A new study indicates that people distrust atheists even more than rapists.
Reporting for Religion News Service (12/10/11), Kimberly Winston explained that psychologists at two universities have conducted a study which "demonstrates that anti-atheist prejudice stems from moral distrust, if not dislike, of nonbelievers."
Those who participated in the study were both religious and non-religious adults and students. According to Azim Shariff, one of the researchers, "People find atheists very suspect...They don't fear God so we should distrust them; they do not have the same moral obligations of others. This is a common refrain against atheists. People fear them as a group."
Something inside us just knows you cannot trust people who do not believe in God. Certainly not all atheists are untrustworthy, and that's not the point of the research. The point is rather to demonstrate a common perception which holds that if a person openly does not believe in God, you're wise to be wary of him.
The Apostle Paul wrote about people have "no fear of God before their eyes" (Rom. 3.18). His description of the atheists of his day perhaps explains why many people seem to have an inbuilt distrust of nonbelievers. Paul, drawing from Old Testament Scriptures, showed that those who do not fear God are not concerned for matters of righteousness, goodness, truth-telling, or compassion. No fear of God, no respect for others. They live only for themselves, and everyone else had better steer clear.
Paul's solution to the problem of atheism is to encourage people to believe in Jesus and discover a new way of life in Him. The researchers in the study reported by Ms. Winston have a different take. They think their research should be used to combat "anti-atheism prejudice."
But that would be to strive against the grain of human nature. People are made in the image of God, and this sense that you can't trust those who openly deny and even defy God would appear to be deep-seated in the human soul. We are going to be leery of those who flout all standards except those which agree with their own agenda. And rightly so.
Paul's warning about atheists will doubtless evoke snorts and sneers from those it describes. Yet, as social science now appears to indicate, most people will resonate with his words. Paul, it appears, had it right long before contemporary psychologists.
Rather than accommodate the atheist, therefore, and hope we can overcome our inherent distrust of him, let us pity the atheist for his misguided ways, and urge him to consider Jesus.
Related texts: Psalm 14; Romans 3.10-18; Ephesians 4.17-24
A conversation starter: "New research says that most people don't trusts atheists. Why do you think that's so?"