Update: Saturday, 2:48 am. The original version of this post contained an unkind remark directed towards Josh Rosenau. My intention was facetious hyperbole, but upon further reflection I’ve decided that my remark is too easily misunderstood as personally acrimonious. For that reason I have revised that sentence, while leaving unchanged the substantive points I was making.
That’s the title of a new study (PDF format) by psychologist Wll Gervais, published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. Here’s the abstract:
Although prejudice is typically positively related to relative outgroup size, four studies found converging evidence that perceived atheist prevalence reduces anti-atheist prejudice. Study I demonstrated that anti-atheist prejudice among religious believers is reduced in countries in which atheists are especially prevalent. Study 2 demonstrated that perceived atheist prevalence is negatively associated with anti-atheist prejudice. Study 3 demonstrated a causal relationship: Reminders of atheist prevalence reduced explicit distrust of atheists. These results appeared distinct from intergroup contact effects. Study 4 demonstrated that prevalence information decreased implicit atheist distrust. The latter two experiments provide the first evidence that mere prevalence information can reduce prejudice against any outgroup. These findings offer insights about anti-atheist prejudice, a poorly understood phenomenon. Furthermore, they suggest both novel directions for future prejudice research and potential interventions that could reduce a variety of prejudices.
None of this will come as a surprise to regular readers of this blog, since it completely vindicates the argument I made in this epic post from last year:
Likewise, if you want to mainstream atheism you have to make it visible. You have to make it ubiquitous, so that gradually it loses all of its mystique and scariness and becomes entirely ho hum and commonplace. It is not so much about making an argument that will cause conservative religious folks to slap their foreheads and abandon their faith, as though that were possible. It is about working around them, by making atheism part of the zeitgeist.
It is a long-term strategy, one starting deep within its own endzone thanks to years of more effete strategies. Will it work? I don’t know. But I am confident that nothing else will.
Of course, I am not saying that the rational arguments don’t matter. Of course you have to make a good point. Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris all have numerous e-mails to offer from people who credit their books with changing their minds on this issue. So persuasion via rational argument should not be underestimated. I am simply noting that the importance of books like those of the NA’s goes far beyond the people who actually buy them and read them. It goes far beyond the people sitting in the audiences during their public presentations. It extends to the fact that four years after the publication of Dawkins’ and Hitchens’ books everyone is still talking about them. Atheism is a part of the public conversation to a degree that was unheard of prior to the publication of those books. Keep it up and pretty soon you have a generation of people who think there is nothing bizarre about atheism, just as today we have a generation of teenagers growing up in an environment in which homosexuality is visible and largely accepted.
As Gervais explains, the broader context for his research is this: the general wisdom in studies of prejudice is that hostility towards an outgroup tends to increase as the size of that outgroup increases. But a more nuanced view recognizes that the truth of this generality depends on the basis for the prejudice. In cases where the prejudice is the result of fear, it makes sense that hostility towards an outgroup would increase with the size of the group. But with atheists the prejudice is based on distrust. Gervais explains the possible significance of this:
Although prejudice characterized by fear is positively related to outgroup size, prejudice characterized by distrust may instead be negatively related to outgroup size. There is some inherent tension between distrust of atheists on one hand and the collective inconspicuousness of atheists on the other hand. One would expect that such an untrustworthy group would be readily apparent, as their widespread immorality would leave obvious effects. These two facts could be reconciled if atheists were rare: Even an untrustworthy group can escape notice if it is small enough. But atheist distrust may not be able to persist if atheists are both inconspicuous and believed to be numerous. In other words, it is possible that knowledge that atheists are both inconspicuous and numerous could force a reappraisal of the incompatible view that they are untrustworthy. This pattern would lead to a negative relationship between anti-atheist prejudice and perceived atheist prevalence.
This possibility is precisely what has now been borne out.
This research pretty obviously strengthens the case for the effectiveness and usefulness of what the New Atheists have been doing. As I argued in the epic post, their main contribution is to make atheism visible, and to make it far more mainstream than it was previously. Chris Mooney graciously notices this fact:
In general, I believe what we know about human psychology runs contrary to the New Atheist approach and strategy. However, I do my best to follow the data, and here’s a study that suggest at least one aspect of their approach may work. The tactic finding support here is not necessarily being confrontational-that would tend to prompt negative emotional reactions, and thus defensiveness and inflexibility towards New Atheist arguments-but rather, making it more widely known that you’re actually there-as “out” atheists try to do:
The tactic that receives support from this study is that of doing what you can to make atheism visible. The problem for Mooney’s argument is that it is precisely the confrontational nature of the NA books that make them so effective at getting the word out.
Josh Rosenau is less gracious:
I actually think Chris is being too nice to New Atheism here, which is rather remarkable. As I’ve said before, it’s hardly surprising that making a group more visible is a better way to build public acceptance than being less visible, and I support efforts to increase atheism’s visibility. But New Atheism is hardly the only way for atheists – or nontheists more generally – to get the word out that they’re here and want to be taken seriously. It’s a myth that there’s no such thing as bad publicity: if no one knows who you are, it’s all the more crucial to present yourself well. And for the reasons Chris alludes to above, and for reasons I’ve laid out ad nauseam, I don’t think New Atheism is the best way to present atheism.
For the record, the place where Josh said it before was in reply to my epic post. And since this new research is far more supportive of my argument than his, you can understand why he now grimly tries to turn lemons into lemonade.
Please tell me the better method for getting the word out about atheism. Consider that sales of NA books are numbered in the millions. Then factor in the millions more who have attended NA presentations or who have watched videos of those presentations on You Tube. And then factor in all of the media coverage given to atheism as a result of the NA’s efforts. Consider that years after the publication of the major NA books people are still talking about them. You really have an alternative method for getting the word out that can match those results? I doubt it.
As I suggested a moment ago in my reply to Chris Mooney, we seem to have a conflict here. On the one had, it is not in doubt that being excessively confrontational can turn people off from your point of view. On the other, some degree of confrontation is necessary to attract attention to your cause. If we are trying to assess the impact of the NA’s, we need to decide which of those aspects is the most important.
Since I am not aware of any hard data that would help us answer this question, all I can say is that it just seems dead bang obvious to me that it is the latter aspect of their writing that dominates the former. That is, their success in getting the word out vastly outweighs the offense they may have given to some people. Simply put, I do not believe religious folks are anywhere near as delicate as many of the NA critics suggest.
Frankly, my strong suspicion is that the notion that the NA’s are terribly rude and obnoxious is far more prevalent among a small group of preening academics than it is among the public at large. Anyone who reads the more vitriolic NA critics prior to reading the NA books is likely to be disappointed by how tame those books really are. You can go pawing through them looking for the juicy bits, but they are nowhere near as fiery as their reputation. And in their public presentations, the behavior of the most prominent NA’s is impeccable.
It is just empty rhetoric to suggest that the prevalence of atheism can be made clear to people without also ruffling some feathers. The simple fact is that the NA’s are a new arrival on the scene. For rather a lot of years prior to their arrival hostility towards atheism was at a fever pitch, but that attitude certainly could not be blamed on excessive militancy on our part. There has been ample opportunity to prove that more mild-mannered approaches could get results, and the verdict is in. It is a bit rich to be told, after the NA’s have successfully made atheism part of the public conversation to a degree that was inconceivable just a few years ago, that a handful of bloggers know a better way.