The Huffington Post reports the results of yet another study showing that atheists are the least trusted minority in the world. This study also suggests an obvious explanation of why this is the case-
One motivation for the research was a Gallup poll that found that only 45 percent of American respondents would vote for a qualified atheist president, says Norenzayan. The figure was the lowest among several hypothetical minority candidates. Poll respondents rated atheists as the group that least agrees with their vision of America, and that they would most disapprove of their children marrying.
The religious behaviors of others may provide believers with important social cues, the researchers say. “Outward displays of belief in God may be viewed as a proxy for trustworthiness, particularly by religious believers who think that people behave better if they feel that God is watching them,” says Norenzayan. “While atheists may see their disbelief as a private matter on a metaphysical issue, believers may consider atheists’ absence of belief as a public threat to cooperation and honesty.”
It does stand to reason that a fear of God might cause some people to behave better than they otherwise would, and hence that lack of belief in God might cause these very same people to behave badly. But that the fear of atheism is nevertheless an irrational phobia follows from a simple corollary: if atheists actually were untrustworthy (and hence deceptive), they would likely not declare themselves to be atheists (since a deceiver surely wishes not to be recognized as such). Indeed, atheists would likely disguise their atheism by pretending to be the most ardent of believers! So it seems that, on this basis, if believers should distrust anyone, it is their fellow believers.
Of course, the idea that belief in a supernatural being is either a necessary or sufficient condition of moral behavior is so obviously false that it is hardly worth raising any of the myriad counterexamples. But it seems to me that there is another reason, besides the one mentioned above, for distrusting believers more than self-professed atheists. It is this: a believer can view behaving immorally as a nihilistic – or even courageous – act of rebellion (as adolescents do when disregarding their long-standing fear of their parents). By contrast, an atheist must view similarly bad behavior as little more than mundane self-indulgance, or petty selfishness. Even if she conceives of her immorality as a rebellion against social norms, this can hardly compete with the truly grandiose notion of disobeying the orders of a transcendent being. So there seems to be an independent reason to be more concerned with the potential immorality of believers than with that of atheists.
Now, I’m not suggesting here that atheists are necessarily any less immoral than believers; they are susceptible to the same temptations as anyone else. And, as believers are fond of pointing out, secular dogmas (such as Stalinism or Naziism) can be at least as damaging as traditional religious ones. But it does seem to me that a moral theory arrived at by the voluntary exercise of one’s rationality is likely to be just as reliable – if not more so – as one based merely on religious faith, particularly when that faith is only half-hearted (as it often is when it is simply inherited as a family tradition). The bottom line is that trust should be bestowed on or withheld from a person based on their actual behaviors, not their professed attitudes towards a theistic God.