THE BLOG
12/29/2011 03:56 pm ET | Updated Feb 26, 2012

The Atheist Menace: Worse Than Rapists, a New Study Shows

At a moment when religious zealotry poses a greater threat to Western civilization than planetary warming and Wall Street combined, it's logical to ask ourselves: Why are we so scared of atheists? Why are we so phobically threatened by people who don't believe in God when faith itself is causing the terror hanging over our heads like a toxic menace?

A revealing new study at the University of British Columbia and the University of Oregon provides some startling clues. Attempting to understand why people need religion, psychologists asked 350 American adults and 420 Canadian to answer a simple question: If a fictional driver damaged a parked car and left the scene, then found a wallet and took the money, was the driver more likely to be a teacher, an atheist teacher or a rapist teacher?

Weirdly enough, participants in the study (who were from religious and nonreligious backgrounds) most often chose the atheist teacher. Indeed, atheists are among society's most distrusted groups, "comparable even to rapists in certain circumstances," in participants' minds.

"It's pretty remarkable," said Azim Shariff, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Oregon and a co-author of the study, which appears in the current issue of Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. "People find atheists very suspect." Why? " "They don't fear God so we should distrust them. They do not have the same moral obligations as others. This is a common refrain against atheists. People fear them as a group," he explained.

This makes no sense to a rational person but does tell us a great deal about why religion exists at all. In order to evolve as a moral species capable of interacting with individuals outside our immediate kin group, early man faced a life-or-death challenge: how to open our doors to strangers; how to mingle with those-not-our-own. The most immediate solution to our instinctive, us-against-them distrust, was the creation of religious systems (some 40,000 of which have existed in recorded history). Uniting individuals under the Big Tent of Faith served to bridge the us-vs.-them divide and created a new kind of family: one joined by belief in a common deity (or deities). As new-minted siblings in these extended religious families, taught to obey the rules of our fathers' houses, we learned to trust one another by fearing the wrath of the same gods, toeing the same sectarian lines, performing the same rituals, marrying by the same traditions, and watching each other's ps and qs according to a particular gospel. By aligning ourselves with this Family of God, we assumed a common identity with something larger than ourselves -- a system of moral recompense and heaven/hell rules to be obeyed. Jonathan Haidt, the moral psychologist, refers to this process of religious connection as "turning off the 'I' switch and turning on the 'We.'"

Atheists challenge this family system. We stand outside the big tent, wondering why the faithful have so little faith in the inherent goodness of human beings. Why are these godly types such disbelievers in our species' natural gifts for compassion, altruism, mercy, generosity, cooperation, elevation, harmony and love? How profound their pessimism must be to imagine that without God-fear, left to our natural devices, we are wanton, untrustworthy, savage beasts without the capacity for self-control, comparable to rapists! Yet this is how deeply we are brainwashed into imagining that without faith, we have no integrity; that without the terror of divine punishment, we cannot be trusted.

If believers took a moment to consider this argument's absurdity, they might also consider that fear fosters nothing but more fear, and that we really don't need God to be good despite centuries of churchly propaganda dedicated to pitting man against his own character. We don't need cosmic fear to be good neighbors either, any more than a well-adjusted horses need a bullwhip hanging over their heads to graze well with others. Though conflict persists between tribes and peoples, faith-competition will never bring peace (as the Inquisition proved long before today's islamofascist challenge). Only by getting faith out of the picture, and learning to our human inclination tolerance, cooperation and (godless) genius, will religious terror come to an end by returning self-faith to human ife.

Atheists aren't scary. What's scary is religiously induced self-loathing that teaches us to view ourselves as fallen, unredeemed creatures in need of God to love one another. What frightens me is the shameless trashing of human nature that religion fosters to keep itself in the salvation business. As Azim Shariff says, "If you manage to offer credible counteroffers of these stereotypes (of atheists), this can do a lot to undermine people's existing prejudice. If you realize there are all these atheists you've been interacting with all your life and they haven't raped your children, that is going to do a lot do dispel these stereotypes."

We, the faithless, can only hope.