Studies about belief: What are they worth? And more importantly, what do they COST?

This blog entry addresses and reviews the article recently featured in The Independent by the headline: “Atheists more likely to be seen as immoral, finds report

First, the good news: The article is well written and clear, and the research appears to meet and pass all the expectations of quality science. (Not an unqualified opinion, I am a professional scientist, so I know shoddy research when I see it.) There were over 3,000 participants (a pretty hefty sample size) across 13 countries that were purposefully balanced for a mix of secular and religious leaning countries. All the right bells and whistles are there.

Now, the not so good news: The major findings of the study indicate that:

  • Atheists are broadly perceived as potentially morally depraved and dangerous
  • Most believe that belief in a god can act as a moral buffer to deterring immoral actions
  • Growth of secularism has not diminished distrust of atheists
  • Even atheists think atheists are more likely to commit immoral deeds

What did the study do and find?: The researchers told subjects a scripted social story about someone who did bad deeds, and then asked the subjects what they thought the religious viewpoint of the antagonist might be. On average, the subjects showed a TWO TO ONE bias in the direction of thinking that the bad actor was an atheist. TWO TO ONE!  Yikes. That’s a little concerning. But … I’m more concerned about something else than I am about the actual research results themselves. I am much more concerned about what the likely “take away” from the publishing of findings like this. In a nutshell:

What will most (lower educated, casual readers) “take away” from this?: (When they read it in Time Magazine, or whichever non-academic periodical, non-scientific place they read it.) “See? I told you that people who don’t believe in god are less trustworthy. See?” They’ll read the article, and lose track of the fact that this research wasn’t about whether or not people are ACTUALLY more trustworthy and well behaved, it’s only about whether or not they are PERCEIVED to be trustworthy and well behaved. The research has NOTHING TO DO WITH REALITY, and instead is ONLY ABOUT BELIEF AND PERCEPTION.

It is so frighteningly easy to fall into that trap, that even a highly educated person might do it.

What SHOULD you walk away from this research with, if you know how to read and how to think critically? “Look how useless, misleading and even harmful BELIEF is.”

Yup. You heard it right. This is research basically demonstrates that BELIEF is often misleading and even harmful. Because although atheists might be BELIEVED to be bad actors, in FACT AND REALITY, the EXACT OPPOSITE IS TRUE. Atheists are vastly UNDER-REPRESENTED in prison populations world-wide, ANYWHERE THAT BEING AN ATHEIST ITSELF IS NOT A CRIME. So, atheists are statistically the EXACT OPPOSITE of what people BELIEVE THEM TO BE; they are IN FACT – LESS LIKELY to commit a crime or harmful action than a theist is.

This isn’t research about atheists and how evil they are at all.  It is research about the misleading dangers of belief. And how belief has no reliable tether on reality. And probably half the people that encounter the research through some less academic venue than it was originally presented in are going to READ IT WRONG. I find it delightfully ironic that a research study about BELIEF - the very thing that the religions in question are based on – has yielded the example that belief itself leads you away from the truth – instead of towards it.

Extra Credit for Irony: The surname of the lead author in the research study in question was … Gervais. Don’t worry. Ricky isn’t moonlighting as a researcher. No relation.

And, in case you are thinking about an international move, the only two countries tested where this trend wasn’t rock solid were Finland and New Zealand. Finland didn’t surprise me. New Zealand did a bit. I thought that place was pretty inundated with Christians. But ... maybe that is an older perception.

Questions for readers:

  • Any Kiwis care to straighten me out?
  • If you are an atheist:  Are you like the majority of atheist subjects in the study?  Do YOU think atheists – your own kind – are more likely to commit a moral offense?  And if so … why?
  • Regardless of what you are … what do you think of the research?  Do you have a similar perception?  If you are a believer, do you think that your belief skews your viewpoint?

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