"Talks a good game about freedom when out of power, but once he’s in – bam! Everyone's enslaved in the human-flourishing mines."

Selection bias and atheist stereotypes

Have people considered before that the stereotype of the loud angry atheist may be entirely a result of selection bias?

Consider the average person’s experience with religious people. You see religious people going to church. You notice them wearing necklaces with crosses or Stars of David or dharma wheels on them. Sometimes they quote the Bible or the Quran, or they pray for things. Sometimes they run hospitals or schools or monasteries. The Pope occasionally shows up on TV telling people they should probably have fewer wars and famines and see if that works out for them.

And yes, occasionally religious people rant about how much they hate atheism, or the various other religions. But it’s hardly the only time you ever hear about them.

On the other hand, consider the average person’s experience with atheists. They may know many atheists. Their next door neighbor, or boss, or close friend might be an atheist. But they don’t hear about it. It rarely comes up in random conversation. Atheists don’t all go to one specific building, they mostly don’t wear necklaces, they don’t have holidays where they eat special atheist foods or dress up in special atheist costumes, and there’s no St. Lucretius’ Atheist Hospital.

Pretty much the only time you ever hear about atheists, unless you go looking for them, is when an atheist is criticizing religion or standing up for some kind of atheist cause. And so the reasoning goes: “Atheists must be bizarrely obsessed with religion, all the atheists I know about seem really into attacking it.”

But this is about the same reasoning pattern as “About half the medieval Europeans who I’ve heard of are kings; therefore I estimate medieval Europe had about one king for every two people.”

My guess is that most atheists, in the sense of people who don’t believe in God, rarely talk or think about it. But they don’t get much attention, and if they do, it’s not as atheists. “Famous atheists” brings up Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens – not Lance Armstrong and Maurice Sendak. If there wasn’t a selection bias in terms of whose atheism gets noticed more, we would end up with the stereotype that atheists ride bikes and draw awesome pictures of cartoon monsters.

I wonder just how far this bias goes in creating stereotypes. It seems most likely to be a factor when there’s a group that’s hard to identify except when it engages in activities stereotypically associated with that group, and which might be geographically/socially sorted well enough that members of other groups rarely come in contact with them naturally.

Anti-Muslim stereotypes might come from such a source. If people live in an area without Muslims – or if Muslims tend to be segregated from non-Muslims – then someone might only hear about them when they’re fulfilling some kind of negative Muslim stereotype. I actually think the same is true of Christians – if someone lives in a very secular area, most of the Christianity they hear about could be some kind of very extreme televangelist.

And although this is a stretch, the same might apply to groups that are easily identifiable if people don’t think of the concrete examples they know qua group membership. Imagine you interact with your friend Juan – because Juan is great – and your friend Pedro – because he’s great too – and then you hear a story about Mexicans illegally crossing the border, and that activates your “Mexican” category much more than Juan and Pedro do, because they’re just ordinary guys.

And okay, that’s just wild speculation. I’m pretty convinced about the atheism one, though.

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43 Responses to Selection bias and atheist stereotypes

  1. Joe says:

    I agree. Most folks tend to join groups in college that don’t really expose them to other world views and then when they enter the work force its kinda taboo and unprofessional to talk about religion. So people end up assuming atheists are just egghead University professors, loud mouths on the internet, or snot nosed kids going through a teenage phase.

  2. Anonymous says:

    I suspect this also interacts with the typical mind fallacy. I am always incredibly surprised when I find out that someone I know is religious, because I assume by default that people I meet are atheists. Now, statistically, I think this is a reasonable assumption in the circles I move within. But it’s not reasonable enough to correlate with the magnitude of surprise I feel.

    “The Pope occasionally shows up on TV telling people they should probably have fewer wars and famines and see if that works out for them.” Amusingly, the only time I ever hear about the pope is when he says something dreadful and homophobic/anti-contraception/etc., or when someone brings up something dreadful he said in the past. Thus , in my case, he’s an example of the same selection bias but against religious people.

    Another example is the British royal family — while I know in principle that they do things like getting married or dying occasionally, the only time I hear about them and pay any attention is when Prince Philip says something racist, or Prince Harry dresses up as a Nazi or similar.

