Most atheists hold far less polarized views than do the most visible atheists online. But online atheists fuel the negative stereotype of atheists overall.
Let's skip the throat-clearing and caveats and dive into the data.
Atheists have an image problem.
Consider a landmark 2006 sociology paper by Penny Edgell, Joseph Gerteis, and Douglas Hartmann. Summarizing large-scale surveys, these researchers found that “atheists are less likely to be accepted, publicly and privately, than any others from a long list of ethnic, religious, and other minority groups.”
To reach this conclusion, the researchers looked at poll questions about who was valued and accepted in the USA. One question asked people who they’d be willing to vote for as a well-qualified member of their own political party. People overwhelmingly said they’d vote for a candidate who was Black, or a woman, or Jewish, or gay. But support for atheists trailed far behind.
It’s not just about politics either: Similar results emerged from other questions. Who do people not want their children to marry? Atheists. Who do people see as having a fundamentally different view of American society? Atheists.
What gives? Atheists don’t really do much, so why all the angst?
One answer that I’ll explore in a forthcoming piece is that people intuitively equate morality and religion. Lots of people assume that religion is a necessary component of moral living, which leaves atheists looking like moral wildcards who can’t be trusted.
This sort of moral distrust is a primary global motivator of anti-atheist prejudice. But it might not be all there is to it.
I suspect that lots of people hold odd stereotypes about atheists simply because they aren’t familiar with atheists. They don’t know them personally, and even if they know someone who is an atheist, they might not know that he or she is an atheist. It’s a concealable identity. In most work or social contexts, personal atheism can easily fly under the radar. Atheism often isn’t known unless it’s broadcast. This means that those people who do broadcast their atheism might be seen as representative of atheists in general, for better or worse.
We know from at least a few lines of evidence that atheists tend to keep their atheism to themselves. For one thing, far more people meet the standard dictionary definition of “atheist” (merely someone who doesn’t believe in a God or gods) than actually identify as atheists in our surveys. In polls conducted by Gallup and Pew in 2014 and 2015, 11% of US Americans said they didn’t believe in a God, but only 3% identified as atheists. Both numbers have gone up since then, but the gap between definitional atheism and explicit identification as atheists persists. There’s also good reason to suspect that polls routinely underestimate actual atheist prevalence. Lots of atheists don’t want to “out” themselves to some random pollster who rings them up. This means that many or most atheists are effectively “closeted,” hidden from pollsters and public alike unless they choose to disclose their disbelief.
Most atheists may be hidden, but a select few are quite visible. Against a backdrop of closeted and quiet atheism, the few atheists who make their atheism known have tremendous power to shape the public perception of atheism, whether they want this power or not.
Celebrity atheists such as Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens (RIP), and Dennett are the most visible atheists out there, and in a previous article we saw that some of their public views are quite out of step with the attitudes of most atheists. To be clear, nobody elected the Four Horsemen of New Atheism to be spokesmen, so it’s perhaps unreasonable to expect them to represent the attitudes of everyone who doesn’t believe in God. But because they have such large platforms, many people may heuristically assume that all atheists are like that.
Beyond the celebrity atheists, there’s a second group of atheists that can really drive public perception. Vibrant online communities of atheists have sprung up, from Reddit’s r/atheism to discussion boards to people who are loud and proud about their atheism on platforms like Twitter (RIP).
Given the increasing ubiquity of social media in our lives, people who openly discuss their atheism online might be the most readily available examples a lot of people have about what everyday non-celebrity atheists are like. Not every atheist will be just like Dawkins or Harris, that’s a given. And many people will be savvy enough to recognize that celebrities don’t always perfectly represent their roots. But what about @HeathenGuy420 or @RationallyGodless over on Twitter? They could be many people’s main glimpse at what everyday atheists are like. Which brings us to our key question:
How representative of atheists in general are the atheists who are most vocal about atheism on social media?
