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Natural history of the present

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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