Atheists Distrusted

Most folks distrust athiests, because atheists don’t fear punishment from God:

Recent polls indicate that atheists are among the least liked people in areas with religious majorities (i.e., in most of the world). The sociofunctional approach to prejudice, combined with a cultural evolutionary theory of religion’s effects on cooperation, suggest that anti-atheist prejudice is particularly motivated by distrust. Consistent with this theoretical framework, a broad sample of American adults revealed that distrust characterized anti-atheist prejudice but not anti-gay prejudice. … A description of a criminally untrustworthy individual was seen as comparably representative of atheists and rapists but not representative of Christians, Muslims, Jewish people, feminists, or homosexuals. … Results were consistent with the hypothesis that the relationship between belief in God and atheist distrust was fully mediated by the belief that people behave better if they feel that God is watching them. … Atheists were systematically socially excluded only in high-trust domains; belief in God, but not authoritarianism, predicted this discriminatory decision-making against atheists in high trust domains. (more)

So are atheists actually less trustworthy?  I’d guess that they are, but that the difference is less than people think. Believing that atheists are untrustworthy, like believing in God, helps signal your trustworthiness to others.

I suspect a similar effect applies to human law enforcement. Most people probably also signal their trustworthiness by over-estimating their chances of getting caught and punished if they commit a crime.

Added 1p: Here are experiments on religion and trustworthiness:

Perrin (2000) tested the relationship between religiosity and cheating behaviour among 150 undergraduate students. In the experiment, subjects were asked to check their grades in an ostensibly wrongly-graded class test. Only 32% reported back honestly, 52% falsely claimed their tests were correctly graded, and 16% claimed they were owed a point. Four out of seven measures of religiosity were significant and positively related to honesty. …

Two players each make simultaneous withdrawals (i.e. under imperfect information) from an envelope containing 100 coins. If the sum of withdrawals exceeds 100, neither wins anything. Otherwise, players receive their withdrawals plus half of the sum remaining in the envelope multiplied by 1.5. … Religious males withdrew less than religious females and secular males. This effect is found to be driven by those religious males who attend synagogue daily. …

Using a naturally-occurring classification of religiosity based on 103 male subjects studying for priesthood or secular qualifications in rural India, … the average [public goods game] contributions of religious (66%) and non-religious (51) students differ significantly (p = 0.014). …

Fehr et al. (2002) find that in among 429 German household survey respondents contacted to participate in a trust game experiment, Catholic religion raised sending levels significantly in a regression model with a baseline of religiously unaffiliated subjects. … The impression from these studies is low explanatory power of religious variables, especially when compared to demographics. … Senders send more the greater the religiosity of responders which they were told. This relationship holds overall and for high-religiosity senders, but not for those with lower religiosity. (more)

Added 26Nov: In case its not obvious, I’m an atheist.

Added 7Dec: Evidence that religion makes your more truthful.

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  • Big Dubya

    Seems a rational application of Dostoyevsky’s “If there is no God, then all is permitted.”

  • Maxwell

    Given evidence that atheists are more ethical, I find it hard to believe they are less trustworthy.

    Two key ‘grafs:

    A growing body of social science research reveals that atheists, and non-religious people in general, are far from the unsavory beings many assume them to be. On basic questions of morality and human decency — issues such as governmental use of torture, the death penalty, punitive hitting of children, racism, sexism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, environmental degradation or human rights — the irreligious tend to be more ethical than their religious peers, particularly compared with those who describe themselves as very religious.

    Consider that at the societal level, murder rates are far lower in secularized nations such as Japan or Sweden than they are in the much more religious United States, which also has a much greater portion of its population in prison. Even within this country, those states with the highest levels of church attendance, such as Louisiana and Mississippi, have significantly higher murder rates than far less religious states such as Vermont and Oregon.

    • Oh come on, this is ridiculous. How someone feels about issues like the death penalty and human rights tells you nothing about how ethical they are, all it tells you is the content of their ethical structure. Atheists are more likely to hold liberal values, yes.

      As for the “societal level,” are there any confounding factors besides level of religiosity that could explain different crime levels between Mississippi and Vermont?

      • Thursday

        Like having a large number of a certain group of people who are known for their high propensity towards crime.

  • Lord

    Distrust atheists or trust atheists will find some way to offend them? Atheists have a fervency similar to religious extremists.

    • James

      All of them? Every single one?

      • Pablo Stafforini

        “Blog posts are short and have a broad audience. One of the worst things about writing them is having to make disclaimers. […] So in addition to saying what we do mean, we sometimes have to say explicitly what we do not mean. For example, […] Any general claim about human behavior is an absolute law without exception unless it includes qualifiers like ‘tends’ or ‘often.’ (Against Disclaimers)

  • Brett

    So are atheists actually less trustworthy? I’d guess that they are, but the difference is less than people think

    I’d be very, very hesitant to make that claim without some actual proof.

  • Matt

    All else being equal, I’m not sure why an atheist would choose to be moral or ethical, unless it is because that is the path of least resistance. Of course, all else isn’t equal – I would assume that atheists spend more time than average being critical of society. One might assume that would mean a higher median trustworthiness for atheists but also a higher propensity for the extreme untrustworthy.

    • Anonymous Cow

      “All else being equal, I’m not sure why an atheist would choose to be moral or ethical”

      For some of us, it’s because we realise that the only things we know of for sure in this universe that can give our lives meaning and value, are our fellow humans and our relationships with them.

      For others, perhaps the realisation that the ‘them’ and ‘us’ of religion is absurd in light of shared DNA, a shared planet, and shared worldwide culture and knowledge. We’re all in it together, for good or ill.

      Perhaps others see a continuous gift of knowledge and improving quality of life being passed like a torch from each generation to the next, either on the scale of history or on the scale of family, and feel obliged to return that favour in turn to those around them – the norm of reciprocity writ large.

      For others, it’s the realisation that when you choose your ethical principles for yourself, for reasons that make seem rational to you (such as ‘the golden rule’, or ‘tit for tat’) – rather than because it was imposed on you by the values of ancient shepherds – you have more of a reason to really stick to them. The writer of a rulebook has the greatest belief in the value of the rules, and we each write our own.

    • Michael Wengler

      In the judeo-christio-islamo world, atheism usually means the person doesn’t believe in a big-old god with white beard and a personality who has favorite people, sometimes based on their birth properties, more recently based on what beliefs they profess or signal.

      Not believing in such a “science fiction” creature hardly precludes not believing in right or wrong as perhaps some sort of inherent property of the conscious universe, or perhaps even as a choice that most people make including many theists.

      I do believe in treating my fellow humans right. This is much less of a stretch than believing in a supernatural being who doesn’t want me eating pork or lobster.

  • John

    Why not distrust Unitarians and other people who believe God takes everyone to heaven?

    • You clearly have no idea what Unitarians believe. They have no doctrine of heaven or hell.

      • That’s even worse, then.

  • Abelard Lindsey

    Even though I’m an atheist and disagree with this, I do accept that it is a logical chain of thought for a Christian to mistrust atheists because they do not fear punishment from god.

    • Michael Wengler

      Logical or not, I’d bet that virtually any American, atheist or religious, would trust another American more than she would trust the most Islamo-religious rug merchant in a bazaar in an Arabic speaking country. I’d bet that ivy-league educated christian guys would trust other ivy-league educated atheist guys more than they would trust a black southern babtist from Missippi.

      At least some of the trust-on-trust I’d guess is coming from familiarity-trust, which makes sense god or no. And I would bet familiarity-trust would beat something as vague as “religious” trust. It is hard for me to imagine that a black southern baptist would trust an islamic arab, a zen japanese, or a hindu Indian more than he would trust an islamic southern black guy.

      Until I see studies that explicitly check the trust of American christians against American atheists vs Arab Muslims and Hindu Indians, I’ll stick with my priors.

  • “Guessing” that Athiests are less trustworthy than the religious and requiring evidence to prove otherwise (rather than starting from a null hypothesis that there is no difference) is bigotry, plain and simple. Replace “atheist” with “black” in the above post and comments if this isn’t readily clear to you.

    I see clearly that this blog is run by a bigot, and that many of his followers are as well. I’ll be unsubscribing now and hope anyone else who feels that they can be “good without god” does as well.

    • axa

      beside unsubscribing get a into a reading comprehension class.

      read again: “believing in God helps signal your trustworthiness to others”, this sentence does NOT come from a god intimidated invididual =)

  • Does this imply, eg, that fundamentalist Christians will trust Muslims or Hindus more than they trust atheists? I suspect that’s not the case, and that all this belief stuff is just standing in for basic tribalism.

    Religion is mostly not about metaphysics (because who really cares) but about group membership. To be atheist in a religious community is to signal that you are apart from the community. An outsider is going to be trusted less than an insider, that’s just common sense.

    • “all this belief stuff is just standing in for basic tribalism”
      I would normally agree, but why would the tribal group include Hindus & Muslims (who are mostly ethnically different) but not atheists? I think in the past more people would have ranked Hindus & Muslims lower, but that has become less socially acceptable. And one way to make such religious differences less salient is to emphasize the shared trait of having a religion period.

    • Yes exactly, it is just tribalism. I just realized, when Robin is talking about “trust”, he isn’t meaning honesty or believability or reliability, he is talking about something much deeper and more fundamental than that, he is talking about adherence to the fundamental mores of society, knowing one’s place in the social hierarchy and staying in it. It is about knowing and adhering to the social hierarchy.

      This isn’t an abstract “trust”, it is a “trust” that is based on a shared view of the arbitrary social hierarchy and maintenance of the existing social order. This is the basis for the idea of the Divine Right of Kings. If you believed in God, then you believed in His power to install the King, and so you believed that the King was ordained by God and must be obeyed implicitly, even to the death. It is a tribal affiliation to the social hierarchy where the tribe and social hierarchy is more important than the individual, even to the individual. Individuals had to subsume their identity and be willing to sacrifice themselves for those higher up in the social hierarchy if they were to be “trusted” by those higher ups.

      What better way to demonstrate loyalty to the group than to adopt the delusional world view of the group. Your reality is limited to the shared “reality” of the group. You have constricted your mental world-view to the fake world view of the social hierarchy. That the world view is false and delusional is not a bug, it is a feature. Someone who will believe stuff that is crazy, won’t question the self-serving orders from people higher up in the social hierarchy, and so is someone that those higher ups can “trust”. “Trust” to do their bidding, no matter how stupid, delusional, harmful or even criminal it is.

      Other examples are global warming denial, the Birthers, the tea partiers saying “Government hands off my Medicare”, cults, and anti-science in general. Willingness to adhere to one delusional world view doesn’t necessarily translate into “trust”. Many Evangelicals won’t “trust” Romney because he is a Mormon. Mormons believe in God, but to non-Mormon Christians, Mormonism is a wacky-crazy-cult because they don’t believe in the same things that non-Mormon Christians believe in.

      The GOP is trying to show that they don’t believe in arithmetic because they are saying they can cut taxes for the wealthy, increase military spending, balance the budget, cut Medicare and unemployment will drop to 2.8%. Can’t get more delusional than that, but that is what buys them “trust” from their superiors in the social hierarchy they adhere to.

      Of course people who are rational can’t be trusted to buy into a delusional world view. Reality does have a liberal bias so liberals can’t be trusted, so what ever liberals say to do, do the opposite.

  • Pingback: UBC undergrads think atheists are less trustworthy than rapists |

  • Anonymous Cow

    “So are atheists actually less trustworthy? I’d guess that they are”

    Time to change the blog title from ‘overcomingbias’ to ‘overwhelmingbias’?

    Consider for a moment who your audience is, and consider for a moment how many of them you just shocked with an open display of uninformed prejudice. This blog is supposed to be a worldwide focus for the principle of overcoming bias? I think not. It has strayed so far from it’s original goals in recent months that I no longer see a purpose in remaining here.


    • Anonymous Cow

      it’s -> its.

      • Anonymous Cow

        Also, although I won’t be around to read your future posts anyway, I would still discourage you from any plans for writing on the following themes:

        “So are jews actually less trustworthy? I’d guess that they are”

        “So are black people actually less trustworthy? I’d guess that they are”

      • This may be true, but it is true about a lot of claims that most would find tolerable if not directed at a group in which it is taboo to target. If you were consistent in your opposition to “bigotry” along these lines, then you’d find that pretty much everyone in the world is a huge bigot,.

