Friction between believers and non-believers is present in many parts of the world, but the two groups may not be as different as you’d think. According to new research, both have moral compasses that support protecting the vulnerable, but in different ways: where believers value group cohesion, atheists tend to disregard authority.
Despite rising secularism, the idea of ‘amoral atheists’ seems to have taken roots and is remarkably pervasive with one 2017 study finding widespread “entrenched moral suspicion of atheists”.
“There is plenty of evidence that a lot of people associate atheists with immoral behavior, and that they do not trust them,” says Tomas Staahl, the author of a new study.
To see if atheists truly lack a moral compass, Staahl conducted two surveys examining the moral values of 429 American atheists and theists via Amazon’s Mechanical Turk platform. He also carried two larger surveys involving 4,193 atheists and theists from the U.S. (a predominantly religious country) and Sweden (a predominantly irreligious country).
“First of all, in my studies, I did not see any substantial differences in concerns for vulnerable individuals. Believers and disbelievers scored very similar on this moral value (as well as on concerns about fairness, liberty, and epistemic rationality),” Staahl tells ZME Science.
The major takeaway is that atheists do have strong moral principles and they share many of the concerns that religious people have, especially when it comes to fairness and protecting the vulnerable.
However, the two group think differently when it comes to some aspects. Disbelievers are less inclined than believers to endorse moral values that serve group cohesion, such as having respect for authorities, ingroup loyalty, and sanctity.
“In my research I show that people who do not believe in God do think differently about morality than religious believers do (in the US and in Sweden),” Staahl explains.
“In particular, disbelievers view it as relatively irrelevant for morality to respect authorities, to be loyal to one’s ingroup/community, and to be concerned about sanctity and purity. They are also more inclined than believers to determine whether an action is morally justifiable based on its relative consequences (the relative harm done).”
The idea, Staahl says, is that atheists are most concerned about the consequences of their actions when it comes to harm. Take the classic trolley problem: a runaway trolley is going down the tracks and it’s about to kill five people. You can save them if you use a switch to redirect the trolley, but this would kill one person on another track. Is morally justified to flip the switch?
“Atheists are more inclined than believers to say yes, because they focus more on the relative consequences of the action versus inaction (1 dead rather than 5 dead). They are more “consequentialist”, or “utilitarian” in their moral judgments about harm than religious people are. I hope this clarifies things.”
This can propagate an image of atheists as cold and calculated and less empathic, which can then contribute to the negative stereotypes many have about atheists. This builds on the previously mentioned 2017 study, which found that “religion’s powerful influence on moral judgements persists, even among non-believers in secular societies.”
Another notable find is that at least between the two investigated countries, non-believers in different countries have similar moral beliefs.
“The one other thing I would like to highlight here is how similar disbelievers’ views about morality were in Sweden and in the US. This is noteworthy, especially because the US is a highly religious country, by western standards, whereas Sweden is considered one of the most secular countries in the world. Similarly, religious believers’ views about morality were strikingly similar across these two countries as well,” Staahl noted in an email.
Ultimately, the study shows that regardless of where people stand in regards to religion, they seem to have working moral compasses. However, Staahl notes, there could be more “fine-grained” that were not explored in this study. For instance, it could be that believers and disbelievers tend to have different fairness principle or differ in their beliefs about what constitutes a vulnerable individual.
Ultimately, though the two groups seem to share similar moral principles.
Journal Reference: Ståhl T (2021) The amoral atheist? A cross-national examination of cultural, motivational, and cognitive antecedents of disbelief, and their implications for morality. PLoS ONE 16(2): e0246593. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0246593