Skip to main content Accessibility help

Improving the Electability of Atheists in the United States: A Preliminary Examination

  • Andrew S. Franks (a1)


Decades of polling data and recent research have demonstrated the magnitude of anti-atheist prejudice in the United States and its relationship to perceptions of atheists as immoral and untrustworthy. Across three studies, I examine the malleability of bias against atheists in the context of election politics. Informational manipulations of an atheist candidate's stated values (Study 1) and popularity (Study 2) improve participants’ perceptions of the morality and trustworthiness of and likelihood of voting for that atheist candidate, but religiously affiliated participants still prefer a similarly situated Christian candidate. Study 3 shows that participants are more likely to vote for an atheist when the opposing candidate was described as a theocrat. Implications of this research for ameliorating the under-representation of non-religious individuals in government are discussed.


Corresponding author

Address correspondence and reprint requests to: Andrew S. Franks, Department of Psychology, Lake Superior State University, 650 West Easterday Avenue, Sault Ste, Marie, MI 49783. E-mail:


Hide All
Asch, S.E. 1955. “Opinions and Social Pressure.” Scientific American 193:3135; doi:10.1038/scientificamerican1155-31.
Brewster, M.E., Hammer, J., Sawyer, J.S., Eklund, A., and Palamar, J.. 2016. “Perceived Experiences of Atheist Discrimination: Instrument Development and Evaluation.” Journal of Counseling Psychology 63:557570; doi:10.1037/cou0000156.
Campbell, D.E., Green, J.C., and Layman, G.C.. 2011. “The Party Faithful: Partisan Images, Candidate Religion, and the Electoral Impact of Party Identification.” American Journal of Political Science 55:4258; doi:10.1111/j.1540-5907.2010.00474.x.
Chen, F.F., Jing, Y., and Lee, J.M.. 2014. “The looks of a Leader: Competent and Trustworthy, but Not Dominant.” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 51:2733; doi:10.1016/j.jesp.2013.10.008.
Clifford, S., and Gaskins, B.. 2015. “Trust Me, I Believe in God: Candidate Religiousness as a Signal of Trustworthiness.” American Politics Research 6:10661097; doi:10.1177/1532673X15608939.
Cottrell, C.A., Neuberg, S.L., and Li, N.P.. 2007. “What Do People Desire in Others? A Sociofunctional Perspective on the Importance of Different Valued Characteristics.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 92:208223; doi:10.1037/0022-3514.92.2.208.
Cragun, R.T., Kosmin, B., Keysar, A., Hammer, J.H., and Nielson, M.. 2012. “On the Receiving End: Discrimination against the Non-Religious in the United States.” Journal of Contemporary Religion 27:105127; doi:10.1080/13537903.2012.642741.
East, K. 2016. “Top DNC Staffer Apologizes for Email on Sanders’ Religion.” (Accessed on September 23, 2016).
Edgell, P., Gerteis, J., and Hartmann, D.. 2006. “Atheists as ‘Other’: Moral Boundaries and Cultural Membership in American Society.” American Sociological Review 71:211234; doi:10.1177/000312240607100203.
Franks, A.S. 2015. “An Atheist President? Stigma by Association, the Bandwagon Effect, and Analytical Thinking as Determinants of Voting Behavior.” Presented at the monthly meeting of the Atheists and Other Freethinkers. Sacramento, CA. (Accessed on March 10, 2017).
Franks, A.S., and Scherr, K.C.. 2014. “A Sociofunctional Approach to Prejudice at the Polls: Are Atheists More Politically Disadvantaged Than Gays and Blacks?Journal of Applied Social Psychology 44:681691; doi:10.1111/jasp.12259.
Franks, A.S., and Scherr, K.C.. 2015. “Using Moral Foundations to Predict Voting Behavior: Regression Models from the 2012 U.S. Presidential Election.” Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy 15:213232; doi:10.1111/asap.12074.
Galen, L.W., Smith, C.M., Knapp, N., and Wyngarden, N.. 2011. “Perceptions of Religious and Nonreligious Targets: Exploring the Effects of Perceivers’ Religious Fundamentalism.” Journal of Applied Social Psychology 41:21232143; doi:10.1111/j.1559-1816.2011.00810.
Gervais, W.M., and Norenzayan, A.. 2012. “Reminders of Secular Authority Reduce Believers' Distrust of Atheists.” Psychological Science 23:483491; doi:10.1177/0956797611429711.
Gervais, W.M., Shariff, A.F., and Norenzayan, A.. 2011. “Do You Believe in Atheists? Distrust is Central to Anti-Atheist Prejudice.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 101:11891206; doi:10.1037/a0025882.
Giddings, L., and Dunn, T.J.. 2016. “The Robustness of Anti-Atheist Prejudice as Measured by Way of Cognitive Errors.” International Journal for the Psychology of Religion 26:124135; doi:10.1080/10508619.2015.1006487.
