Worldwide, most people are believers in God. Does it follow that anyone who dares to question the cherished beliefs of the majority must be disgruntled and fuming? People believe atheists are angrier than believers, a new study finds, yet when innate feeling was measured, atheists did not reveal more irate feelings than others.

In ancient Rome, the term "atheist" was applied to anyone who did not believe in the pantheon of deities — and so the term included early Christians. The highly religious Romans, who daily performed rituals to satisfy their well-organized and highly-stratified gods and goddesses, believed those who did not follow suit must be subversive to the state. Such non-believers, then, warranted persecution.

Is it still the case that we must go along to get along? A more recent assessment of the religious landscape, as represented by a 2008 Pew Research Center survey of 35,000 Americans, found that approximately 95 percent of people believe in God. A team of researchers, including three psychologists and one biologist from American and German universities, suggests that while extreme, Ancient Roman-like actions and sanctions against atheists may not occur, other forms of discrimination do. Worse, such inequitable practices are deemed acceptable.

For example, “less than 50 percent of Americans state that they would vote for an atheist presidential candidate and 48 percent of individuals in one sample said they would disapprove if their child chose to marry an atheist,” note the authors in their study. Other studies find people distrust atheists, consider them lacking in morality, and given the ability to dispense important medical treatments, many people would discriminate against atheists. More subtly, the authors believe “the media and elsewhere” portrays atheists as “angry individuals.”

Searching for Faith

And so the team examined both the prevalence and accuracy of angry-atheist perceptions in seven related experiments involving 1,677 participants across the United States. Participants explicitly rated how angry they believed atheists to be and also randomly and quickly paired words in order to reveal their implicit feelings toward atheists. The participants completed tasks and questionnaires, including the Buss-Perry Trait Anger Scale and the Spielberger Trait Anger scale.

The various experiments revealed that “people believe atheists are angrier than believers, people in general, and other minority groups, both explicitly and implicitly,” noted the authors in their published research, while “none of these studies supported the idea that atheists are particularly angry individuals.” In America, it would appear, atheists are routinely and wrongfully characterized as angry when they are simply skeptical. (And perhaps a bit too critical for your own good, Missy!)

While it is a fact that most Americans are believers, there’s a great deal of diversity and fluidity to spiritual belief in the nation. According to the Pew survey, a good proportion of all adults — 44 percent — “have either switched religious affiliation, moved from being unaffiliated with any religion to being affiliated with a particular faith, or dropped any connection to a specific religious tradition altogether.” It may be more accurate to characterize many Americans as searchers rather than believers. And so perhaps it is the unwavering strength of skepticism they find most problematic, the target of their own scorn.

Source: Meier BP, Fetterman AK, Robinson MD, Lappas CM. The Myth of the Angry Atheist. The Journal of Psychology: Interdisciplinary and Applied. 2015.