    • I think the only person who would be shocked is Captain Renault.

    • Matt

      For one, you really can’t compare atheists to blacks because being an atheist is a choice.

      Secondly, being an atheist is a belief system that implies a likely set of beliefs. There is nothing particularly biased about making observations about this set of beliefs. Scholars like Robin certainly should not stop making these observations because of a fear of offending someone. An impartial observer would not stop to consider his audience – that would make him/her partial to that particular audience.

      Finally, I really doubt anyone committed to being more objective would stop reading a blog because they are too offended to continue. I’m pretty sure Robin was making a prediction that moral tendencies would correlate to belief systems in a certain way. I really doubt he was making a judgement call.

      • Anonymous Cow

        “For one, you really can’t compare atheists to blacks because being an atheist is a choice.”

        Firstly, you are being ridiculous. We are all born atheists, with no concept of (or belief in) god, and many people remain so through till adulthood. Of course, some people also become atheists by choice, later in life, subsequent to their childhood religious indoctrination.

        Since we’re all born atheists, the scarcely evidenced idea that we are all consequently born morally corrupt and must be elevated by a belief in fairies is not a view I ever expected to see advocated on this forum.

        Secondly, like skin colour or Judaism, religion (or lack of it by adulthood) is something that is primarily inherited from parents. It is seldom something people freely choose, or they would be unlikely to hold their parent’s or region’s religion so commonly. So my comparison is entirely fair.

        Strength of religious belief is genetically inherited (21-52%):

        As for type of religious belief:

        Religions tend to cluster by region of birth and race – people born in Saudi Arabia tend to be muslims, Italians tend to be catholics.

        Beliefs tend to cluster by family: religious beliefs correlate between 0.5 and 0.6 between parents and children. Neither of these factors is something that is chosen.

        “Finally, I really doubt anyone committed to being more objective would stop reading a blog because they are too offended to continue.”

        I am not stopping reading this blog because I am offended by it, though as it happens, I see no reason why avoiding uninformed, insulting bigotry on the internet should represent a ‘lack of commitment to objectivity’.

        I am partly stopping because it has descended into drivel and bigotry of late. And I am partly stopping for the same reason that I would, say, stop attending an alcoholics anonymous group where the leader celebrates new memberships by cracking open a bottle of champagne for the group. It is pointless to participate in a forum about overcoming biases, when the primary contributor writes articles that simply expand on his prejudices.

        How often do articles here in recent months start with “I’d guess X” and end with “So I learned in writing this article that I am guessing very badly and have biases I never knew I had! Here’s what I learned about how to improve my guessing/priors…” ? In contrast, how often do they start “I’d guess X” and simply attempt to provide “confirming evidence”? Far too much of the latter, far too little of the former.

        There are other sources of information that I now expect, on balance, will be better than this one, and will not serve primarily as a mode of transmission for Robin Hanson’s personal priors to the world, so I won’t waste time on here. I’m writing this message to clarify my view and then I’m off.

        This particular display of idiocy is only the latest in a long line of drivel since LessWrong split off. I commented on the “Are Spirits Dark?” post to the same effect – if I wanted to read neo-hippy spiritual guff about the nature of the magical creatures living between the stars, I’d move into a commune or join the US Tea Party. What the hell happened to y’know, being better people and overcoming our biases?

        “I’m pretty sure Robin was making a prediction that moral tendencies would correlate to belief systems in a certain way. I really doubt he was making a judgement call.”

        Here, he made a prediction with almost zero information; in doing so, he exposed his priors, and I don’t wish to acquire the thought processes of those who have their priors set that way – that is to say, bigots.

        If you search/replaced “atheist” (or for that matter, ‘athiest’) in Robin’s article with ‘der Juden’ or ‘immigrants’, and ran it through Google Translate into German, with a comment at the top apologising for your poor German, I think you’d have little trouble finding a home for today’s article on a German neonazi forum.

        Or if you like you can swap out ‘atheist’ with a race hate word like ‘niggers’, and try it on a white supremacy forum. Give it a go – I’ll bet they love it. They won’t understand a lot of the long words, of course, but they’ll get the drift.

        This site is called ‘overcoming bias’. It’s supposed to be the place where you can escape from human biases and improve yourself. It’s not supposed to be the place where one guy tells the world that he reckons 10-20% of the world’s population are morally corrupt on accounts of their (inherited or default) absence of belief in the tooth fairy.

      • John

        Unfortunately I can’t reply to Anonymous Cow–too many replies in the thread already. But wow. Speaking as a strong atheist, it seems to me that at a site called “Overcoming Bias,” anything should be up for discussion. Atheists believe different things than non-atheists. Is it totally impossible to imagine that people who believe different things will act differently? If theists all believe very literally that they will be tortured in hell for every time they lie, cheat, steal, etc. isn’t the idea that those (yes, false) incentives would change their behavior in some tiny way worthy of any consideration?! At all?!

        Seriously, is the idea that false ideas might make us behave more in line with our society’s norms truly worthy of our instantaneous dismissal? Why? Because it insults a group we belong to?

        Frankly, at a site called Overcoming Bias, I expect to learn many new things. Some of them will make my favorite groups look bad. Some of them will go totally against things I believe very strongly. If you come to Overcoming Bias and are offended when deeply held prior beliefs are challenged, you really are in the wrong place.

  • JiveKitty

    For an atheist the consequences for any action they take are going to be something they have to deal with. There is no omniscient, omnipotent creator to forgive it and to make it all better. I’m not so sure they’d be less trustworthy than anybody else.

    • Ham Nox

      It seems like a rather obvious conclusion to me. ANYONE who thinks they have to answer to two justice systems rather than one is going to be a bit more careful about their actions, especially if one of them is a -perfect- system.

  • Admiral Ackbar

    I would contend that atheists are more trustworthy, because instead of needing a cosmic babysitter to keep us from doing wrong, we just don’t do bad things because they are bad. That’s why only about 1% of the population of America’s prisons are atheists.

