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When Others' Disbelief Engenders Prejudice: Characterizing Anti-Atheist Bias in America

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Principal Investigator(s):

Lawton K. Swan
University of Florida

Martin Heesacker
University of Florida
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Sample size: 600
Field period: 11/11/2010-12/30/2010



Decades of opinion polling and empirical investigations have clearly demonstrated a pervasive anti-atheist prejudice in the United States. However, much of this scholarship relies on two critical and largely unaddressed assumptions: (a) that when people report negative attitudes toward atheists, they do so because they are reacting specifically to their lack of belief in God; and (b) that survey questions asking about attitudes toward atheists as a group yield reliable information about biases against individual atheist targets. To test these assumptions, an online survey asked a probability-based random sample of American adults (N = 618) to evaluate a fellow research participant ("Jordan"). Jordan garnered significantly more negative evaluations when identified as an atheist than when described as religious or when religiosity was not mentioned. This effect did not differ as a function of labeling ("atheist" versus "no belief in God"), or the amount of individuating information provided about Jordan. These data suggest that both assumptions are tenable: nonbelief—rather than extraneous connotations of the word "atheist"—seems to underlie the effect, and participants exhibited a marked bias even when confronted with an otherwise attractive individual.


(1): To test the assumption that nonbelief constitutes the source of anti-atheist prejudice, we asked our participants to provide attitudinal evaluations of a target either identified as an atheist or simply described as lacking belief in god. Our labeling hypothesis (Hypothesis 1) derived from the writings of several popular atheist writers predicted that an atheist target would garner significantly more negative evaluations than a nonbelieving counterpart without the label.

(2): To test the assumption that survey items ostensibly tapping group-level attitudes can yield reliable information about attitudes toward individuals, we asked our participants to evaluate an atheist target in one of two different conditions—a minimal information condition (containing only the target's name and information about religious beliefs) and an individuated condition containing an additional brief personal description. Grounded by research and theory on the dilution effect (e.g., Hilton & Fein, 1989), we predicted that individuation would increase the positivity of participants' evaluations of the atheist target (Hypothesis 2).

Experimental Manipulations:

Immediately following informed consent, a short introductory paragraph explained to participants that the objective of our research was to determine precisely how much information is necessary for people to form accurate impressions about others. This text also introduced a fictional character (Jordan) that purportedly participated in a previous stage of the research project. Participants were then instructed to answer some questions about what is likely true about Jordan based only on a few small bits of previously collected information, so that their guesses could later be compared to Jordan's "actual" profile. Jordan was described as (1) an atheist or (2) as without belief in God. To provide reference groups against which the atheist and nonbeliever targets could be compared, we also included conditions describing Jordan as (3) religious and (4) unmarried ("single"). Four additional experimental conditions repeated the same information (target name and a single piece of information), but added a short paragraph of individuating information about Jordan to each (a positively-valenced description of Jordan's vocation and hobbies).

The design was completely between-participants: each was randomly exposed to only one of eight conditions.

Key Dependent Variables:

Participants evaluated Jordan along six dimensions: bad—good, foolish—wise, cold—warm, immoral—moral, unpleasant—pleasant, and untrustworthy—trustworthy. Each word pair on this semantic differential scale represents a trait spectrum with both positive and negative poles to measure the connotative meaning of and attitude toward an object. Each item was scored on a seven-point Likert-type scale. Scores from each pair were then added together to form a total positive/negative evaluation score (Cronbach's α = .89 in this sample).

Summary of Findings:

Consistent with previous investigations, this study documented a strong anti-atheist prejudice: labeling Jordan as an atheist had a clear deleterious effect on participants' social perceptions. However, these perceptions did not differ as a function of labeling —alerting participants to Jordan's lack of belief in God had functionally the same effect as calling Jordan an atheist outright.

We also discovered that the dilution effect did indeed apply to social perceptions of atheists, a finding not previously reported in the scholarly literature. The medium to large sized differences between experimental conditions with and without additional individuating information imply that Jordan's unrelated personal qualities (college major, hobbies) mattered: in each case, Jordan's average rating increased substantially. However, the inclusion of this information did not attenuate the evaluative gap between atheists and the religious or control targets—preliminary evidence that people may practice what they preach.


Swan, L. K. & Heesacker, M. (2012). Anti-atheist bias in the United States: Testing two critical assumptions. Secularism and Nonreligion, 1, 32-42.

Swan, L. K. & Heesacker, M. (2011, May). When others' disbelief engenders prejudice: Characterizing Anti-Atheist Bias in America. Poster presented at the 23rd annual convention of the Association for Psychological Science, Washington, D.C. Link to Paper

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