Distrust of atheists is ‘deeply and culturally ingrained’ even among atheists

Source: Distrust of atheists is ‘deeply and culturally ingrained’ even among atheists

This article appeared in the British Psychological Society (BPS) Digest Blog.  It is a good summary of recent research into prejudice against atheists.


Just as people throughout history have been subject to prejudice and persecution because of their religious beliefs, recent evidence suggests that atheists today are discriminated against because of their lack of faith. For instance, in a 2012 study, nearly one in two atheists and agnostics reported having experienced discrimination at work, in the family and elsewhere. Another US study that asked respondents to imagine their children marrying people from different social groups found that participants were most disapproving of the idea of their child marrying an atheist.

Building on these kinds of past results, most of which stem from the US, a new British study published in The International Journal for The Psychology of Religion, has found that many people’s distrust of atheists seems to be deeply held, and what’s more, even many atheists seem to have an instinctual distrust of other atheists. For background, Britain is a country where 13 per cent of people today consider themselves convinced atheists.

Leah Giddings and Thomas Dunn recruited 100 participants from Nottingham Trent University: their average age was 21 and 70 were women. Forty-three per cent were atheist, 33 per cent were Christian and the remainder subscribed to other faiths. The researchers presented the participants with a vignette about a man who one day backed his car into a van and failed to leave his insurance details, and later on, when he found a wallet, he removed the money from it for himself. In short, this chap wasn’t very trustworthy or moral. Next, half the participants were asked to say whether it was more probable that the man was (a) a teacher or (b) a teacher and religious (let’s call this the teacher+religious condition). The other half of the participants had to say whether they thought it was more likely that the man was (a) a teacher or (b) a teacher and an atheist (the teacher+atheist condition).

Logically speaking, in both conditions the correct answer is always (a) because (b) is a subset of (a) and therefore less likely by definition. However, it’s well known in psychology that many people struggle to answer these kinds of questions logically because they’re swayed by the connotations of the secondary category that’s mentioned in (b) – an error that’s known as the conjunction fallacy.

What was particularly revealing in this study is that participants in the teacher+atheist condition were much more prone to committing the conjunction fallacy (66 per cent of them did so), than the participants in the teacher+religious condition (just 8 per cent of participants in this condition fell for the conjunction error). These results suggest that at a superficial level, the description of the distrustful man sounded to many of the participants like a typical atheist, and hence many of them said they thought it more likely that he was both a teacher and an atheist than a teacher.

To test the strength of this apparent prejudice towards atheists, the researchers asked the participants the same question again, and they also presented them with information about the proportions of the population who are religious or atheist. To participants in the teacher+atheist condition, this barely made any difference to their answers, suggesting their instinctual prejudice towards atheists was robust. Even though they were given a chance to think more rationally, they still fell for the fallacy. By contrast, the participants in the teacher+religious condition committed the conjunction fallacy even less often when they were asked the question for a second time.

The prejudice shown towards atheists in this study was more pronounced among those who professed a stronger belief in God, but it was also present, albeit to a lesser extent, among the non-religious. Another thing – the non-religious participants, like the religious, showed more instinctual distrust toward atheists than towards religious people (that is, they committed the conjunction fallacy more often in the teacher+atheist condition than the teacher+religious condition).

The researchers said their findings “suggest anti-atheist distrust is deeply and culturally ingrained regardless of an individual’s group membership”. This raises the question – why are people, at least in the UK and the US, so distrustful of atheists? The researchers speculated that it may be because most people assume that religious folk believe they’re being monitored by a higher being, and that this will therefore encourage these people to behave morally, whereas this supervision is absent for atheists. Also, perhaps people’s distrust of atheists stems from the fact that, unlike religious people, atheists lack a coherent set of known moral rules (of course they have their own individual moral code, but as a group they don’t have a code that they all follow).