    • Ari T

      I don’t know if your number is correct but I’d guess selection effect could be at work here. There might be a lot of religious people in prisoners, because they come to belief ex post either to signal regret or just to ease the prison time. Atheists in fox holes et cetera.

  • The question is trustworthy at what?

    Whether someone has a good grip on reality and has demonstrated being able to tell fact from fiction are sort of important criteria to use to evaluate whether to believe someone or not.

    There are a zillion different religions and essentially all of them claim to be the only one, true, correct, perfect source of knowledge handed down by God Himself. From logic, we know those claims are mutually exclusive and so cannot all be correct.

    Self-proclaimed religious people feel they have a source of information more powerful and more correct than the best Vulcan logic, the feelings and the voices in their head and in ancient books telling them what is correct. Such people don’t need logic, or facts or anything but the feelings and the voices to tell them what is right.

    And you would trust such people to run complicated things because running complicated things doesn’t require being able to distinguish truth from fiction? Or use logic to understand facts?

  • Vic Sage

    But if believers fear punishment from God, why do they do bad things? Is fear of punishment actually an indicator of trustworthiness?

  • axa

    I’m an atheist and I feel enough self-aware to tell that the article author and prof. Hanson may be right, in some specific way.

    It all depends on the definition of “trustworthy”. Being “thrustworthy”, for me, is to be, think, act or react most of times like the way the rest of the people in the group you’re trying to fit. If you’re different, you’re outside the group therefore distrusted.

    Being an atheist is just one of the characteristics to be banned from certain groups. You could be alcoholic, cocaine lover, atheist, gay, covered with tatoos or piercings, mexican, irish, korean and it is gonna be the same result. Atheism is not the problem, it is being an “outsider”. Article author found the truth, but maybe it is not the whole story.

    Long time ago I used to be an active/stupid atheist, i.e. telling the rest of the people they are wrong. Now, I just don’t let my beliefs get in the way of my bussiness. If my customers prefer a religious guy, I can happily fake that and get away with the cash =)

    • Matt

      Not for nothing, and it doesn’t really speak to the strength of your argument, but I find it hilarious that you brought up how you are an atheist that is willing to fake religiosity just to make extra cash.

      • Sam

        I am too.
        Similarly, Gay people pretend to be straight a lot.
        When you are in a community where your type of person is really excluded, it’s absolutely necessary.

        I live in a small town, and most people go to church most week ends, so simply staying quiet about your beliefs isn’t enough.
        A couple moved here a few years ago, and didn’t attend. People round here are real friendly, but when they realized these people weren’t coming to church, they stopped socializing with them at all. That’s bad out here, we’re pretty isolated. So they left, after a year or so.

        Me? I go to church most Sundays. The sermons are fun, and I enjoy the singing. But I really go for the community. It’s really nice, and I met my wife there. There isn’t an equivalent for atheists in the cities.

        But I don’t believe a word.

        Our little secret?

  • axa

    ps. the trustworthy definition I used is the one applied to a very shallow personal relationships: acquaintances. It is different when you’re talking about a friend or family member. In this new context, trustworthy means somebody that’s gonna give you a hand when you need it.

  • axa

    in the end, I think the only problem is that right now around the world 90% of people is religious, and 10 % atheist (rough estimate)

    If the situation were inversed, the distrusted people would be the religious guys. So, it is all a matter of numbers, which group is the bigger one.

  • Michael H

    Amusing – touchy atheists misinterpret Hanson’s speculation about atheistic dishonesty as signalling that he dislikes atheists, and storm off in a huff.

    I’m an atheist myself, but I find it plausible that the deluded belief in an omnipotent being watching your every move could help motivate you to avoid bad behaviour. Furthermore, a person professing atheism in a highly religious society is showing willingness to defy norms in the domain of religious belief, and this might predict willingness to defy norms in other domains. On the other hand, the average IQ of atheists is higher than that of believers (Nyborg 2008), and some studies found have a correlation between intelligence and cooperative behaviour (Jones 2008; Burks 2009).

    While perhaps Hanson could have justified his speculation more carefully, it doesn’t seem unreasonable.

    • Anonymous Cow

      There were two ‘I suspect’s and three ‘alleged facts’ in the original article, almost nothing to back them up, and zero attempts to disprove his own hunches rather than reinforce them.

      This is not the thought process of someone who is trying to overcome their biases.

  • David Ellis

    “Fehr et al. (2002) find that in among 429 German household survey respondents contacted to participate in a trust game experiment, Catholic religion raised sending levels significantly in a regression model with a baseline of religiously unaffiliated subjects.”

    I strongly distrust the idea that a comparison between religious and religiously unaffiliated is something from which we can draw any reasonable conclusions about atheists. I suspect that atheists make up a small minority of the religiously unaffiliated—the majority of them being religiously apathetic theists/supernaturalists.

  • Anonymous Cow

    This is a reply to John who mentioned that the ‘reply limit’ was reached:

    “Because it insults a group we belong to?

    Frankly, at a site called Overcoming Bias, I expect to learn many new things. Some of them will make my favorite groups look bad. Some of them will go totally against things I believe very strongly. If you come to Overcoming Bias and are offended when deeply held prior beliefs are challenged, you really are in the wrong place.”

    This absolutely misses the point of the arguments I put forward, as does the ad hominem comment about ‘touchy atheists’.

    It isn’t about insult or offending – though as I point out, if an academic blog article could (by changing only the name of the targeted group) fit comfortably on a race-hate site, you’re not treating topics like ‘prejudices against groups’ with the kind of rigour and impartiality they need.

    It’s about the site finally jumping the shark – for me, anyway. This blog has long ceased to be about anything relating to the idea of ‘overcoming bias’.

    It’s now entirely a platform for RH to communicate his prejudices and poorly developed guesswork to the world. Guesses which are based on ‘confirmation’ rather than ‘falsification’. Lacking a genuine attempt to seek disconfirmatory evidence. Indistinguishable from good old-fashioned bigotry. An embarrassment, given what the site used to be like?

    I happen to be in the group that was the topic of discussion this time, which is perhaps why it hit me in the face. I looked back over the last 10 articles and I saw plenty more of the same.

