In religious countries (which describes most countries), atheists are frequent targets of antipathy. Gallup polls repeatedly show that atheists are among the least accepted groups of people in the United States. But atheists don’t really do anything. They’re not a particularly cohesive or visible group (if indeed they can be thought of as a group). As comedian Ricky Gervais (no relation) puts it, “Saying atheism is a belief system is like saying not going skiing is a hobby.”

So, what’s the basis for all the negativity? My colleagues and I have been investigating the psychological bases of anti-atheist prejudice by incorporating 1) evolutionary perspectives on prejudice, which highlight the fact that different types of prejudice emerge from the distinct types of functional threats that different groups are seen to pose, and 2) a cultural evolutionary approach to religious prosociality (the idea that some types of religious beliefs make people nice within given societies).

We find that anti-atheist prejudice isn’t about disgust or fear or anger. Rather, it results because, at a fundamental level, believers don’t trust atheists. Because anti-atheist prejudice is about distrust, it means that certain interventions can specifically alleviate distrust of atheists. For example, people are more tolerant of atheists when they are made to realize that there are plenty of reasons, aside from religion, to be nice to one another. When participants think about the police, all of a sudden atheists no longer seem so untrustworthy.