A new study reveals people, including non-believers, think atheists are more likely to commit immoral acts than their religious counterparts, ABC News reports.
According a study published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour, people are almost twice as likely to believe atheists are responsible for "extreme moral violations".
Researchers surveyed more than 3000 people in 13 countries across five continents, covering both secular and highly religious parts of the world.
"We wanted to see whether people are implicitly equating religiosity, or being a believer in God, with moral behaviour," Ilan Dar-Nimrod, from the School of Psychology at the University of Sydney, said.
The researchers asked what people thought about a person who displayed "gross immoral behaviours" including mutilating animals and murdering and mutilating homeless people.
"Would they consider that person more likely to be an atheist – or a person who doesn't believe in God – or a religious believer?" Dr Dar-Nimrod explained.
In the survey the participants were asked whether the perpetrator was a teacher, or whether they were a teacher who is an atheist – thus avoiding asking directly whether they were a believer or not.
"We were trying to just look at how likely it would be for a person to actually endorse some sort of ... grossly immoral behaviour, with a person that is actually a believer or a non-believer," he said.
The end results come as a surprise to some atheists, with social commentator Jane Caro saying they flew "in the face of history".
She said it was hard to comprehend how religion continued to be so closely attached to morality.
"It is interesting that people still … associate morality with the idea of punishment and reward," Ms Caro said.
She said it struck her as "fairly infantile" that people behaved well purely out of fear of going to hell and the hope they would get into heaven.
However the results did not suggest that atheists actually committed evil acts any more than believers. In fact, it pointed to what it called a "prejudice" against people who said there was no God.