    Look at the article as it originally stood and ask yourself: how does this actually ‘overcome bias’? Or let me turn it around. Would someone reading the last 10 articles on the site be able to deduce he was on a site about “Overcoming Bias”? I think not. The best abstraction of the content I could construct for myself was “Speculation and assertion on random topics, with a regular attempt to view all human behaviour through the author’s very small selection of prisms”.

    The tagline for the blog is actually quite accurate, now that I look at it. But for the sake of intellectual honesty, the blog title should be changed to something that reflects what the site has become – a soapbox for one random guy’s random views, sourced from the gut and never put to any real test. Perhaps “Displaying Bias”, rather than ‘overcoming’ it.

    • John

      1. You’re right. The second part of my comment was really unrelated to the subject, and was more speculation about the psychology behind your reaction. Sorry. But what about the first part, before the part you quoted? I just can’t see how the idea that “a belief in imaginary monsters punishing us for being bad could affect our behavior” is so ludicrous and offensive.

      2. Maybe I’m wrong, but it seems like you’ve interpreted the word “bias” in the title of this blog in the normal, political sense. Racial bias, gender bias, anti-gay bias–the sense in which it’s usually used. But in the title of the blog, “bias” refers to all of our biases, of which that sort is just a small subset. The bias Robin focuses on the most is our perception that our entire cognitive existence is conscious–that we do things for the exact reasons we consciously think we do. And once you crack open that door, it’s pretty hard not to start wondering about possible “real” reasons behind nearly every type of human behavior and belief. Now, I agree that Robin often suggests random theories and hypotheses about those “real” reasons with far too little evidence, but he always presents them as guesses, not facts, so it doesn’t bother me too much.

      3. Robin probably won’t reveal this publicly, but I’d be willing to bet $50 that he’s an atheist or a very doubtful agnostic (gives extremely low odds to the existence of any spiritual deity as described by any religion).

  • Scott

    Strong tribal beliefs like atheism are apparently the mind-killer even here.

    • Except that atheism is not a tribal belief. Atheism is the absence of a tribal belief in God or gods.

      • John

        I don’t think “tribalism” means what you think it does. From wiki: “the possession of a strong cultural or ethnic identity that separates one member of a group from the members of another group.” People use the word “tribalism” to talk about loyalty to and identification with all sorts of non-religious groups, from sports teams to nations to ethnicities.

        For some atheists, atheism may not be a tribal belief, just like some Americans don’t have a tribal attitude towards America. But for plenty of atheists, atheism is a very strong marker of their cultural, social, and intellectual identity.

      • John, I accept that atheists can be tribal, but my statement was that atheism is not a tribal belief. Atheism is not any kind of belief. Atheism is an absence of belief. Religions are systems of tribal beliefs. Newborns don’t have religious beliefs, they acquire them from their tribe during socialization and development.

        Are people who don’t believe in Zeus all members of the Zeus non-believing tribe? I think it is possible for people to make non-belief in Zeus part of a tribal identification system, but that does not make every person who does not believe in Zeus a member of that tribe.

        I think that most Christians share a non-belief in Zeus. Does that make those Christians members of the atheist tribe that does not believe in Zeus?

        I agree with Scott that strong tribal beliefs are a mind killer. They are such a mind killer that most people who hold them are unable to appreciate that their mind has been “killed” by them. That is the whole point of tribal beliefs, they are supposed to be so strong that tribe members use them instead of rational thought. There is no atheist group that practices atheism as a tribal belief, with revelation, dogma and ritual to propagate and enforce those beliefs in the absence of rational thought.

        That is how the leaders of the tribe get the followers of the tribe to do things against their self-interest. Adopt the tribal beliefs no matter how irrational they are and you can be trusted by the tribal leaders to do what they say no matter how irrational it is. People who don’t follow irrational tribal beliefs can’t be trusted to obey irrational orders.

        Can arithmetic be a tribal belief? I would say no because it is not derived from a tribe. Arithmetic can be derived from first principles, no tribal belief can be derived in the absence of the tribe. Religions are tribal beliefs because they originated in a tribe, are used by the tribal leaders to control the tribe and require a tribe for propagation.

      • John

        I said that tribalism means that the differences in beliefs and culture between your group and other groups are important to your identity.

        Your response makes it clear that you believe that tribalism also means that those beliefs must be derived solely from the tribe. Thus, any culture that values rationality or evidence is automatically exempt from tribalism (because, at least according to its members, the beliefs of that culture would be true and visible even in the absence of the “tribe”).

        The fact that your addendum to the definition of tribalism specifically excludes the values that you seem to care about the most (rationality, evidence, truth, etc.) seems a little too convenient to me. As a member of many groups and cultures that value rationality, it seems to me that unless joining this sort of group magically and automatically turns me into a more rational being, I should still worry that my strong identification with these groups might make me biased against outsiders, or against (even possibly true) statements that make my group look bad. You can define “tribal” any way you want, but just don’t think that “rational” groups are automatically exempt from group-related biases.

      • Beliefs are “tribal” to the extent that they serve to distinguish “tribe” from “non-tribe” and so can be used to distinguish how “trustworthy” someone is. If beliefs are universal, they have zero utility for distinguishing tribe members from non-tribe members.

        Believing that the Sun went around the Earth was a tribal belief at the time of Galileo. That is why the Catholic Church prosecuted him for asserting that the Earth went around the Sun. Now, the belief that the Earth goes around the Sun is nearly universal so it has lost its utility as a marker for who would believe whatever it was that the Church was dishing out.

        Scientists don’t talk of belief, they talk of evidence. I can assert that 2+2=4 because I can derive the equality from known principles. The belief that 2+2=4 is not a tribal belief because it cannot be used to distinguish tribal membership. Extraterrestrials would accept that 2+2=4, not because they share a tribal membership with humans, but because it is correct and can be derived from universal first principles.

        I don’t “believe” in rationality because other members of my “rationality tribe” believe in it, I adhere to rationality because with it I can derive correct ideas using facts and logic. If I was the only rational person in the world, I would still be rational because my being rational has nothing to do with membership in any group. I can be rational all by myself. A tribe has to have multiple people.

