There has grown up a stereotype that atheists are angry people. Is this true? Via reader Jeff, I came across this article that discusses the results of a study titled The Myth of the Angry Atheist that examined the angry atheist hypothesis and found it to be false. Here’s the conclusion of the paper:
We examined the prevalence and accuracy of an angry-atheist stereotype in seven studies. We found that people believe atheists are angrier than believers, people in general, and another minority group, both explicitly and implicitly. However, none of our studies supported the idea that atheists are angrier than other individuals. Our work, in sum, suggests that the angry-atheist stereotype exists, but that it does not match reality. Dissemination of the present results may be useful in correcting misperceptions while averting potential unwarranted and harmful consequences.
So why do people think we are angry? The authors of the study offer some ideas.
One potential cause relates to passionate atheists who discuss religion in public settings. These individuals are typically open, forceful, and fervent about their beliefs. Such discussions about religion and God go against what most Americans believe. These portrayals could drive people’s beliefs that atheists are angry. Furthermore, media brings to mind this stereotype when they use the term “angry atheist” to describe this passionate communication style.
Another potential cause relates to perceivers potentially projecting their own anger onto atheists. Religion is a major source of meaning and comfort to a large number of Americans (Pew Research Center, 2008). Atheists may be perceived to threaten this source of meaning, thereby triggering anger and the defensive sorts of processes identified by existential psychologists (e.g., Solomon, Greenberg, & Pyszczynski, 2000). Research has indeed shown that people can project anger onto other individuals.
Atheists are a small minority and many people may have few interactions with them (Zuckerman, 2007). Research suggests that it is precisely under such conditions that stereotypes can thrive even if incorrect (Dovidio, Gaertner, & Kawakami, 2003). That is, they thrive when people have preconceived ideas about a group of people that are not updated in the context of “individuating” information concerning particular people from that group. The same principles can explain why negative stereotypes could persist even with rela- tively friendly encounters because we are often unaware of the religious beliefs of the people with whom we interact. Such a tendency can be magnified considering that people tend to seek information that confirms rather than disconfirms their initial beliefs (Nickerson, 1998).
Another possibility is that such myths commonly arise with groups whose views are not part of the mainstream discourse. If you are saying something that everyone agrees with, then you can simply assert it and move on. But if you are challenging the predominant view, then you will be immediately challenged and you have to make a strong case for it, often in the face of deep opposition and ignorance, and this requires you to be forceful in getting your point across. Furthermore, the fact that minority groups are often discriminated against can also lead them to feel frustrated and exasperated and this can be easily misconstrued (or willfully mischaracterized) as anger.