“Looking to the future,” the researcher said, “it is also important to explore how these perceptions and attitudes toward atheists manifest behaviourally, whether people act on these prejudices and in what contexts. It is only once the nature and extent of the issue is better understood that we can take measures to address it.”

_________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

Giddings, L., & Dunn, T. (2016). The Robustness of Anti-Atheist Prejudice as Measured by Way of Cognitive Errors The International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, 26 (2), 124-135 DOI: 10.1080/10508619.2015.1006487

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

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Why Do We Believe?

Looking forward to taking part in this event on Monday.  Hope to see you there!

London Thinks – Why Do We Believe?

Monday 25th January @ 7:30 pm9:00 pm


Why do we believe?


Whether it’s Jesus-in-a-tortilla or Xenu, being frightened of walking under a ladder or God, we humans believe in some unusual things. London Thinks has gathered experts in psychology, religion and cults to explore the idea of belief. Why do we believe the things we do? Are we genetically programmed to believe in the supernatural, or is belief socially imposed upon us from a young age? Were Abrahamic religious texts always considered to be the word of God or is religious literalism a modern invention? Is belief in the supernatural really dangerous to our society or are those skeptic types worried about nothing? Can belief in the supernatural be a good thing? Is anyone susceptible to being brainwashed or bamboozled by cult leaders or charlatans?

Samira Ahmed - chair
Samira Ahmed
Francesca Stavrakopoulou
Prof Francesca Stavrakopoulou
Richard Wiseman
Prof Richard Wiseman
Alice Herron
Alice Herron
Bruce Hood
Prof Bruce Hood
Deborah Hyde
Deborah Hyde

Samira Ahmed chairs as our panelists discuss these ideas and more in our first London Thinks of 2016.

Francesca Stavrakopoulou is Professor of Hebrew Bible and Ancient Religion in the University of Exeter’s Department of Theology and Religion. The main focus of her research is religion and ideology in the cultures giving rise to the biblical texts. She is also noted for her media roles: presenting a three-part television series on the BBC, Bible’s Buried Secrets, and for contributions to numerous television and radio documentaries about religion. She also appears regularly on BBC 1’s flagship religion and ethics debate programmes The Big Questions and Sunday Morning Live. She describes herself as “an atheist with huge respect for religion” and regards her work as “a branch of history like any other”.

Prof Richard Wiseman is based at the University of Hertfordshire, where he holds Britain’s only Chair in the Public Understanding of Psychology. He has gained an international reputation for research into unusual areas of psychology, including luck, deception, and the science of self-help. His three books, The Luck Factor, Quirkology and 59 Seconds, have all topped the best-seller lists and have been translated into over 30 languages. He has presented keynote addresses at The Royal Society, Microsoft, Caltech, and Google. Over two million people have taken part in his mass participation experiments, and his YouTube channel has received over 11 million views. He is one of the most frequently quoted psychologists in the British media, and was recently listed as one of the top 100 people who make Britain a better place to live in The Independent on Sunday.

Alice Herron is a PhD candidate at the University of Surrey. She was brought up in Glasgow in an Irish Catholic family, educated in a convent school, married a Muslim, got divorced and then spent 27 years as the devotee of the Indian Guru Sri Chinmoy. After leaving that group, partly to make sense of that experience, she studied for a Master’s Degree in Psychology of Religion at Heythrop College, University of London. Her Master’s dissertation was titled Psychological Factors in the Emergence of New Religious Movements. She is currently researching atheists who claim to have had some sort of mystical-type experience.

Bruce Hood is Professor of Developmental Psychology at the University of Bristol. He is an elected Fellow of the Association for Psychological Science, the Royal Institution of Great Britain, the Royal Society of Biology and the British Psychological Society. He is currently the President of the British Association for Science psychology section. In 2011, Bruce gave the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures “Meet Your Brain” and he has written three popular science books; SuperSense: Why We Believe In The Unbelievable (HarperOne, 2009), The Self Illusion: Why There is No ‘You’ Inside Your Head (Constable and Robinson, 2012) and The Domesticated Brain (Pelican, 2014). He is the founder of Speakezee.org – the world’s largest expert speaker website.