    • im says:

      Yeah… I really only ever hear about the pope when he makes a wealth-related gaffe, or something.

      • Rachael says:

        Presumably not the new pope (Francis)? About all he’s done with regard to wealth is give a lot of it up, and move towards making the papacy humbler and less ostentatious.

        • im says:

          Well, the new pope hasnt been around for long. About him, I mostly heard speculation as to whether or not he was complicit in that whole brutal dictatorship thing.

        • von Kalifornen says:

          For most of my lifetime the Pope has not been him.

  3. Paul Crowley says:

    A friend heard a colleague make a homophobic comment at work, and said “Hang on, you know I’m gay, don’t you?” “Yes, but you’re not like what they’re like!” replies the colleague. Of course, my friend was the only gay person this guy had actually knowingly met.

  4. Army1987 says:

    On the other hand, consider the average person’s experience with atheists. They may know many atheists. Their next door neighbor, or boss, or close friend might be an atheist. But they don’t hear about it. It rarely comes up in random conversation. Atheists don’t all go to one specific building, they mostly don’t wear necklaces, they don’t have holidays where they eat special atheist foods or dress up in special atheist costumes, and there’s no St. Lucretius’ Atheist Hospital.

    But some of them do eat hot dogs on Friday. 🙂

  5. Fadeway says:

    Thanks for teaching me about selection bias. I had heard about it, but I find that having concrete examples of a bias significantly increases my chances of identifying it in action (from nonexistent to somewhat likely).

    • Lucidian says:

      Just be careful to get a wide range of examples, or you will have selection bias in your understanding of selection bias. =)

  6. James Goulding says:

    Have people considered before that the stereotype of the loud angry atheist may be entirely a result of selection bias?

    Perhaps due to nationality, I’m less familiar with this stereotype as I am with “loud, angry, atheist public intellectual“.

    England is a very atheistic society, and people who stridently preach or profess Christianity tend to be figures of fun, so disbelief in God is generally assumed. On the other hand, quite a few people seem to find Dawkins (qua atheist) annoying, for reasons they cannot articulate very well—so “loud and angry” might be an imperfect way of putting it. I think what they really mean is that this distinctive group of intellectuals (at least from an English perspective, where Christianity is associated with frightfully nice pillars of the community and old ladies) seem like bullies posing as embattled martyrs, who offer nothing better to replace what is, even to atheists, a significant component of our heritage and traditions. This kind of thing, for example, I find sanctimonious and contemptible.

    I’m not convinced that this is selection bias, because public intellectuals who furnish anti-theist arguments, or notably criticise instances of religious behaviour, do always seem to be uncharitable like Dawkins and Hitchens. (I’d be interested if anyone can provide counterexamples.)

    • Deiseach says:

      I wonder if some of the annoyance with Dawkins is down to the “Oxbridge” effect – here’s a professor of an elite university making wild comments about my granny in the WI who makes jam and holds jumble sales for the local cats’ home, and according to him she’s a wild-eyed fundamentalist terrorist like a Taliban suicide bomber?

    • Damien says:

      “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” is sanctimonious and contemptible?

      • MugaSofer says:

        Actually … kinda.

        As always in these matters, we should try and picture the creationist equivalent.

        Of course, Dawkins has written more than a one-sentence-long ad campaign.

  7. Handle says:

    This discussion is incomplete without a link to Peter A. Taylor’s (spiritual atheist) wonderful series of essays on morality and religion.

    The market for sanctimony, is rational religion possible, what is morality, polyatheism sermon, why America needs religion review, and the baby and the bathwater are all superb.

  8. ozymandias42 says:

    I’ve had similar thoughts about trans women and selection bias. People assume trans women “look like men,” because if she didn’t look like a man that person would have assumed she’s cis.

    • Anonymous says:

      It’s amazing how many people claim that “you can always spot a trans woman”, apparently without irony.

      • Joe says:

        And how do you know the “tran-woman” isn’t just a transvestite? And if gender is just something we do or a social construct how does any of us even know what a “man” or “woman” are supposed to look like?

        • Joe says:

          How is trans philosophy not taking typical mind fallacy to an extreme?

        • Nick T says:

          And if gender is just something we do or a social construct how does any of us even know what a “man” or “woman” are supposed to look like?