To figure this out, I turned to a recent survey my lab collected. Some results were discussed in a recent article. The survey consisted of a roughly representative sample of more than 600 people in the USA, with about 2/3 indicating that they don’t believe in a god/gods. The usual psychology and social science caveats apply here: this is a small sample, representative of the country in some ways but not others, so treat generalization with caution. But there’s reason to believe that this sample is more representative than a lot of published work out there using undergraduate and MTurk samples. This sample is probably also more generalizable than work that relies on samples of atheists recruited from atheist groups, discussion boards and the like, for reasons we’ll soon see.
Enough throat-clearing and caveats. Let’s dive into data.
How visible are atheists on social media?
My survey included one item that asked people about their social media use, specifically in the context of how active they are in discussing atheism online: “How often do you actively participate in social media discussions of atheism or disbelief?” Remember: Atheism is likely to go unnoticed unless it’s broadcast, so this is a rough measure of who is broadcasting their atheism online.
As you can see, most atheists rarely get involved in online discussions of atheism. This creates a potential problem. Most atheists are pretty quiet about it, but a few people drive most of the online discussion of atheism. This creates a potential mismatch between typical atheists and the most visible atheists, to the extent that there are predictable differences between the two groups. Sure, the two groups differ in social media usage, but might they differ in other important ways as well?
I called this a potential problem, and it’s worth unpacking this a little. Because atheists are generally inconspicuous, public perception is likely to start out a bit vague, and stereotypes might quickly get filled in by whichever examples are noticeable. Psychological shortcuts like the availability heuristic, the representativeness heuristic, and confirmation bias can come into play. This will potentially lead people to assume that atheists generally tend to be like the most visible atheists online. If the most visible atheists are basically just like the rest of the atheists, only a bit more chatty online, that’s not a big deal. But if the visible atheists are different from the typical atheists in more ways than just social media usage, it could drive public misperception. The most visible atheists, through no fault of their own, will drive public perceptions of atheism far beyond their actual numerical representation.
I did some statistical analyses to in effect predict what “typical” and “online” atheists would look like on a few specific measures throughout the survey. Basically, I’d ask my statistical software to project the attitudes of atheists who say they never discuss atheism online (like most atheists), and also the attitudes of atheists who discuss atheism online very frequently (like a small handful of visible atheists). For short, I’ll call these projections the “typical” and “online” atheists for the rest of this article. For comparison, I’ve also thrown in a profile of the average believer.
An added caveat at this point: I already mentioned that the overall smallish sample size warrants some caution. This caution goes double for the profiles of very online atheists throughout. As we saw, they make up a tiny sliver of the overall atheist pie. Their numerical smallness renders the resulting estimate uncertainty correspondingly large. Picture some wide error bars around the estimates I provide.
Let’s illustrate both the overall statistical approach and also the potential problem by looking at some survey items that focused on interpersonal attitudes.
Who do atheists like?
To get a feel for people’s interpersonal attitudes, I had my survey respondents rate their feelings towards different groups of people on a standard psychology measure called a “feeling thermometer.” Basically, we ask people to rate how coldly or warmly they feel towards some group of people, from 0 (coldest) to 100 (warmest). This is a crude measure of feelings towards different people, but can nonetheless prove useful.
For this article, let’s focus on attitudes toward six groups of people: atheists, Christians, Muslims, police, refugees, and scientists.
So, how do atheists feel about other people? It really depends on which atheists you’re asking. The conclusions a researcher would draw about atheists will be quite different for a sample of online atheists than for a sample of typical atheists. To make this concrete, we’ll picture the conclusions that a researcher could make about atheists if they only sampled typical atheists, or if they only sampled the visible online atheists (say, by recruiting a sample of atheists via social media).
