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Believers who distrust atheists – a job for the police?

If you needed any more evidence that atheism is on the upswing, last week’s Global Atheist Convention in Melbourne was apparently a rollicking success. I was otherwise engaged, but would have loved the chance to hear some of the most provocative thinkers of our time.

But despite their much-better-than-average behaviour, atheists continue to suffer the widespread distrust of the devout. Those who believe an ever-vigilant deity keeps tabs on and judges their deeds have trouble comprehending how anyone can be “good without god” (as the Sydney Atheists‘ motto goes).

But a new paper published in Psychological Science shows that the mistrust with which believers tend to view atheists isn’t set in stone. A simple reminder about the secular authorities that actually do monitor human behaviour and punish transgressors was enough to significantly reduce subjects' distrust of atheists.

The results weren’t a mere byproduct of a drop in general prejudice against or distrust of outgroups. It seems that a simple reminder about the police successes or the existence of courts and juries can ease the most harmful misapprehension many believers hold against atheists.

The results may explain why countries with effective and and competent secular peace-keeping and justice institutions are also characterised by low religiosity and a more trusting attitude toward atheists.

It would be interesting to see how this finding might be applied. I’ve long been impressed at the dignified honesty with which our Prime Minister admits to her atheism, even joking with Barack Obama (for whom even a sniff of atheism would be political hemlock) about how much it might cost her.

But she’s got nothing to lose from talking up the achievements of Australia’s police and justice system.

The Global Atheist Convention video tribute to the late Christopher Hitchens. Watch for his thoughts on a watching, judging deity at 3:25.

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6 Comments sorted by

  1. Peter Ormonde


    It is indeed a curious thing this intertwining of religion and the state in the USA - and only relatively recent too ... a deliberate policy from Truman during the Cold War to place a broadly christian belief at the centre of American life as a counter to gawdless cawmuewnizum.

    Hence "one nation under god" was slipped into the US national anthem in 1954 - the original having been written by a Baptist minister who was also an very active and militant socialist. "In god we trust" replaced the…

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  2. Marilyn Shepherd


    The way the believers of imaginary friends are carrying on reminds me of the witch trials.

    There is no law that says we have to believe in the mumbo jumbo is there?

  3. Ian Carmichael


    Hmm. I'm interested that there is a common assumption that believers are good because they are under the gaze of some kind of celestial accountant. (The old ring of Gyges argument.) But, for my tradition at least, ethics comes from the value of others - as compassion-worthy, as intrinsically valuable, as vital parts of my community without whom the community is poorer.
    The idea of some big daddy watching me so any misstep gets clobbered couldn't be farther from from my motivations.

  4. Arthur James Egleton Robey

    Industrial Electrician

    "Certainty is the privilege of uneducated minds and fanatics.It is for scientific folks an unattainable ideal" Keyser.

    The Left Hemisphere makes models for the holistic right hemisphere's consideration. The models are self referential and use circular logic. These are evidence based observations from brain studies and pathologies.

    All the scientific models are self referential.
    I prefer the natural selection model of the creation by Smollin. But it is a Model.It is not Reality.
    Trouble starts when the Left hemisphere confuses the model with reality. It is motivated by an existential crisis.

    To experience reality one must let go of all models and be in the moment.

  5. Sean Lamb

    Science Denier

    Really, Dr Brooks, as an evolutionist you must be aware that without religion humanity carries within it the seeds of its own inevitable destruction. Joseph de Maistre knew it and although he was no biologist he seems to have had an intuitive grasp of where Darwinism would lead:
    [Using Isaiah Berlin's rather more concise summation]
    "The only thing that can ever dominate men is impenetrable mystery.... Maistre says: Once you allow such a question to be put, the answer will demand the next question…

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  6. Roxane Paczensky

    Registered Nurse

    I went. It was great to spend the weekend in a nerd fest. The young earth christians preaching via megaphone, and the muslims calling for Aayan Hirsi Ali's death, during the breaks and at the end of the day were expected and many attempted to engage them in discussion, fruitlessly sadly. I particularly enjoyed the talks given by Sam Harris, A.C. Grayling, Daniel Dennett and PZ Myers. I was shocked to learn from Leslie Cannold that religious schools have exemptions which allow them to use corporal…

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