Study: Atheists Are Fairer Than Christians…Sometimes

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Who is more generous: atheists, or Christians? As I’ve discussed in the past, our society’s stereotype is that atheists lack morality, and so we expect Christians will be more charitable. I’ve also discussed how this stereotype is probably wrong.

A new study brings up an interesting, related idea, though: how does “stereotype threat” affect atheists?

I’ve also discussed stereotype threat in the past, but I’ve only really talked about it as it relates to women and people of color. To recap, stereotype threat is the psychological phenomenon that occurs when a person identifies as a member of a group with prominent stereotypes about it. That person is more likely to devote time and energy to worrying about negating (or in some cases living up to) that stereotype, meaning that they’re less likely to perform well on tasks that remind them of that stereotype. The classic example is that female mathematicians perform worse on math tests after being reminded of the stereotype that women are bad at math, and even more shockingly, they do worse on math tests even when they’re only reminded they’re women (by filling out a form saying whether they’re male or female before taking the test).

I know there are many atheists (particularly of the white, straight, male variety) who balk at the idea of stereotype threat despite the fact that it’s been fairly well-proven by countless peer-reviewed research by now, so I’m interested to know how they feel about this new study.

In the study “Generous heathens? Reputational concerns and atheists’ behavior toward Christians in economic games,” published last July in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, researchers report playing the “dictator game” with both atheists and Christians. In this classic psychological game, subjects are given a small amount of money and told that if they want, they can share any portion of the prize with a second subject, who has no say in the matter.

Before running the games, the scientists asked a group of people to guess the results. Overwhelmingly, people thought that atheists would give less money to Christians.

In the first run of the actual game, the religion (or lack thereof) of both the “dictator” and their partner was revealed to each. In a second run, the religion of the “dictator” was concealed.

When atheists knew that their partner knew they were an atheist, they were more likely to be equally fair to both atheists and Christians. Christians, however, were more giving to fellow Christians.

Does that mean atheists are more generous than Christians? Nope! When the “dictator” believed their religious preference would remain concealed from their partner, atheists and Christians both gave more to partners from their respective groups. In other words, atheists acted just like the Christians did in the first study.

This suggests that when atheists know they are seen as “ATHEISTS,” they are more likely to work to combat the negative stereotype they know they’re saddled with. That’s an example of stereotype threat as experienced by atheists. In this case, the result may be considered “good” in that the atheists were made more fair, but it reveals a deeper problem. By struggling to appear more ethical when under the spotlight, atheists may end up experiencing negative psychological health, or they may be dissuaded from pursuing careers that require the general public to think of them as ethical or upstanding. I mean, how many American politicians are open about being atheists? Even Mark Zuckerberg recently posted that he’s no longer an atheist and in fact is super into God now, since he’s really obviously interested in a presidential run and just about no one is ready for an atheist president. If you’re an atheist in prison looking to be let out early on good behavior, you might consider a similar miraculous conversion.

While this is interesting research, it is just the tip of the iceberg. I’m looking forward to more studies that examine how stereotype threat may be affecting the way atheists live. If we address it now, we may be able to run an actual atheist to beat Mark Zuckerberg in 2020.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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