New Study Reveals Bias Against Atheists in Court

A new, shocking study published in the British Journal of Psychology discovered that jurors holding religious beliefs are more likely to be biased against defendants who prefer to take an affirmation instead of swear an oath to a God, revealing a longstanding moral suspicion against non-religious people in many parts of the world.

The research was written in collaboration with three academics: Professor Ryan T. McKay of Royal Holloway, University of London, Dr. Will Gervais of Brunel University London, and Professor Colin J. Davis of the University of Bristol.

The study collected data from 443 participants through Prolific, an online platform, and the survey for the research was produced through Qualtrics. All of the participants were British citizens and residents. It was published in the journal last March.

The researchers studied a legal procedure prevalent in countries using the common law system, like the United Kingdom, the United States, Australia, and Ireland, where witnesses must take an oath or an affirmation when presenting evidence in court.

An oath and affirmation are legally binding and pledges that a defendant or witness’s statements are true to their knowledge. However, an oath is a religious commitment to speak the truth, while an affirmation is a secular version of the same pledge, where deities or any other supernatural entities are not mentioned.

Nevertheless, both are declarations meant to show the public that the defendant or witness is committed to truthfulness based on values that are supposed to be treated equally under the law. But as the study found, it’s not always the case in real life.

The results of our first two studies,” the study’s authors explained. “indicate that court witnesses who swear an oath are, on average, much more religious than those who choose to affirm; that witnesses who swear are perceived as much more religious than those who affirm; that people associate choice of the oath with credible testimony; and crucially, that participants, especially religious believers, and affiliates, discriminate against hypothetical defendants who take the secular affirmation.

However, the researchers acknowledged that the “latter effect” is small and won’t necessarily imply that taking an affirmation instead of an oath would significantly impact all outcomes. 

But the study also noted that this ingrained prejudice against non-religious defendants or witnesses could still be a factor that tips the balance in heavily contested cases.

The researchers also sought to investigate the implications of moral suspicion against atheists and non-believers in legal practice and procedures. It could lead to bias, even if such systems are supposed to operate fairly and dispassionately.

In the first stage of the research, the authors found that people tend to see religious oaths as more convincing and trustworthy and that religious individuals were more prejudiced against defendants who chose to take an affirmation.

In a follow-up study where 1,800 online participants were asked to watch a mock trial where a defendant made an oath and an affirmation, even though the defendant was not guiltier when choosing to affirm rather than to swear, jurors that swore an oath were more likely to be biased against the affirming defendant.

Even though the study involved mock trials and surveys, the results have far-reaching consequences and implications in real-life cases, even if atheists and non-believers are just as moral and ethical as their religious peers.

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