          … from how society (mostly implicitly but very clearly) says men or women are supposed to look? I don’t think I understand this question.

        • Joe says:

          According to what little I know of trans philosophy society has no business dictating gender identity via physical attributes. Gender is, according to them, an experience of the mind. You can not know the gender any one has except by asking them. The question was meant to illustrate to absurdity of the trans position.

        • ozymandias42 says:

          Yes. Gender identity is in the mind. But people also see other people as particular genders based on secondary sexual characteristics and traits which are gendered in our culture. Some people believe that they can always classify trans woman as “men,” because every time they see a trans woman they classify as a woman, they don’t register her as a trans women.

          And yes, gender is a social construct. So is money. So’s the government. Social construct =/= not real.

        • Max says:

          “And if gender is just something we do or a social construct how does any of us even know what a “man” or “woman” are supposed to look like?”

          This is why trans people tend to fall firmly outside of the camp that gender is just a social construct. If it were just a social construct, they wouldn’t feel like what they were raised to be is different from what they are on the inside.

        • Joe says:

          Matt
          You can’t be raised to be a certain gender, you are born a certain gender. Society doesn’t construct gender, just gender roles and stereotypes. Trans people, for some reason, are profoundly vulnerable to typical mind fallacy. They erroneously believe their own experience of gender corresponds to that of people of the opposite sex. Even to the point sometimes of bodily mutilation. At least that’s the way I understand it.
          Ozy
          I don’t understand this sentence.
          “Some people believe that they can always classify trans woman as “men,” because every time they see a trans woman they classify as a woman, they don’t register her as a trans women.”

        • ozymandias42 says:

          Let me see if I understand what you’re saying, Joe. Your claim is that we don’t have what I would call gender, we just have what I would call sex (i.e. chromosomes, hormones, genitals, etc.). Trans people believe the brains of the opposite sex work like theirs, and therefore that they must be a member of the opposite sex. (Not sure where nonbinary people like myself fit into this model, but eh.)

          But that’s not really the primary claim of trans people; our claim is that there exists a population of people who are much happier as a sex/gender other than the one they were born with. And like… that’s objectively true. They’ve done studies, and trans people tend to be quite satisfied after transition.

          There are lots of different theories about why trans people exist, but I don’t think anyone knows for certain. I suspect the “overactive typical mind fallacy” hypothesis is not it, however.

          The thing I said that confused you was me attempting to explain my original comment in a way you might understand better. Do you understand my original comment or should I try to clarify it again?

        • Joe says:

          Ozy
          Yes you understood me for the most part. I would clarify a few things however. I never disputed the fact that trans people existed neither did I claim to know the cause of transgender disorder, by bring up the the typical mind fallacy I was trying to point out the kind of fallacious thinking transgender disorder people are vulnerable to. I’m sure many people are happy acting or living as a gender they were not born with, but that doesn’t mean they are thinking rationally about gender.
          When you say that you are nonbinary do you mean you are uncomfortable with typical male and female stereotypes and gender roles?

        • MugaSofer says:

          “And if gender is just something we do or a social construct how does any of us even know what a “man” or “woman” are supposed to look like?”

          That’s kind of a big “if”. Hormones do have physiological effects, you know.

          Admittedly, there’s enough variance that we mostly depend on social cues, but still…

    • Dan says:

      I don’t understand how gender can be a social construct since gender existed before human society.

      Oh, I see now. Those oppressive, chauvinistic Proterozoic eurkaryotes were the original enforcers of the bigoted patriarchy, when they socially constructed gender for their nefarious purposes 1.2 billion years ago.

      • von Kalifornen says:

        Did gender exist before human society? There does seem to be a proto-gender effect in some higher animals, and I seem to remember hearing something about transexual monkeys or something.

  9. Michael Vassar says:

    Ironically, Michael Shermer, another prominent atheist, is also an extremely avid biker, leading to this http://raammedia1.blogspot.com/2011/06/alberto-blanco-shermers-neck.html.

  10. Ishmael says:

    When you think about observing atheism, and trying to correct for selection biases in these observations, you are probably thinking of what characteristics people who describe themselves as atheists have in common — you are trying to understand “atheism as an identity.” But you could also have in mind the question: when are you observing an atheist behavior (perhaps the behavior of self-described theists), and what selection biases are these observations prone to?

