Dan Gardner is the New York Times best-selling author of Risk, Future Babble, Superforecasting (co-authored with Philip E. Tetlock), and How Big Things Get Done (co-authored with Bent Flyvbjerg). His books have been published in 26 countries and 20 languages. Prior to becoming an author, Gardner was an award-winning investigative journalist. More >

The Real Stigmatized Minority

Are you an aggrieved Christian? Convinced that you are stigmatized for your faith? Angry at the "war on Christmas"? This column is for you.

You are not the persecuted minority you believe yourself to be. Yes, you suffer occasional slights and insults. Everyone does. What matters is whether there is extensive and compelling evidence that a substantial portion of society thinks less of you because of your faith. And there isn't. There really isn't. Have an eggnog and cheer up.

In this increasingly secular society, the people who have a real reason to complain are atheists. Yes, atheists.

A 2006 Gallup survey asked Americans to say if they were positive, negative, or neutral about various groups. Jews will be pleased to hear they were top of the chart, with 58 per cent saying they felt positively about them, 37 per cent neutral, and four per cent negative. That produces a net positive rating of +54.

Methodists came next with a rating of 55 per cent positive, 37 per cent neutral, and five per cent negative - for a net positive rating of +50. Baptists and Catholics got similar results.

When people were asked about "fundamentalist Christians," 34 per cent said they had positive feelings about them, 29 per cent were neutral, and 33 per cent were negative. Net positive rating: +1.

Muslims fared worse, not surprisingly, with 26 per cent positive, 41 neutral, and 30 negative. Net positive rating: -4.

And then we come to atheists.

A measly 15 per cent of respondents said they felt positively about atheists. Forty per cent were neutral. Forty-four per cent were negative. Net positive rating: -29.

Scientologists were the only group with a lower reputation. And only by a hair.

There's heaps more evidence like that. This year, Gallup found that almost all Americans said that if a qualified candidate from the party they support were running for president, they would vote for that person if they were black, a woman, Catholic, Baptist, Jewish, or Hispanic. Three-quarters said they would vote for a Mormon. Two thirds said they would vote for a homosexual.

Only half said they would vote for an atheist.

Other surveys have found Americans are far more likely to disapprove of their child marrying an atheist than a member of any other group and are far more likely to say atheists "do not share" their vision of society than they are to say the same of anyone else.

It's possible that things are much better in Canada but, unfortunately, we don't know because there isn't a similar trove of data. Even more unfortunately, there is reason to think that if there were a such a trove it might well reveal that things actually aren't so much better here.

Psychologists at the University of British Columbia - Will Gervais, Ara Norenzayan, and Azim Shariff - recently conducted two experiments involving UBC undergrads. The choice of test subjects is significant. British Columbia is among the least religious regions in North America, Vancouver among the least religious cities, and university-educated young people tend to be the least religious demographic. If ever there was a friendly audience for atheists, this would be it.

The psychologists had the students - 105 in all - read a brief description of an appalling man named "Richard." When Richard backs his car into a van, he notices there are pedestrians watching so he pretends to write down his insurance information, leaves the blank paper on the van, and drives away. Later, Richard finds a wallet on the sidewalk, takes the money, and tosses the wallet in the garbage.

The researchers then asked the students a question. Is it more likely that "Richard is a teacher" or that "Richard is a teacher and a Christian"?

The experimental conditions were varied, of course. Sometimes, instead of "a teacher and a Christian," students were asked if it was more likely that Richard is "a teacher and a Muslim." Or "a teacher and a rapist." Or "a teacher and an atheist."

If the students responded logically, these variations wouldn't make any difference. They would always say that "Richard is a teacher" is more likely than "Richard is a teacher and X." Why? Because it is possible for the first statement to be true without the second statement being true but any time the second statement is true the first must be true as well. So "Richard is a teacher" has to be more likely in all cases.

But thanks to what is known as the "conjunction fallacy" - a discovery of the renowned psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky - people routinely get this sort of question wrong because they don't think about it logically. Instead, they automatically and unconsciously see if the information in the story squares with their existing perceptions. If it does, that fact drives the judgment.

For example, Kahneman and Tversky asked people how likely it was that next year, in North America, there would be a flood that killed at least 1,000 people. And they asked people how likely it was that there would be an earthquake in California that triggered a flood that killed at least 1,000 people. People thought the latter was more likely. Why? Because in their minds "California" and "earthquake" fit together. And that fit drove the judgment.

Christians will be pleased by at least one result of the UBC experiment.

When students were asked whether it was more likely that Richard was "a teacher" or "a teacher and a Christian," very few made the mistake of saying "a teacher and a Christian." In their minds, "Christian" and "dishonest" did not fit together. So they didn't fall for the conjunction fallacy.

Muslims didn't fare quite so well but their results weren't much different.

Rapists got far worse results. "Rapist" and "dishonest" fit together in the minds of the test subjects, understandably enough.

And atheists? They did slightly worse than rapists.

"To be a serious Christian in modern Western culture is to be the favoured easy target of every progressive thinker and every half-witted comedian," Rex Murphy recently complained in the National Post. "At a time when all progressives preach full volume for inclusivity and sensitivity, for the utmost care in speech when speaking of others with differing views or hues, Christians, as Christians, are under a constant hail of abuse and disregard."

It must be terribly depressing to be a Christian who believes that. So this is my Christmas present to you: It's not true. Cheer up. Make merry.

And spare a thought for the suffering of your atheist brethren.