Religious belief in Israel
Religious belief in IsraelThinkstock

A new study published this week in Nature Human Behavior showed that most people intuitively assume perpetrators of extremely immoral actions are atheists.

The study, which included over 3,000 people in 13 countries on 5 continents, found the prejudice against atheists remained no matter how respondents identified religiously. In fact, even atheists believed serial murderers were more likely to be atheist than anything else.

All countries had populations which were either largely Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu, or non-religious.

In the study, University of Kentucky researcher Will Gervais and his colleagues examined how people perceive the connection between immorality and atheism. Their hypothesis: People believe that those who act immorally do so because they do not fear punishments from (the) G-d(s).

Participants received a description of a boy who tortures animals, then grows up and becomes a teacher who murders and mutilates five homeless people. Half of the participants were then asked if the perpetrator was a teacher who does not believe in G-d(s), or a teacher; the other half were asked if the perpetrator was a teacher, or a teacher who is a religious believer. Researchers then compared the two groups.

The answers showed that people - even in nations with irreligious majorities - are nearly twice as likely to view extreme immorality as representative of atheists rather than believers. Exceptions were Finland and New Zealand. It also showed that religious people and atheists share the same prejudice against atheists.

In other words, most people believe that religion is necessary in order for a person to behave morally.

"Entrenched moral suspicion of atheists suggests religion’s powerful influence on moral judgements persists, even among non-believers in secular societies," the authors wrote.

"These results show that across the world, religious belief is intuitively viewed as a necessary safeguard against the temptations of grossly immoral conduct, and atheists are broadly perceived as potentially morally depraved and dangerous."

In July, a study was published showing that religious people are more tolerant of differing opinions than atheists are - despite the fact that atheists consider themselves to be open-minded and liberal.