    I think atheism as a behavior is more interesting than atheism as an identity. But as far as atheism as an identity goes, it seems that this

    > Pretty much the only time you ever hear about atheists, unless you go looking for them, > is when an atheist is criticizing religion or standing up for some kind of atheist cause.

    does count as evidence that “atheists are angry.” At least “atheists are angry” is an understandable shorthand for it. Celiacs are visible when they are standing up for celiac causes, and in a certain aisle of the grocery store. Gays are visible when they are standing up for gay causes, and when they are out and about in couples. Atheists are visible when they are standing up for atheist causes and at no other times.

    Or are atheists also visible when they make actions or decisions without consideration of possible divine rewards or punishments? To my eyes, in the modern world that’s everybodys behavior all of the time. That there are so many people who do not believe that God has set onerous rules, and who are still reluctant to call themselves atheists, is interesting.

    • Mary says:

      One notices religious people when they are not standing up for religious causes, sometimes. Such as Mother Theresa of Calcutta. One can also notice, for instance, celiacs when they are sharing recipes online.

      One notices that there are no such nice or neutral activities that are inspired by atheism as such.

      • Multiheaded says:

        Um… but this is… because… atheists tend to be materialists, and so attach a greater importance to a non-supernatural ideology they might have (nationalism, libertarianism, socialism, For Science!, whatever) – despite those ideologies in themselves being orthogonal to belief in the supernatural (there being both Christian socialists and militant atheist ones, both Catholic and Nietzschean reactionaries…)
        When someone’s worldview simply lacks religion, the sort of feelings and moral emotions that would normally be channelled into religious faith are not, in most cases, expressed through active denial of religion – they are redirected to different areas. They might care more about politics, personal philosophy, tribal loyalty, culture or whatever – but they are simply less concerned with the entire sphere of religion.
        At least, this has been my experience in a still strongly atheist culture (although many Russians would now identify as Orthodox Christian as a cultural and political label – which is unfortunate both for the Orthodox Church and the general sanity level, I think).

        • Mary says:

          So what? It still means that people see atheism inspiring nasty actions — from trolling online discussions to sending people to the gulag — but not nice ones.

          One notes that those other areas are also something a believer can care about, so their actions there are not stemming from the atheism.

        • MugaSofer says:

          “atheists tend to be materialists, and so attach a greater importance to a non-supernatural ideology they might have (nationalism, libertarianism, socialism, For Science!, whatever) … When someone’s worldview simply lacks religion, the sort of feelings and moral emotions that would normally be channelled into religious faith are not, in most cases, expressed through active denial of religion – they are redirected to different areas. They might care more about politics, personal philosophy, tribal loyalty, culture …”

          You know, I see religious people make this claim a lot. Has anyone actually tried to check this?

      • Vilhelm S says:

        How about anti-aging research and cryonics? That seems fairly directly inspired by non-belief in an afterlife.

        • Mary says:

          Then why have many people historically tried to prolong life while being believers?

        • Both Jacob (AKA Israel) and Joseph were mummified according to the Bible.

        • MugaSofer says:

          I see plenty of atheists talking about how death isn’t so bad. Y’know, living forever would be boring, we live on in our accomplishments, death gives meaning to life etc etc.

      • Damien says:

        “One notices that there are no such nice or neutral activities that are inspired by disbelief in UFOs as such.”

        “One notices that there are no such nice or neutral activities that are inspired by disbelief in witchcraft as such.”

        “One notices that there are no such nice or neutral activities that are inspired by disbelief in astrology as such.”

  11. BenSix says:

    …that activates your “Mexican” category much more than Juan and Pedro do, because they’re just ordinary guys.

    And, indeed, people construct positive stereotypes around examples of peoples and patterns and behaviour that they’re familiar with. Hence the classic, “X can’t be unhealthy because I know Y and he does X” non-argument.

  12. Dan says:

    I disagree that most of us don’t know atheists.

    I know an atheist intimately, since I am an atheist from time to time. Everyone’s faith ebbs and flows. On days when I’m more atheistic, I’m also more of a jerk and usually in a sour mood.

    On days and times when my faith is stronger, I’m more generous and generally happier.