If my sample only included vocal online atheists, the results would look like the graph below, which displays the profile of only believers and online atheists. Here, it looks like there are massive differences between believers and atheists, across the board but especially when it comes to religion. Notice the massive ingroup bias here—believers prefer Christians above atheists by about 13 points (68 to 56), but atheists prefer other atheists above Christians by a whopping 62 points (92 to 30)! This giant gap results from there being both more ingroup love (92 vs. 68 for ingroup ratings) and more outgroup dislike (30 vs. 56 for the outgroup). There are also sizeable attitude gaps when it comes to Muslims, police, refugees, and scientists.
If our sample predominantly included the very online atheists, as is the case for a lot of research in this area that recruits online and through atheist groups, we’d assume that there are fairly massive gaps between atheists and believers on their interpersonal attitudes.
Next is what the exact same graph would look like if we only sampled the more typical atheists who tend not to discuss this stuff online. There’s still a difference between believers and atheists, but it’s much smaller now. The massive gap where our online atheists preferred atheists to Christians by 62 points narrows by a ton—here it’s only about 27 points (75 to 48).
We can drive the point home by plotting all the profiles together. In this way, we see that the very online atheists show basically the same preferences as typical atheists, but they do so in a highly exaggerated way. Typical atheists like scientists a bit more than believers do, but online atheists really like scientists. Believers are lukewarm about police, and typical atheists are wary—but online atheists really dislike cops. Typical atheists like Muslims less than Christians do, online atheists like Muslims even less.
This result implies that on these sorts of attitudes, atheists and believers might have a lot more in common than would be assumed by looking at just the atheists who are most visible online. Sure, there are still gaps between typical atheists and believers, but they’re nowhere near as big as one would guess if they only had the voices of online atheists to listen to. Only listening to the online atheists, we’d assume that believers and atheists have hugely different social attitudes, and that believers and atheists really don’t see eye to eye when it comes to attitudes towards each other. But most atheists hold far less polarized interpersonal views than do the most visible atheists online. And intergroup conflict between believers and atheists is nowhere near as large as it appears online, at least inasmuch as intergroup conflict is indexed by attitudes towards atheists and Christians among atheists and Christians.
Remember: Ingroup love and outgroup hate is more than twice as large among the most visible atheists as it is among typical atheists.
Next, let’s consider cognitive style.
How atheists (say they) think
There’s an old and useful idea in psychology that goes something like this: Inside our minds are two different systems for processing information. One of them relies on quick-and-dirty mental shortcuts that we experience as intuitions. The other system relies on more effortful cognitive reflection, and we experience this as…well…thinking. The first system is cognitively frugal and fast, and it uses heuristics and hunches and intuitions. The second system is slower and more costly and relies on effortful rational and analytic thought.
This work is nicely summarized in Nobel laureate Daniel Kahnemann’s book Thinking, Fast and Slow. We all have both systems and can shift back and forth between the two depending on time and motivation and resources. Have ample time and really want to get the right answer on something? Use the reflective system. Rushed for time, maybe a little hungover, and don’t care too much about accuracy? Go with the gut, and follow your intuitions. Researchers often refer to people’s relative reliance on both systems as their cognitive style. And even though everybody can use both systems, sometimes it’s useful to think of cognitive style as running along a continuum from an intuitive pole to a reflective pole.
My survey had a few different measures of cognitive style. Some of them were basically self-reports where I used well-validated questionnaires that just asked people about their thinking preferences. One measure was a pretty standard performance-based task that may more directly measure a person’s cognitive style.
First up, I used a questionnaire that measures what psychologists call Actively Open-Minded Thinking. This questionnaire asks people how much they tend to incorporate evidence in their thinking, and change their beliefs as new information rolls in. Two sample items:
- “Whether something feels true is more important than evidence.”
- “Just because evidence conflicts with my current beliefs does not mean my beliefs are wrong.”
These items are reverse scored, which means that a person will score highly on Actively Open-minded Thinking by disagreeing with them. People who score highly on Actively Open-minded thinking would usually be classed as having a more reflective (rather than intuitive) cognitive style. These folks like evidence, and they claim to hinge their opinions on it.