Deborah Hyde is the editor in chief of The Skeptic Magazine, the UK’s only regular magazine to take a critical-thinking and evidence-based approach to pseudo-science and the paranormal. Deborah says: “I have always been fascinated by the supernatural, especially the macabre supernatural. I have been writing and speaking on the subject for around twenty years, and probably know way too many facts about werewolf folklore. I have very patient friends.”

Tickets: £10 standard, £5 for members of Conway Hall Ethical Society, students (with a valid ID card) and unemployed/unwaged



Conway Hall
25 Red Lion Square, London, WC1R 4RL United Kingdom

+ Google Map

020 7405 1818


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London Thinks: Belief

Truly honoured to be invited onto the panel of ‘London Thinks’ at Conway Hall on the 25th January 2016.

We will be discussing ‘BELIEF’

The other panellists are  the biblical scholar Francesca Stavrakopoulou who is head of Religion and Theology at Exeter University as well as being a TV presenter,  and the psychologist and best selling author Richard Wiseman. The BBC’s Samira Ahmed will chair the discussion.

Richard Wiseman

I am not quite sure how I managed to get onto the same panel as these two brilliant academics, but sometimes good things simply happen.

Here is the blurb written by the organiser:

“Whether it’s Jesus-in-a-torilla or Xenu, being frightened of walking under a ladder or God, we humans believe in some unusual things.

London Thinks has gathered experts in psychology, religion and ‘new religious movements’ (that’s ‘cults’ to you and me) to dig into the idea of ‘Belief’. Why do we believe the things we do? Are we ‘genetically programmed’ to believe in the supernatural or is belief purely socially imposed upon us from a young age? Were Abrahamic religious texts always considered to be ‘the very word of God’ or is religious literalism a modern invention? Is belief in the supernatural really dangerous to our society or are those skeptic types worried about nothing? Can belief in the supernatural be a good thing? Is anyone susceptible to being ‘brainwashed’ or ‘bamboozled’ by cult leaders or charlatans? 

Our panellists will discuss these things and more in our first London Thinks of 2016.”

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Istanbul Conference Report

At five o’clock every morning I was awoken by the unfamiliar sound of a Call to Prayer.  Yes, I was definitely somewhere else. That call would be the background noise to the next four days of conference.


The International Association for Psychology of Religion held  their biennial conference in Istanbul from 17 – 20 August 2015.

Istanbul was a fitting location for an international conference on psychology of religion, straddling as it does, two continents – Europe and Asia. For the first time we  held our conference in a Muslim-majority country. We were located on the Asian side of the city, in the Faculty of Theology, Marmara University. Although academics from the United States of America and Western Europe were in the majority, there were many other psychologists from Eastern Europe, Turkey and beyond.

With one pre-conference day of lectures, 5 keynote speakers and 161 scheduled presentations taking place in 5 different lecture halls, it was only possible to attend a small number of presentations. The following comments therefore reflect my own interest, particularly in the areas of atheism and mystical-type experiences.

So here are a few of my highlights from the conference:

Firstly, it is always a special treat to listen to Dr Ralph W Hood (http://www.utc.edu/psychology/profiles/faculty/hood.php) of University of Tennessee, Chattanooga. He is a giant in the field of psychological research into mysticism. For nearly half a century he has pioneered research into reports of mystical experience. He spoke about his years of research and the ontological basis of his work. He advocates the position that all mystical experiences have a common core that transcends individual cultures; that the cultural influence is on the interpretation of the experience, not on the experience itself. He is the creator of the Mysticism Scale, the most widely used measure of mystical experience. This is based on work of philosopher Walter Stace who argued the case for a common core for these experiences. I always find what Dr Hood has to say interesting, and I have a huge respect for his body of work, even though I am coming from a different perspective in my own study of atheists who claim to have had mystical experiences. I am open-minded as to whether or not all mystical-type experiences have a common core or alternatively, whether experience is always culturally mediated. It was a most enjoyable and informative lecture.