        If memberships in groups of seemingly rational people causes you to have biases, you need to examine those groups and what you think of as rationality more carefully. Usually tribal beliefs are asserted by a person and are transmitted by someone telling you. Rational ideas are derived from facts and logic. If you can’t derive an idea from facts using logic, then it is likely to not be a rational idea and you need to be much more careful as to how you apply it.

        People who think of themselves as scientists can still have tribal beliefs. The rejection of relativity as “Jewish Physics” by German physicists in the 1930’s was tribal. The acceptance of relativity as valid physics was not tribal.

        Tribal beliefs require a tribal affiliation to be attached to those beliefs. If you can’t attach a belief to a group of people and use that belief to distinguish who is and who is not a member of that group, then it is not a tribal belief. If you can derive the idea from facts and logic, then it isn’t a tribal belief.

      • John

        If memberships in groups of seemingly rational people causes you to have biases, you need to examine those groups and what you think of as rationality more carefully.

        No. If you believe that you can strongly identify as a member of any group (no matter what its members believe) without developing biases, you need to learn more about asymmetrical insight and in-group-out-group bias. Even if you are immune to the psychological phenomena and cognitive biases that afflict every other member of the human race, the rest of us aren’t so lucky.

      • axa

        really? I think that you’re talking about some kind of passive atheism. the people who just don’t care and don’t worry about god.

        but then you got active atheists like Richard Dawkins who makes lots of money from causing polemic discussion. Just look for how much costs a “talk” from this guy. Active atheism is firmly believing that you have the truth and must shove it into other people….

      • As far as making money from religion or from atheism, my guess that the amount of money made using religion is at least a thousand times that made using atheism.

        The present donor base is at least 10 to 1, and in times past it was much larger. All mainstream religions have individuals dedicated to collecting money to maintain the infrastructure of the religion.

        Where are the assets of atheist groups that compare to churches, synagogues and mosques? There aren’t any. I am not complaining about religious groups raising money, but if raising money is something to hold against atheist groups, then (to be non-hypocritical) you have to hold it against religious groups too.

  • Ilya Shpitser

    I find it a little sad that a claim can be run out of town for no other reason than “it insults a group I belong to.”

  • matt

    being an atheist in a religious society is, whatever the merits, antisocial. it indicates you are willing to do things (hold beliefs) the society disapproves of. a good bayesian would use atheism as evidence that a person is more likely to not perform various other social obligations.

    • axa

      explained it with just a few words!!! thanks.

      not performing various other social obligations is……not worthy of trust =)

  • Scott Messick

    Good post. I’d speculate that one of the functions of religion is to give people a simple way both to signal trust and to test for it. Faith is usually an important component of religiosity, and acceptance of a claim made by an authority based on faith naturally signals trust–to have faith in a doctrine *means* that one does not require any other reason (e.g. empirical evidence) for it. Because religion is predominant, most people grow up being asked to accept doctrinal claims of one sort or another. An atheist is apparently someone who has rejected this standard way of testing trust–which is evidence that they are untrustworthy. (I’m assuming a close connection between trust and trustworthiness, which could be debated.)

    I have two predictions. One, like others, I think this effect would likely disappear in an atheist-majority society. (Is this testable with e.g. Scandinavian countries?) There might be different, equally arbitrary, standard signals of trustworthiness, however.

    Two, I think it would rarely matter in individual cases. Any time you know someone well, you likely have much stronger evidence one way or another on their trustworthiness. Religion is a standard indicator that only makes sense when considering large groups of people at once, or someone you have almost no specific information about (other than their being an atheist). Does anyone have contrary evidence? Such as a case where someone seemed to trust one friend more than another on the basis of one being religious and the other not. I’d guess that rarely happens.

  • Daniel

    The idea of offering to give someone else money in a study seems fundamentally flawed. They have a certain amount of money and it will all go somewhere. If the other guy gets money, that means that the people who commissioned the study don’t get to keep it.

    • Sam

      The amount used is usually pretty low, and the (invariably) university department only has it because they quoted for incentive money in the grant application. It’s not gonna go in the professors pocket at the end of the day.

      Usually, the incentive is just about the amount that the experimenters guess will change the behavior of the target demographic.

      What I’d wonder about more is the effect of incentive level.
      In the quoted Indian study the priests will be almost exclusively from rich, high caste families, while the non-religious students will be more diverse, and include people from poorer backgrounds.
      So the level of intensive might be different between the groups.
      Perhaps when you play for pennies, people try to win, because they like winning games. But when you play for a months wages, you might feel morally obliged to share the riches. Will this effect be identical between religious and non-religious subjects? Across the social properties covariate with religiousness?

      I guess the answer is to do lots of tests, in lots of places, and rigorously integrate the results. But a more practical suggestion would be to wander the world more aware that we can’t firmly say much in general terms, and what we can say generally would fall down in the specific.

  • David Ellis

    “Atheism is not any kind of belief. Atheism is an absence of belief.”

    Depends on the variety of atheist. Personally, I not only lack belief in God, I believe there is no God in the same way and to the same degree that I believe werewolves don’t exist.

    • Sam

      If you could choose, which would you prefer to be true?
      Personally, I’d go for werewolves. Eternal salvation sounds cool, but there is no guarantee you’d reach it.
      On the other hand trekking across the Himalayas on the back of a wolf of human intelligence sounds amazing. Back in the real world, wonder if Sherpas would be willing to dress up for me.

  • David Ellis

    “a good bayesian would use atheism as evidence that a person is more likely to not perform various other social obligations.”

    One could as easily conclude on that one datum that the person has such a high degree of personal integrity that he’s willing to take an unpopular position as a matter of intellectual honesty. Hardly an indicator of untrustworthiness.

    • Yes, but that hinges on what the term “trustworthy” means and what “social obligations” are.

      Is it being “trustworthy” to report a priest to the civil authorities for raping a child? Or is it following one’s “social obligations” to allow the religious hierarchy to deal with it?

      This is in essence what happened at the Penn State Athletic Department. The raping of a child was reported to the football tribal authorities and not to the civil criminal authorities. I think that someone who worshiped Penn State Football might have made one choice and someone who didn’t believe in the divinity of Penn State Football might have made another.

