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Want People to Trust Atheists More? Remind Them of Cops and Courts, Says New Study

Is there a way to get religious believers to trust atheists? We already know we’re the least trusted minority group out there — can we change that?

Researchers Will M. Gervais and Ara Norenzayan of the University of British Columbia, Vancouver are back and they believe there is a way.

In the May, 2012 edition of the journal Psychological Science, they lay out one solution:

Remind people of secular authority. In other words, remind them that we place authority in cops and courts (and, implicitly, not god).

For believers, thinking of God, like thinking of social surveillance by peers, increases both public self-awareness… and socially desirable responding… By making people feel that their behavior is being monitored, belief in watchful gods may increase cooperative behavior… As a result, religious people may interpret other people’s belief in watchful gods as a cue that they can be trusted.

Secular and sacred authority may also serve interchangeable functions in encouraging prosocial behavior, albeit with different implications for distrust of atheists. The view that atheists are untrustworthy because they do not believe that their behavior is monitored by a divine power may erode to the extent that people are aware of effective monitoring by other “higher” (but not supernatural) powers. If so, then reminders of secular authorities that enforce prosocial behavior should reduce believers’ distrust of atheists. Furthermore, this effect should be specific to distrust of atheists, rather than extending to prejudice in general.

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