Secondly I would like to mention developmental psychologist Dr Paul Harris, of Harvard University. http://www.paul-lansley-harris.com/ There is much debate in the psychology of religion over whether belief in God is innate or socially acquired. Dr Harris described his work with young children. He found that by the age of about six, most children can tell the difference between stories of real events and stories of pretend events (e.g. fairy stories). The children in his study were also told a short biblical story of a miracle, and asked whether it was a real story or a pretend story. He found that those who regularly attended church with their parents and/or went to parochial (faith) schools classified the biblical story as true, whereas those who neither attended church regularly nor went to a parochial school were likely to say it was a pretend story. The results suggest that belief in God is largely socially acquired, This is an important contribution to the debate. I liked the simplicity and clarity of his experiment, but I did not find the result surprising given the amount of time and effort the various religions invariably devote to teaching their religion to their children. In Great Britain, where an increasing percentage of the population claim to have no religion, the role of faith schools is currently a hot topic.

Thirdly I will mention the presentation by Dr Will Gervais of University of Kentucky on prejudice against atheists. Dr Gervais was not present at the conference, so a video of his presentation was shown instead. Here is a link to a similar presentation he gave that was recorded on Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LP-p3H8xvgI

His presentation was simultaneously funny and shocking. Prejudice against atheists is a world-wide phenomenon, even in Great Britain and Western Europe where religious affiliation has been declining for decades. I recommend you have a look at the video!

Lastly I will mention what I found to be the most poignant session in the conference. Turkey is host to almost 2 million refugees from the civil war in Syria. In this session a group of Turkish psychologists: Onver Cetrez; Valerie De Marinis; Halina Grzymata-Moszczyriska; Nazil Balkir and Maria Janas described their work with some of these refugees. They researched the effects of trauma and sources of resilience among these forced migrants. They found that the most commonly mentioned source of coping was ‘hope for the future’. This is an on-going research study and not all the results are available yet. It is hoped the findings will prove useful for both the migrants and their host communities.

Up until now I have not mentioned my own research. This was my first presentation before other psychologists of religion. For a few years now I have been studying atheists who claim to have had a mystical-type experience. Many of my findings correspond to existing findings in the field, but I also have a few findings that appear to be novel. I found that one of the clearest differences with atheists and believers was the attribution they made as to the source of their experience. The participants in my study were likely to attribute the experience to rational and natural causes, such as a temporary unusual brain function, rather than to supernatural causes. I also found they were likely to the see the experience as arising as a direct response to the circumstances in their lives in the period prior to the experience and in several cases, they were likely to devote a great deal of time and effort to reconciling the meaning they gave the experience with their atheist identity.

Some research trends that caught my attention during the conference included an increasing contribution, particularly from Muslim psychologists, on the psychological study of Muslims and their religiosity; continuing work on creating an adequate instrument for measuring levels of spirituality and increased interest in atheists and atheism. Perhaps one day in the not too distant future our discipline will be known as Psychology of Religion, Spirituality and Atheism! Some other things I noted included an increasing number of presenters thanking The Templeton Foundation for funding their research. While I appreciate it is immensely helpful to have generous financial resources for the psychology of religion, I am not sure it is desirable to have one dominant source of funding that might skew the types of research topics studied. Also, I was disappointed to see that by far the majority of lecturers and presenters were male. Where are all the women psychologists of religion?

Overall however, the conference was interesting, even, dare I say it, inspiring.