      • David Ellis

        Let’s not tie ourselves in knots with overanalysis of the term. We all know what trustworthy means in everyday usage: a person is trustworthy when they don’t betray confidences (without good cause), aren’t habitual liars or cheats.

        And the question before us is whether atheists are less trustworthy in this ordinary sense than a) the general public or b) highly religious people.

        In other words: are atheists more likely to sell you a used car that they know to be a lemon than others are?

    • Matt Flipago

      Many atheist though aren’t that intellectually honest. Many are just troubled people angry at society and the general norm, particularly in America. There is not shortage of teenage atheist just filled with angst. Very angry people, and lazy people can flock to atheism because it suits them. These atheist really through off trustworthiness, compared to the normal person who will probably stay religious. IF 10% of Americans are atheist, then you need to have 90% or more of evil, criminal, angry, bitter at society, or apathetic people become religious. This just doesn’t seem to ring true. It’s so much easier to be an atheist if you are dysfunctional, like I said above. In fact the amount of people that identify as agnostic or atheist in the United States in more like less than 2%(no religious affiliation does not mean atheist, many just don’t know what category they identify as yet{They might say they are spiritual or something, or in between two religions atm). So the real question from a bayesian stand point is if you are a very untrustworthy, evil, criminal, hate society or lazy are you more than 98-99% to be theistic in America? I don’t it, and most do too.

      • David Ellis

        “Many atheist though aren’t that intellectually honest. Many are just troubled people angry at society and the general norm, particularly in America.”

        I was a member of an atheist/skeptic organization in college. This description does not fit what I’ve seen. It does however fit the caricature of atheists that I heard from my minister’s pulpit in the days before I had ever met, much less became, one.

      • Matt Flipago

        People in atheist organization in college are not your typical, to begin with. Also i never said most, just many, What I described were necessary the norm. My point still remains valid, no matter how many atheists associations at the collegiate level you try to say are full intellectually honest people.

  • Ben Abbott

    The trust worthiness of anyone depends upon context. The proportion of theists to atheists incarcerated in the US is larger than the general population.

    I don’t know what to make of that as coercion may play a significant role.

    Also it is plausible that if the entire world were atheist it would be a more violent and awful place, even if it turns out the atheists of our world were generally more trust worthy than the theists.

    Perhaps, religion is simply an effective in reducing bad behavior, but I suspect the law is a better tool for that.

    • I think a lot of it is convicts gaming the parole system. “Finding” Jesus while in prison is impressive to a lot of Evangelicals and they can exert pressure on the political figures that depend on their support. It worked for this guy.

  • JSA

    The reason that we don’t elect people who profess atheism is because they suck at hypocrisy; they are naively sincere. I suspect that the research would show that people prefer religious folks in jobs that require craftiness and sophistication. The mistrust of atheists in games of simple honesty may reflect the belief that atheists are too simple-minded to know that cheating should be reserved for bigger things than a silly game.

  • Ari T

    I am so disappointed there is no (cannot be?) a prediction market on the existence of God.

    • There could be a market on if there will be a clear demonstration of the existence of “God” (suitably defined) by a given date.

      • Assuming USD are not exchanged in Heaven, I’d be apt to sell these, even though I’m a natural buyer.

  • Bryan Caplan

    This discussion inspired my latest post on EconLog:

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  • Tom West

    If we define a theist as someone who *actually* believes that they will suffer eternal damnation for their sins, then

    (1) I would guess maybe 80-95% of the US are atheists, and
    (2) I would have no trouble believing Hanson’s guess.

    After all, how many commit crimes when they truly believe that there is a 100% chance they’ll go to jail?

    • David Ellis

      “If we define a theist as someone who *actually* believes that they will suffer eternal damnation for their sins…..”

      As someone who grew up in a deeply fundamentalist family and community I can only say that theists really don’t see their sins as that consequential in actual practice. They, for the most part, go to church in their nice clothes on Sunday and then have sex outside of marriage, lie, cheat on tests, slander and gossip with impunity. Few of them really see themselves as the damned sinners described by their preacher on Sunday.

      At least that’s been what I’ve observed from a lifetime in the Bible Belt.

  • David Ellis

    “Active atheism is firmly believing that you have the truth and must shove it into other people….”

    When did holding a strong opinion regarding an issue which you think consequential and debating it in the marketplace of ideas become a vice? Much less reasonably characterized as shoving it onto others?

  • David Ellis

    “People in atheist organization in college are not your typical, to begin with. Also i never said most, just many, What I described were necessary the norm. My point still remains valid, no matter how many atheists associations at the collegiate level you try to say are full intellectually honest people.”

    What reason do you have for thinking young atheists fit the description you gave? I’ve spoken with a lot of atheists young and old, online and offline, over the years and what you describe I simply haven’t seen.

  • This reminds me of the Bible story of Daniel, who speculated that a kosher (paleo?) diet would provide healthier outcomes than an ancient Middle Eastern think tank institutional cafeteria, and proposed an experiment (which proved Daniel’s speculation).

    I speculate that some Christians are afraid. I speculate atheists get that way, too. Too bad.

    • David Ellis

      Fear’s part of human life—and not an intrinsically bad thing. Do you have a more specific (or at least relevant) criticism?

      • David: to me, speculation is a close relative of faith, hypothesis, conjecture, and theory. So to theists and atheists alike, when confronted with a need to consider changing priors, the instinct to look away instead is intrinsically a bad thing, isn’t it? I’d even call it bias.

  • Peter Twieg

    Only the first of the four cited studies really demonstrates untrustworthiness. The fourth is about trusting behavior, which is distinct from trustworthiness. The 2nd/3rd are about some combination of selfishness/pro-sociality/trusting behavior.

    I think there are more studies looking at atheist behavior in various economic games out there, but I don’t have citations onhand.

  • The problem with Robin Hanson’s posting was his shallow, uncritical use of the concept “trustworthiness.” Hanson’s not a theist, but he retains a very Protestant concept of morality, although it’s at odds with his emphasis on self-deception. He should take a leaf from Trivers, whose understanding of the effects of religion and whose understanding of morality itself is far deeper than Hanson’s.

