Chris Mooney reports on Psych Evidence that Supports New Atheism, writing:
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.
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.
Indeed, I think the details of the research bear this point out. The study’s introduction nicely lays out the current state of research on public attitudes towards atheists, and sets up the nature of the challenge atheist outreach faces. According to researcher Will Gervais:
In addition to displaying an unwillingness to vote for politicians who do not believe in God, American respondents rated atheists as the group that least shares their vision of America and the group that they would most disapprove of their children marrying. … although most stigmatized groups have become more accepted over the past several decades, this has been less true for atheists; as a result, atheists now rank at the bottom of large-scale polls of cultural inclusion. This may indicate that antipathy toward atheists is not the simple result of general intergroup conflict processes.
That is to say, it can’t just be that people are iffy about atheists because atheists are different and different people are scary. They must have some specific reason(s) to find atheists disreputable. In particular, Gervais argues that atheists are seen as untrustworthy, with adherence to some organized religion being seen by the public (in the US) as a marker of trustworthiness:
religious people use the religious beliefs of others as heuristic cues of trustworthiness, equating religiosity with moral standing. Individuals who believe in supernatural agents capable of witnessing and punishing moral transgressions are viewed as more motivated to inhibit their selfish tendencies; this, in turn, promotes trust of “God-fearing” believers. One study vividly illustrates this pattern. Tan and Vogel (2008) had subjects participate with each other in a classic behavioral economic game that measures trust. Participants were more likely to entrust their money to an anonymous stranger if they found out that the stranger was strongly religious.
In a series of experiments, Gervais showed that informing students about the prevalence of atheists reduced their sense of distrust towards atheists, and reduced measures of their prejudice against atheists. This supports efforts like the scarlet A and at least some forms of the bus ads and billboards being run in major cities. To my knowledge, no one has done focus groups or other market research on the relative effectiveness of different slogans from these ads, but I would think it would be relatively easy to evaluate their effects in targeted cities by running a poll shortly before the ads (and associated media coverage) appear, and then a second poll several weeks later (with perhaps parallel polls in a demographically and culturally comparable control city in a different media market and in which no ads are run).
Based on this study, I’d guess that slogans like Coalition of Reason’s billboards (“Don’t believe in God? You’re not alone”) would be more effective than the more combative ads from the Freedom From Religion Foundation, ads which do not emphasize the presence of atheists and other non-theists in the community and which in some cases could be taken as insulting or trivializing religious people (not merely religion). Hardly an ideal way to increase trust in the broader population. COR’s billboards might be even more effective (given this research) if they didn’t just say there’s at least one other non-theist around, but how many there are. Perhaps something like: “Don’t believe in God? Neither do one in ten of your neighbors.”
But atheist outreach could well backfire if it makes atheists seem offensive or immoral, plays into the Cold War’s “godless Communist” canard, sets atheists apart from their broader community, or otherwise feeds into this widespread, naive, harmful, and unjustified mistrust of atheists. This doesn’t mean atheists should hide their light under a bushel, but it does mean being strategic in how they communicate with the broader public. You only get one chance to make a first impression.