One last thought……

Psychologists strive for objectivity, but it has been argued that they can never be totally objective. Religion, or lack of it, is arguably one of the strongest influences on our perspective on reality. I found myself wondering where the psychologists at the conference stood in terms of their own religious commitment. What led them to study psychology of religion? After all it is hardly the most lucrative or career-enhancing branch of psychology. I wondered therefore, in the same way that researchers acknowledge those who have funded their research, perhaps they should also acknowledge their religious position …. just a thought…

A big thank you to our hosts at Marmara University who could not have done more to welcome us and make our stay so enjoyable.

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So What Kind of Experiences do Godless Mystics Have?

farnham talk


The big day draws closer!

Next week I present the findings from my research at the International Association for the Psychology of Religion (IAPR) Conference in Istanbul.

For the first time I will stand before the world’s leading psychologists of religion and explain what I have done and what I have found.

Am I scared? Well, I prefer to say I am excited. But yes, I am a bit apprehensive:

Will I be able to answer  questions the audience ask?

Worse, will I be able to understand questions they ask?

Will I remember everything I want to say?

Will I go over time?

Will the technology work?

Countless things to be apprehensive about……

On the other hand I did my presentation to my supervisor, Dr Adrian Coyle, yesterday, and he is happy to put is name to it as the joint author.

Wish me luck!


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3-Minute Thesis Final

Yay, I am through to the final of the 3-Minute Thesis competition:

3-Minute Thesis.

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3-Minute Thesis

I have entered the 3-Minute Thesis competition. The challenge is to describe my thesis in only three minutes and using only one slide.

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Great Competition for PhD’ers

The British Library is currently running a Twitter based competition for all PhD authors and current doctoral students, inviting them to say why their doctoral research is/was important, using the hashtag #ShareMyThesis.

I have entered the  competition with this tweet:

If atheists have similar spiritual experiences to believers what does that tell us about the foundations of religion? #

Find out more about the competition here:

Twitter competition – https://twitter.com/search?f=realtime&q=%23sharemythesis&src=typd

Competition web page – http://www.bl.uk/share-my-thesis/

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My On-Line Presence

Embarrassing photos? Guilty confessions? Scandalous behaviour?

What does your on-line persona tell the world about you?

This blog has been created as part of the University of Surrey ’23 Things’ project. This is a ten week course on how to become social media savvy,  set up specially for researchers who want to use social media to spread the word about their ground-breaking research 😉 …..

This week we had to look at our existing on-line presence.   Under ‘Alice Herron’ I found my university profile and photograph, not much else.  However, when I entered ‘Alice Herron atheist research’, I was pleased to find not only my university profile, but also this blog;  mention of the Conference at Oxford University where I first presented my initial research findings: http://www.st-benets.ox.ac.uk/uploads/files/Full%20Programme.pdf;  mention of the article about my research that I wrote for Skeptic magazine:http://www.skeptic.org.uk/magazine/previous/vol24;   and mention of the lecture I delivered about my research at Conway Hall, London:  http://conwayhall.org.uk/alice-herron.   Overall not too bad!

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Sam Harris: ‘Waking Up’ (2)

Thanks to my friend Joe Kratch  for posting this link: http://vimeo.com/115712819

I am not quite sure what I think of Sam Harris and his promotion of meditation.  Some atheists think he has sold out, while others think that many atheists do have, what might be termed, a spiritual dimension.

In my atheist study, where atheists talk about their mystical-type experiences, several of them had their experience either during or immediately after meditation, so meditation does appear to sometimes trigger transcendent experiences – even in atheists.

It is a subject close to my heart because In 1974 I met an Indian guru who taught me to meditate.  For over 27 years I meditated daily, I taught meditation classes and I had numerous transcendent experiences associated with meditation.

Currently, mindfulness meditation is the focus of many psychological studies. Most of them come out strongly in favour of the beneficial effects of regular meditation.

And yet, I have some reservations that are never highlighted in the research.  I do wonder, based on my own experience of meditation and the experiences of the many friends I made during that period of my life, whether meditation dulls critical thinking and leads to a complacent attitude towards what is happening in the world.   Just a thought …..

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