Gilani, I.S., Shahid, R., and Zuettel, I.. 2012. Global Index of Religiosity and Atheism. Zurich: Winn-Gallop International.
Guenther, K.M. 2014. “Bounded by Disbelief: How Atheists in the United States Differentiate Themselves from Religious Believers.” Journal of Contemporary Religion 29:116; doi:10.1080/13537903.2014.864795.
Guth, W., Levati, M.V., and Ploner, M.. 2006. “Social Identity and Trust — An Experimental Investigation.” The Journal of Socio-Economics 37:12931308; doi:10.1016/j.socec.2006.12.080.
Hammer, J.H., Cragun, R., Hwang, K., and Smith, J.. 2012. “Forms, Frequency, and Correlates of Perceived Anti-Atheist Discrimination.” Secularism and Nonreligion 1:4367; doi:10.5334/
Hansen, S.B. 2011. Religion and Reaction: The Secular Political Challenge to the Religious Right. New York, NY: Rowman & Littlefield.
Hout, M., and Fischer, C.S.. 2002. “Why More Americans Have No Religious Preference: Politics and Generations.” American Sociological Review 67:165190; doi:10.15195/v1.a24.
Jones, J.M. 2012. “Atheists, Muslims See Most Bias as Presidential Candidates.” (Accessed on July 27, 2013).
Lipka, M. 2015. “5 Key Findings about the Changing U.S. Religious Landscape.” (Accessed on March 10, 2017).
McAllister, I. & Studlar, D.T.. 1991. “Bandwagon, Underdog, or Projection? Opinion Polls and Electoral Choice in Britain, 1979–1987.” Journal of Politics 53:720741; doi:10.2307/2131577.
Mehrabian, A. 1998. “Effects of Poll Reports on Voter Preferences.” Journal of Applied Social Psychology 28:21192130; doi:10.1111/j.1559-1816.
Morwitz, V.G., and Pluzinski, C.. 1996. “Do Polls Reflect Opinions or Do Opinions Reflect Polls? The Impact of Political Polling on Voters’ Expectations, Preferences, and Behavior.” Journal of Consumer Research 23:5367; doi:10.1086/209466.
Mullinix, K.J., Leeper, T.J., Druckman, J.N., and Freese, J.. 2015The Generalizability of Survey Experiments.” Journal of Experimental Political Science 2:109138; doi:10.1017/XPS.2015.19.
Norris, P., and Inglehart, R.. 2004. Sacred and Secular: Religion and Politics Worldwide. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Platow, M.J., Foddy, M., Yamagishi, T., Lim, L., and Chow, A.. 2012. “Two Experimental Tests of Trust in In-Group Strangers: The Moderating Role of Common Knowledge of Group Membership.” European Journal of Social Psychology 42:3035; doi:10.1002/ejsp.852.
Pinker, S. 2012. The Better Angels of Our Nature. New York: Viking.
Saroglou, V., Yzerbyt, V., and Kaschten, C.. 2011. “Meta-stereotypes of Groups with Opposite Religious Views: Believers and Non-Believers.” Community & Applied Social Psychology 21:484498; doi:10.1002/casp.1123.
Simpson, A., and Rios, K.. 2016a. “How Do U.S. Christians and Atheists Stereotype One Another's Moral Values?International Journal for the Psychology of Religion 26:320336; doi:10.1080/10508619.2016.1167419.
Simpson, A., and Rios, K.. 2016b. “The Moral Contents of Anti-Atheist Prejudice (and Why Atheists Should Care about it).” European Journal of Social Psychology doi:10.1002/ejsp.2219.
Sumaktoyo, N.G., Ottati, V., and Untoro, V.. 2016. “The Paradoxical Religiosity Effect: Religion and Politics in Indonesia and the United States.” Politics and Religion 9:481507; doi:10.1017/S175504831500053X.
Sumerau, J.E., and Cragun, R.T.. 2016. “‘I think Some People Need Religion’: The Social Construction of Nonreligious Moral Identities.” Sociology of Religion 77:386407; doi:10.1093/socrel/srw031.
Swan, L.K., and Heesacker, M.. 2012. “Anti-Atheist Bias in the United States: Testing Two Critical Assumptions.” Secularism and Nonreligion 1:3242; doi:10.1111/spc3.12035.
Tanis, M., and Postmes, T.. 2005. “A Social Identity Approach to Trust: Interpersonal Perception, Group Membership and Trusting Behaviour.” European Journal of Social Psychology 35:413424; doi:10.1002/ejsp.256.
Twenge, J.M., Honeycutt, N., Prislin, R., and Sherman, R.A.. 2016. “More Polarized But More Independent: Political Party Identification and Ideological Self-Categorization among U.S. Adults, College Students, and Late Adolescents, 1970–2015.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 42:13641383; doi:10.1177/0146167216660058.
Wright, J., and Nichols, R.. 2014. “The Social Cost of Atheism: How Perceived Religiosity Influences Moral Appraisal.” Journal of Cognition and Culture 14:93115; doi:10.1163/15685373-12342112.
Zuckerman, P. 2008. Society without God: What the Least Religious Nations Can Tell Us About Contentment. New York, NY: New York University Press.

Related content

Powered by UNSILO

Improving the Electability of Atheists in the United States: A Preliminary Examination

  • Andrew S. Franks (a1)


Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed.