Why It Is Rational to Trust Atheists Less

Atheistic-naturalists (hereafter just “atheists”) often lament the fact that they are one of the least trusted groups in society. In fact, at least in the United States, atheists are arguably the most distrusted group that exists in society. Now, as mentioned, atheists find this to be a lamentable situation; they see it as a situation that testifies to the fact that they are a disliked group that suffers this form of “oppression” and is discriminated against in this way. Indeed, atheists see this as a discrimination that they are subject to because religious believers have preconceived biases and prejudices against them. They argue that the fact that atheists are instinctively and generally viewed as less trustworthy as religious believers–and thus, specifically, they are considered less trustworthy than Christians–is evidence of the prejudicial and discriminatory nature of religious belief. They are the “out” group of society, and so they are unjustly and irrational distrusted. But is this distrust of atheists actually unreasonable? Is it some type of atheistic-phobia, thus showing itself to be an irrational fear of unbelievers?

I will argue that this distrust of atheists is anything but irrational. In fact, I will argue that this greater distrust of an unbeliever, when compared to a believer, is, at least initially, a very sound and sane social strategy. In fact, it is an eminently rational position to hold. And to understand why this is so, let me use an analogy.

Imagine two police officers. The first police officer is an individual who truly loves the law. He not only believes that the law is universal and objective, but also that it is, in many cases, unchangeable. Furthermore, this officer believes that the law itself is largely in tune with actual morality, thus he strives to follow the law of his own accord. This officer is an idealist who believes that his goal in life is to act in a fair, just, and honest way, and to treat all people equally. He believes that it is both his objective purpose in life, as well as the objective purpose of all of mankind, to seek and believe that which is true. At the same time, this officer simultaneously believes that he is constantly under surveillance by his superiors. He knows that if he is caught in a misdeed, then not only will he be punished severely, but he will also disappoint himself and shame his profession, which is something that he wishes to avoid to the maximal degree. So not only does this first officer have strong internal reasons to follow the law to the greatest extent that he can, but he also has strong external motivations to do so as well.

Now let us picture the second police officer. This officer, ultimately, thinks that the law is just a social construct that is malleable, changeable, and has no real binding force. Furthermore, this second officer thinks that, in the end, might makes right, and that both he and other people only follow the law out of self-interest, or because doing so makes them “feel” good. This officer believes that, in the end, it is not really “wrong”, in an objective sense, to lie, to take bribes, or to break the law. Furthermore, he does not believe that people have any objective purpose in life, let alone any type of objective purpose to seek and believe that which is true. Additional, this officer believes that not only is mankind’s nature geared towards self-interest, but that there really is not anything like free-will, and so no one is really morally responsible for their behaviour. People may have to be detained and incarcerated in order to stop their negative behaviour, but that does not really mean that these people are morally “responsible” for their bad actions. They could not help themselves. And, of course, this officer believes the same of himself. If he does something bad, like lie, or cheat, or take bribes, well, he knows that its not really his fault; he was just determined to act that way. Finally, this second officer believes that no one is watching what he does. He knows that his superiors are not recording or monitoring him; no one really knows what he does when he is on his own patrolling. And if no one sees what he does, then this officer believes that no one except for him will know what he did.

So let me ask you: if you had to deal with one of these officers, which one would you rather deal with? Which would you instinctively and initially believe to be more trustworthy and honest?

I contend that it is obvious to everyone that the first officer is the one who is initially seen as more trustworthy and more honest. I contend that it is obvious that any rational person would be initially hesitant about dealing with or trusting the second officer. Now note immediately that I am not saying that this initial and instinctive assessment might not change after dealing with each officer, but rather that initially and instinctively, it is rational to believe that the first officer is more trustworthy and more likely to be honest than the second. And there is nothing irrational about such an initial and instinctive assessment. In fact, such an assessment is eminently rational and makes solid sense.

But now, seeing that it is rational to initially and instinctively consider the first officer as more trustworthy than the second officer, we can also now see where this analogy takes us. And where it takes us is to show us that the same sort of instinctive and initial assessment is eminently rational when it comes to Christians and atheists. Why? Because the first officer believes the very things that a committed Christian believes and the second officer believes the very things that a committed atheistic-naturalist believes. The first officer has what is essentially a Christian worldview, while the second officer has, in many ways, an atheistic worldview. So just in hearing that someone is a Christian or an atheistic-naturalist, these are the worldview beliefs that we anticipate them to have. And thus, in our analogy, one could simply insert “Christian” in place of the first officer, and insert “atheistic-naturalist” in place of the second officer, and nevertheless, the core of the beliefs articulated in the above analogy would, for the most part, stay the same. And since, as articulated, it is rational to instinctively and initially believe that the first officer is more trustworthy than the second one, then it is, by extension, also rational to instinctively and initially believe that a Christian is more trustworthy than an atheist is.

What does all of this mean? Well, quite simply, it means that atheists can complain about being one of the least trusted demographic groups that exist, but there is nothing irrational in people holding such a view until and unless the atheist in question proves himself to be more trustworthy than what would generally be expected of someone holding to his worldview.


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