America’s Bias Against Atheists Persists, Two New Reports Show

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Americans continue to be extremely distrustful of atheists, two recent reports suggest. The first, released today by Pew Research, examined which traits would help or hinder a hypothetical presidential candidate. As it turns out, not believing in God was the single most negative trait a politician could have; the report found that about 53 percent of those surveyed said they’d be less likely to vote for an atheist.

Americans are apparently so sketched out by atheists that people would sooner vote for a politician who’d used marijuana, been caught out in an extramarital affair, or never actually held an office before. Let’s look the numbers:

  • 22 percent were less likely to vote for a candidate if he or she had used marijuana
  • 35 percent were less likely to vote for a candidate if he or she had had an affair
  • 52 percent were less likely to vote for a candidate if he or she had never held office before

That might be because Americans remain “intuitively” distrustful of atheists, according to a recent paper published in the journal PLOS ONE, which found that people tend to link vile, immoral behaviors to a disbelief in God. Surprisingly, even atheists themselves answered this way, the study suggests.

Here’s how one of those experiments went down: Researchers gathered data from 237 American adults and presented them with a made-up little story about a dude named Dax. As a child, Dax would torture animals; as an adult, Dax moved on to killing homeless people, whose bodies he subsequently buried in his basement. After reading that chilling scenario, the participants were asked a question: Is Dax more likely to be (a) a teacher or (b) a teacher who X — that “X” was either “does not believe in God,” “is a Buddhist,” “is a Christian,” is a Hindu,” “is Jewish,” or “is a Muslim.”

This is a classic way of testing for bias, and the researchers found that nearly half of the people given the atheist option answered that Dax was a teacher who didn’t believe in God, instead of just a teacher. (In comparison, only 20 percent of those given the Christian option chose Christian, and just 10 percent of those given the Muslim option chose Muslim — that Christians took the bigger percentage there is somewhat notable in itself.) To Americans, belief in something — be it Judaism, Christianity, Islam, or perhaps even the Seven — is still less suspicious than belief in nothing at all.