Next, I measured self-reported Preference for Intuitive Thinking as a sort of counterpoint to Actively Open-Minded Thinking. This measure straightforwardly asks people how much they trust their hunches and rely on their intuitions. Two sample items:
- “I believe in trusting my hunches.”
- “Intuition is the best guide in making decisions.”
Note that the Actively Open-Minded Thinking questions and the Preference for Intuitive Thinking questions are just self-reports. They’re not necessarily measuring how much people actually rely on intuitive or reflective thinking, they’re asking people how much they think they do these things. To get at an actual performance-based measure of cognitive style, I included a version of the Cognitive Reflection Test (CRT for short. And if you’re overly steeped in culture wars, rest assured: this is different from the CRT that’s being banned in various US states). The CRT gives people a bunch of math problems. The problems are computationally simple but are written as sort of trick questions. For each question, there’s an answer that pops intuitively to mind…but is wrong. Getting the right answer requires people to step back from their first hunch, and then consider the question through a more reflective lens. It doesn’t measure how good you are at math, so much as how good you are at putting your first intuition aside and kicking your reflective system into gear even a little bit. Here’s one of the questions:
- “In a lake, there is a patch of lily pads. Every day, the patch doubles in size. If it takes 48 days for the patch to cover the entire lake, how long would it take for the patch to cover half of the lake?”
Our first hunch is to answer “24.” After all, 24 is half of 48 and the question is asking when the pond is half full. But if we set that intuition aside, we’ll see that since the lily pads double every day, the pond would’ve been half full on day 47. If you give people a bunch of these questions (I gave 10) and tally up the correct answers, this gives a performance-based measure of people’s cognitive style, along our intuitive-to-reflective dimension.
So what’s the cognitive style of typical atheists and very online atheists? Looking just at our self-report measures, these results somewhat mirror what we saw with social attitudes. The very online atheists show the same basic pattern as do typical atheists, only more so. Atheists talk up their Actively Open-Minded Thinking, but very online atheists really brag up their Actively Open-Minded Thinking. Atheists report less preference for going with the gut (which in this plot shows up as being more towards the reflective end of the Preference for Intuitive Thinking measure); very online atheists really report less preference for following hunches.
When we add in the performance-based measure, however, things get a little more interesting. Very online atheists look massively reflective in cognitive style when given self-reports. But on a math task that measures actual performance on a test of cognitive style, very online atheists are actually less reflective than typical atheists. In fact, the very online atheists aren’t statistically distinguishable from believers. I’ve written elsewhere about how rationality isn’t the key to atheism that a lot of atheists make it out to be.
In an ironic twist, the atheists most likely to voice the myth of rational atheism online might be the ones who least exemplify it.
Finally, let’s check out basic personalities of atheists, both typical and visible. There are a lot of personality measures out there, ranging from BuzzFeed’s “Which Game of Thrones character are you?” quizzes to well-validated scientific instruments containing dozens of questions that have been rigorously tested over the years. Some of the most common will promise to tell you your personality type, but they’re unscientific junk (I’m looking at you, Myers-Briggs Personality Inventory with your INTJ and ENFP personality-typing flimflam). I ignored these branded snake oils and instead included two measures that are well-vetted by actual personality psychologists.
The general gist of these measures is that people have different relatively stable traits that describe who they are. These traits exist along a handful of different dimensions. There aren’t personality types whereby people get sorted into categories; instead, each trait is a dial that can be turned up or down a bit from person to person, like a mixing board in a recording studio. This combination of dimensions describes (at a coarse level) your personality.
My survey included one personality measure called the HEXACO that chunks personality into six dimensions. Here’s the HEXACO rundown, with key adjectives for each dimension in italics.
There’s a dimension of Honesty/Humility that describes how sincere or modest people are. People low on this dimension might be described as sly or pompous.
The E in HEXACO stands for Emotionality and is a dimension that gauges how emotionally reactive you are, running from low emotionality (people who are stable and self-assured) to high emotionality (people who are anxious or vulnerable).
The X is a bit of a cheat—it stands for eXtraversion, and it’s the dimension that relates to sociability. Low extraversion folks might be called shy or reserved and high extraversion people might be called outgoing or sociable.
A is for Agreeableness, and describes how much people are ill-tempered and quarrelsome versus gentle and tolerant.
Conscientiousness, our C, is about organization and responsibility. High-C people are organized, thorough, and disciplined; Low-C people are sloppy, lazy, or absent-minded.
Finally comes O, Openness to Experience, the dimension of curiosity and variety. We describe highly open-to-experience people as intellectual or creative or even innovative, and we describe low openness people as shallow or conventional. Take a minute and think about where—just stereotypically speaking—you think atheists and believers might fall on each dimension.
Here are the actual results:
Not a lot of huge differences, are there? This is a pretty consistent pattern in the psychology literature. The personality profiles of atheists and believers aren’t hugely different. Across studies, the most commonly found pattern is probably that atheists tend to be a bit less agreeable and more open than believers, but the differences aren’t all that big. In terms of comparing typical atheists to very online atheists, the take-home message overall is one of similarity. As with our social attitudes and (self-reported) cognitive style, the very online atheists again look to show slightly exaggerated differences where they occur. But on personality, these differences are small.
Only a few of the personality differences between typical atheists and very online atheists were big enough to seem statistically reliable. Very online atheists (relative to typical atheists) were consistently a little lower on Agreeableness, Conscientiousness, and Humility, but were otherwise pretty comparable. Although the differences even in these domains weren’t large, it’s worth noting that these are among the most loaded personality dimensions in terms of social desirability. We don’t get all judgmental about how curious (high Openness) or laid-back (low Emotionality) or outgoing (high eXtraversion) people are…but we certainly prefer people to be dependable (high Conscientiousness), modest (high Humility), and kind (high Agreeableness).
Beyond HEXACO, I also had a measure of what personality psychologists call the Dark Triad. This sounds ominous, but basically measures three additional personality dimensions that are decidedly anti-social in nature. There’s Machiavellianism—the tendency to use people as tools to further one’s own ends. It’s the personality dimension of schemers and manipulators. There’s Narcissism, a personality dimension that measures interpersonal dominance and entitlement. Finally, there’s subclinical Psychopathy, a volatile combination of low empathy for others and high impulsivity. It’s important to note that this measure isn’t capturing psychopathy as we might find it in, say, a serial killer. This measure is going for a subtler and less extreme version of the trait such as you might find in an unethical boss or aggressively hostile coworker.
Here’s where our profiles fell on the Dark Triad:
You might have a hard time differentiating the believers from the typical atheists on this plot. They’re right on top of each other, after all—no Dark Triad differences to be seen. But our very online atheists looked to score markedly higher on both Machiavellianism and subclinical Psychopathy. Indeed, across both the HEXACO and the Dark Triad measures, Machiavellianism and Psychopathy were the two personality traits in which very online atheists most reliably differed from the typical atheists.
Typical atheists and very online atheists showed a few small differences in the HEXACO profiles —specifically trends towards online atheists being a little lower on Agreeableness, Conscientiousness, and Honesty/Humility. But differences were considerably larger on two of the Dark Triad. Very online atheists, relative to both believers and typical atheists, were higher in Machiavellianism and Psychopathy.
Put all of this together and you’ll see the vicious potential for stereotyping. People are far more likely to see and recognize as atheists the very online atheists, relative to typical atheists. But consistent differences emerged between the very online atheists and typical atheists on a wide range of measures. To the extent that people are forming stereotypes of atheists based on their limited experiences with them online (an assumption, but not an outlandish one), then here’s what they’ll get wrong.
