Are atheists over-compensating for being thought immoral?

A new study finds that atheists behave more fairly toward Christians than Christians behave toward atheists. While this may be welcomed by atheists as signifying that they are less troubled by meaningless divisions, the study authors suggest that this may be due to atheists trying to overcome public perceptions that they have inferior moral qualities.

The economic game was a modified version of the Dictator Game, in which one person (the dictator) is asked to share a monetary reward with another person who can only passively accept what is offered.

A pilot study with 205 participants revealed that people believed atheists would treat Christians unfairly. But three experiments, which included nearly 1,200 U.S. residents, found almost the opposite was true.

When everyone’s religious affiliation was disclosed, Christian participants offered more money to fellow Christians than to atheists. However, this ingroup bias was not observed among atheist participants, who gave equally to atheists and Christians.

When their own religious identity was concealed from the other participants, however, atheists gave more money to their fellow atheists than to Christians. Presumably, they were less motivated to counter the stereotype that they were immoral. The behavior of Christians was unchanged.

The authors suggest that because atheists are aware that they are viewed negatively by others in society, they may be actively seeking to overcome that stereotype, and that this may extend to other groups that are perceived negatively. As one of the authors of the study says, “It seems likely that these findings would extend to other groups stereotyped as untrustworthy such that those groups would be motivated to ‘advertise’ their altruism, fairness, compassion, or overall level of morality.”

The paper abstract can be accessed here.


  1. Holms says

    So the groups were being equally (un)fair when there was no scrutiny, while intoducing scrutiny brought improvement to the atheists only. The question ‘who are you in the dark’ comes to mind: apparently we are the same, but christians are unabashed about it.

  2. morsgotha says

    This seems to ring true. Of the four so-called horsemen of the new-atheists, two were British. For better or worse they didn’t/don’t feel the need to hold back.

    I suspect it is because in the UK atheists generally don’t feel the need coddle the religions, as we are as mainstream (indeed the majority according to some polls) as they are.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *