People don’t like atheists because they serve as a grim reminder of death’s finality

Researchers have found evidence that atheists are disliked and distrusted because of the widespread belief that people behave better when they think an almighty divine power is watching their every move. But Cook and his colleagues have proposed another hypothesis: Atheists are disliked because they pose a fundamental threat to the worldview of religious people, a worldview that helps them mitigate “the potential terror arising from the uniquely human awareness of death.”

Their study, “What If They’re Right About the Afterlife? Evidence of the Role of Existential Threat on Anti-Atheist Prejudice,” was published online April 27 in the scientific journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.

An experiment conducted with 236 college students revealed that people from a variety of religious backgrounds tended to become more negative, more distant, and more distrustful of atheists after reflecting on their own mortality. A second experiment with another 200 students found that thinking about atheism made religious people more likely to think about death.

The findings support the idea that one of the reasons people dislike and distrust nonbelievers is because atheism poses a threat to theistic worldviews that help people cope with human vulnerability and mortality.