    As Trivers points out, religion has conflicting consequences. In the matter of trustworthiness, religion not only makes people more conscientious out of fear of punishment (despite the effort to deny this obvious truth, it’s certainly persuasive, even if not decisive). But its conflicting consequence is that it’s a tool for self-deception, and it helps believers justify the malevolent. So, you’d expect devout theists to conform more to conventional morality than atheists; but you’d also expect them to be more apt to deceive themselves about their motives and to do evil out of a self-serving belief in their own righteousness.

    Is Hanson’s post “insulting” to atheists? I don’t take it personally,. but anyone capable of being insulted personally by ideas would have good grounds to be insulted by this posting. Hanson focuses on the relative conventional unconscientiousness of atheists to extol the moral consequences of theism (as a reinforcer of “trustworthiness”). This one-sidedness is indeed bigotry. Hanson might have rejected theism, but he hasn’t outgrown narrow Protestant moralism.

    • Peter Twieg

      The problem with Robin Hanson’s posting was his shallow, uncritical use of the concept “trustworthiness.”

      What does the concept of trustworthiness have to do with Protestant morality? All you’re doing is arguing that atheists are not less-trustworthy. I don’t think Robin is going to say that there are no countervailing considerations to be made.

      • The Protestant concept of morality includes the view that being “good” is a matter of a willed internal struggle to do right, and what is right is immediately transparent to man (seeing as he has a God-given conscience with which to apprehend moral truth).

        If Hanson had left room for countervailing tendencies, he would qualify the greater “trustworthiness” of theists as confined to the most conventionalized morality. You, on the other hand, are prepared to grant countervailing tendencies–Hanson, you’re correct, probably would,too, if pushed–but you’re still prepared to claim knowledge of the resultant in general terms: theists are more “trustworthy.” This conclusion, this narrow concept of “trustworthiness,” is, well, biased.

        But no, in many of the most important respects, theists are untrustworthy, as when (for one example) the Christian Right demands rollback–usually in their own pecuniary interest–of the welfarist measures in which masses of Americans have placed their _trust_.

    • John

      The question “are atheists more trustworthy?” is empirical, assuming that we agree on some behavioral definition of trustworthiness. “Are atheists less moral?” is not. Hanson asked the former, using a definition of “trustworthy” that most people understand.

      If you think other conceptions of “trustworthy” are more important for morality, that’s fine. But Hanson’s observation was about the trustworthiness, not morality. If you drop the assumption that “by saying that atheists are less trustworthy, Hanson must be claiming that atheists are less moral,” your objection becomes moot.

      • Hanson asked the former, using a definition of “trustworthy” that most people understand.

        No, he used examples that are more cognitively available, biasing the concept’s application. Our public narratives—partly based on religion, partly on nationalism—hide still better exemplars of trustworthiness and untrustworthiness. Was it trustworthy when the devout Jews broke their treaties with Palestinians or when devout Christians did the same to indigenous Americans? Willingness to abide by agreements with outsiders is certainly a central part of most people’s concept of trustworthiness, even if they aren’t the most available example, partly for ideological reasons.

        Some posters have pointed out the distinction between trustworthiness and in-group solidarity. Religion tends to increase the moral solidarity within a society, while lessening any empathy with outsiders. Hanson writes as though only the first matters.

        Put it another way: everyone should face the facts, and if it’s hard to accept that every virtue carries tradeoffs, that’s just tough. But this doesn’t justify presenting the facts in a way most damaging to atheists (and getting away with it because you’re one of us) mislabeling what is limited to ingroup behavior as if it were a manifestation of virtue.

  • David Ellis

    “David: to me, speculation is a close relative of faith, hypothesis, conjecture, and theory. So to theists and atheists alike, when confronted with a need to consider changing priors, the instinct to look away instead is intrinsically a bad thing, isn’t it? I’d even call it bias.”


    Did someone come up with a good argument/evidence for theism while I was napping? When have atheists been faced with a situation where their willingness to change their mind was put to the test? At least as regards theism.

    • No, the evidence has not been provided. Hence, the speculation, and my support of it in the finest traditions of science. I think Karl Popper might agree.

  • David Ellis

    One thing that I think needs to be pointed out that people tend to miss when talking about these sorts of statistics is how misleading it can be depending on what you’re comparing.

    For example, if you compared religiously observant muslims to nonmuslims you might find that they were more trustworthy. But to conclude from this that muslims are more trustworthy than christians (or atheists or humanists, etc) would be an error. Nonmuslim includes a lot of others besides christians and that skews the comparison.

    Many of the studies cited in these sorts of discussion compare the religiously observant to those who arent. The latter being a group including a lot besides atheists (atheists make up a small minority).

    It might be more useful and accurate to compare apples to apples. Religiously observant Christians to committed humanists, for example.

    The point being that how you dice up the groups you’re deciding to compare can have a big impact on the results you’ll get.

    • So you are proposing an ascetic filter of sorts? Let’s weed out synagogue members who secretly keep Hannukah bushes and American secular humanists who also cut down evergreens and convalesce them in their homes in the month of December?

      • David Ellis

        I’m proposing we pay careful attention to what the study actually measures when someone claims, for example, that “study X shows that theists live longer than atheists” or, for that matter, “study X shows that atheists are less prejudiced than theists”.

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  • Nicholai
  • Nicholai

    oops I didn;t realise that link I posted above leads to my comment. I posted that link to show readers the article, not my comment.

  • Andrew

    Basically (for religious individuals) religious status is used as a substitute for reputation for those outside of ones social sphere. Non religious individuals seek other status based predictors of reputation.

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  • A-Theist

    in response to your line ‘So are atheists actually less trustworthy? I’d guess that they are, but that the difference is less than people think.’ I’d like to point you to some research that shows that atheists are actually MORE trustworthy because we do not have a blessing once a week to remove all our sins and make everything ok. Nor do we have the fallback of saying after we hurt someone ‘oh well i guess it was gods will’ Atheists live with their faults and deal with them. While religious people go and confess and be absolved of all their guilt. Not to mention that if you really believe in heaven then what does it matter what you do or dont do here if your just going to be absolved of all your sins just because you picked the right religion? Go kill someone and then confess and you will still get into heaven… you will have eternity to make up for it! If your an atheist on the other hand, you just have this life and have to make the best of it. No do overs…