that New Atheists have ever harmed anything above and beyond the constant “asking-for-it-from-the-faithful” background level of provocation that exists just by virtue of any atheist of any stripe ever existing. It would be nice if people would re-evaluate some of their old prejudices based on this data.

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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by Salon.com and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.

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