Online observers will potentially misperceive atheists as being:
- More polarized on attitudes towards lots of groups of people
- More committed to their ingroup
- More denigrating of religious groups like Muslims and especially Christians
- More prone to describe themselves as having a reflective an open-minded cognitive style
- A bit less reflective in cognitive style when performance is measured
- Lower in Honesty/Humility
- Less Agreeable
- Less Conscientious
- More Machiavellian
- Higher in subclinical Psychopathy
If public perception tracks (or worse yet exaggerates) the differences between online atheists and typical atheists, that could be bad news indeed. Pooling across all these measures, here’s a stereotype that might be generated from our aggregate very online atheist using adjectives and descriptors from the measures themselves:
- Atheists are cliquishly supportive of other atheists, but intolerant of Christians and Muslims;
- They talk a big game about open-mindedness and eschewing gut intuitions, but fail to walk the walk when actual performance is measured
- They’re not especially tolerant or careful or sincere or empathic, but they are callous and manipulative and impulsive.
Hardly flattering, eh?
Stereotypes like this are not a recipe for good vibes. That’s the bad news. Remember, though, that’s just the stereotype that could result if people treat online atheists as representative of all atheists. But nobody has to treat very online atheists as spokespeople for all of atheism.
We know two things about very online atheists: they are atheists, and they enjoy discussing touchy subjects like atheism online. The unique personality and cognitive profiles of our very online atheists might have less to do with the atheism and more to do with the online debate. Plausibly, the most active discussants on lots of topics online might skew towards being less agreeable, or more Machiavellian, than are people less prone to online grandstanding and squabbles. Maybe we’d find similar patterns if we compared, for example, quiet and private hockey fans to extreme online hockey partisans. This could be a personality profile of the extremely online, rather than of online atheists specifically. It’s entirely possible that when we see online atheists behaving distastefully, we’re really just seeing what staunch online partisans tend to look like, across issues and platforms.
Online atheists belong to two camps—the atheists, and the online. Their resulting personality profile reflects both camps, but the precise mixture is unknown.
Seeking some silver lining as both an atheist and someone who studies harmful stereotypes (and, I’ll begrudgingly admit, someone who spends way too much time online), these analyses actually make me a bit optimistic! I’m optimistic simply because the evidence so far suggests that the vast majority of atheists aren’t very online about it, which means that the ground reality is far less polarizing and harsh than ready online examples illustrate. Atheism is far bigger than r/atheism and Twitter hashtag battles—I thank God and the entire Darwinian non-pantheon for that! The contrasts presented in this article are all contrasts between a few very visible online partisans and a vast multitude of relatively quiet atheists. Across pretty much all the analyses above, things were far less polarized for the typical atheists than the very online atheists. Polarization between atheists and believers isn’t the only or even the primary challenge that atheists face in the world.
But when it comes to public perception of atheists, it would probably be helpful for people to realize that most atheists aren’t entirely like the people who most visibly portray them online.
 Don’t worry, I checked and it turns out nobody actually has claimed these Twitter handles. You could be @HeathenGuy420 if you act quickly. For a mere $8 a month, you can even get a blue tick to prove that you’re really @HeathenGuy420 and not some impostor.
 The full measure I used was the Comprehensive Thinking Styles Questionnaire, by Christie Newton, Justin Feeney, & Gordon Pennycook. It’s available here.
 At least in this sample, on these measures, with these statistical analyses. Remember, caveats abound!
 Indeed, there are even cases where less polarization could be disastrous. As one tangible and pressing example, White Christian Nationalism is an existential threat to American democracy, according to sociologists like Sam Perry. If atheist-believer polarization is decreased by atheist attitudes shifting to be more in line with prominent evangelical voices preaching White Christian Nationalism, then less polarization means more people facilitating the undermining of democracy in favor of a permanent minority rule white ethnostate. That’s obviously bad. But when it comes to improving public perceptions of atheists, less polarization is probably an okay goal.