According to a study published in the journal Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, people discriminate against atheists when it comes to the expression of beliefs in the workplace. Across three studies, people were consistently less likely to say they would allow an atheist — compared to a Christian, Muslim, or Jew — to sport a symbol of their beliefs in the workplace. The researchers further found that this effect was motivated by the assumption that the atheist employees were trying to impose their beliefs on others.

The study’s authors Kimberly Rios and her team describe atheists as “one of the most disliked groups in the United States.” This contempt for atheists includes stereotypes that atheists are immoral and untrustworthy which leads them to be discriminated against in contexts like politics and on the job market. There is some evidence to suggest that atheists are even more stigmatized in the U.S. than religious minorities like Muslims and Jews.

“We were interested in whether and why atheists’ requests would be accommodated less frequently in the workplace than those of other (religious) groups for a few reasons. First, although a small number of studies have suggested that atheists are less likely than religious individuals to be hired for certain types of jobs, no research to date had examined how atheists (relative to religious individuals) are perceived in the workplace – that is, after they are hired,” explained Rios, an associate professor of psychology at Ohio University.

“Most notably, however, we wanted to compare people’s responses to atheists and to particular religious groups. Prior work has looked at perceptions of atheists versus religious individuals in general, without specifying the religion. In the United States, where Christianity is both the dominant and majority religion, people may tend to think ‘Christian’ when hearing the term ‘religious.’ But are they less likely to accommodate atheist employees’ workplace requests than not only those of Christian and Jewish employees, but also those of Muslim employees?”

“That is a particularly interesting question because both atheists and Muslims are among the most negatively stereotyped groups in American society,” Rios said. “For example, public opinion polls show that many Americans are unlikely to vote for an atheist or Muslim political candidate, nor do they want their children to marry atheists or Muslims. In everyday workplace situations, though, is one of these groups met with more backlash, and if so, why?”

Rios and her colleagues conducted three studies where respondents read vignettes describing either an atheist, Christian, Jewish, or Muslim employee who wanted to display a symbol of their beliefs in the workplace (e.g., a belief quote inside their cubicle). After reading these scenarios, the participants were asked to rate how willing they would be to accommodate the employee’s request to express their beliefs at work.

“We looked at belief-related requests (instead of, say, willingness to give employees a raise or promotion) because we thought such requests would be less susceptible to social desirability concerns,” Rios said. “That is, an employer could explain away their reluctance to accommodate the expression of certain beliefs (or lack of beliefs) on the grounds that such beliefs should simply be kept out of the workplace… whereas it’s difficult to justify promoting or giving a raise to a member of one group over another, without seeming biased against the latter group.”

In the first study, the researchers found that respondents were less likely to accommodate an atheist (compared to a Christian, Jew, or Muslim) in expressing their beliefs inside their office cubicle or on their clothing (i.e., by wearing a pin).

A second study replicated the above effect and further found evidence for why people tend to discriminate in this way. Participants were more likely to feel that the atheist (compared to the religious employees) was displaying their beliefs in order to push their views on others — suggesting that the atheists posed a greater symbolic threat compared to the Christians, Jews, or Muslims. Moreover, symbolic threat mediated the relationship between the target’s religiosity and participants’ willingness to accommodate them in displaying a belief quote or wearing a symbolic pin.

In a third study, the participants were again less accepting of an employee wearing a belief pin when he/she was an atheist compared to a religious person. And again, this effect was partly explained by the belief that the atheist employee was pushing his/her views onto others. In addition, the effect was also explained (but to a lesser extent) by the belief that the atheist was posing a threat to others’ well-being or access to resources — what the researchers termed a “realistic threat.” An example of a realistic threat was believing an employee wearing a belief pin would cause a restaurant to lose its customers.

“Participants perceived the atheist employees, more so than the Christian, Muslim, and Jewish employees, as wanting to impose their beliefs onto the workplace – in other words, as a ‘symbolic threat’ to workplace values. To a lesser extent, participants also saw the atheist employees as a ‘realistic threat’ to the workplace (i.e., as jeopardizing the company’s economic status and/or the employees’ general well-being). Both these types of threat helped explain people’s reticence to accommodate the atheist employees’ requests,” Rios told PsyPost.

Across all three studies, atheists were given a harder time for expressing their beliefs than Christians, Jews, or Muslims were. According to the study authors, this is in line with the perception that atheists represent an outgroup, while religious groups with similar Abrahamic roots are seen as belonging to the ingroup of religious people. When analyzing the three studies together, the researchers found that religious people were the least willing to accommodate atheists’ requests to express their beliefs. It is likely that for religious respondents, the Christians, Jews, and Muslims were seen as part of the ingroup, while atheists were not.

“This likely has to do with the fact that Christian, Jewish, and Muslim individuals all fall under the broader umbrella of ‘religious,’ whereas atheists are a separate category altogether. Indeed, a combined analysis across all our studies showed that participants who self-identified as religious were especially unwilling to accommodate atheists relative to other groups,” Rios explained.

Rios and her team say that a helpful approach to reducing these anti-atheist attitudes might be to emphasize the value of respecting others’ beliefs in the workplace — religious or otherwise. They also suggest that explaining that diversity is beneficial to the success of a workplace might help eliminate the perception that atheists are a threat to the well-being of the company. The authors note that their study was limited since the participants were not real supervisors and were only reading vignettes. They propose that future studies should examine these effects among real employers to strengthen their findings.

“Now that American society is becoming more secular (with church attendance recently falling below 50% for the first time), it will be critical to determine whether and to what extent our results hold up over time,” Rios said.

The study, “Explaining Anti-Atheist Discrimination in the Workplace: The Role of Intergroup Threat”, was authored by Kimberly Rios, Leah R. Halper, and Christopher P. Scheitle.