When given a hypothetical scenario describing a fictional character who progresses from torturing animals as a child to murdering homeless people as an adult, most people assume that this person is an atheist—and that includes atheists themselves. That's what researchers at the University of Kentucky in Lexington are now reporting in the journal Human Behavior. "It is striking that even atheists appear to hold the same intuitive anti-atheist bias," lead researcher and psychology professor Will Gervais says, per the Guardian. "I suspect that this stems from the prevalence of deeply entrenched pro-religious norms." Outside researchers comment alongside the study that it helps qualify the "prevalence of anti-atheist attitudes."
The team presented the serial killer scenario to about 3,000 people in 13 countries spanning five continents, ranging from more secular places like Finland and the Netherlands to places with more believers, such as the US and United Arab Emirates, the Guardian notes. Most people are twice as likely to assume "extreme immorality" such as that exhibited by the hypothetical serial killer to be more suggestive of an atheist than a religious person, and the numbers are nearly as high among atheists themselves—except for in Finland and New Zealand, where the evidence wasn't as clear. The authors call it "extreme" prejudice against atheists, while the New York Times reports that mass killers are a "rogue's gallery of mostly male, aggrieved actors who are sometimes believers, sometimes not, and who half the time do not qualify for any specific psychiatric diagnosis." (Check out this list of celebrity atheists.)