Experiments in Philosophy

The impact of psychological research on life's big questions.

Do Atheists Pose a Threat to Morality?

The Psychology of Unbelief: Does atheism threaten morality?

Atheism is said to pose a major threat to morality. Some theists claim that disbelief leads to moral relativism and undermines a major factor motivating prosocial behavior. Recent research can help us see what is true and false about these anxieties.

These issues have special resonance in the United States. A new survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life reveals that 92% of Americans believe in some kind of god. Other research suggests that atheists are among the least trusted minority groups. Consider a recent paper in the American Sociological Review by Minnesota researchers Penny Edgell, Joseph Gerteis, and Douglas Hartmann. They report that 39.6% of people polled say that atheist do "not at all agree with my vision of American Society." This score is higher than any other group by a considerable margin. A 2007 Gallup poll shows that 53% of Americans would not vote for an atheist president, and another Gallup poll suggests that 84% of Americans think the nation is not ready for an atheist in the White House. The major source of concern inmorality. Many people worry that the faithless lack a moral rudder. Without God, morality loses its foundation.

Is this concern really justified? Many philosophers will say it is not.

It has been a common philosophical refrain since Plato wrote his dialogue the Euthyphro, which takes up the topic of piety, that morality cannot depend on divine decree.

Suppose "good" just meant "commanded by God"; it would follow that "God is good" means only that "God does what he commands," which is faint praise. Belief in a benevolent God is substantive only if one believes that God acts in accordance with some independent moral standard. On this view, even theists should accept that morality is independent of religion. But what standard could do the trick? There have been two thousand years of work by philosophers (mostly theists) trying to answer this question. The two most famous answers owe to John Stuart Mill and Immanual Kant. Very roughly, Mill says that happiness is intrinsically good, so we should try to maximize happiness, and Kant says that it is rational to recognize the common dignity of all people, and irrational to pursue actions that would undermine our own interests if others were to act similarly.

Research suggests that the independence of morality and religion is actually widely recognized outside of academic philosophy, even among staunch theists. For example, developmental psychologist Larry Nucci interviewed highly religious children from a wide range of backgrounds (including Catholics, Mennonites, and Orthodox Jews), and he found that they were overwhelmingly likely to judge that stealing would be wrong even if God were to say that stealing is permissible (see his Education in the Moral Domain). The aforementioned Pew study also reveals that fewer than a third of Americans cite religion as the major source of their moral values, and more than half claim that practical experience and common sense are the major source.

The independence of morality and religion can also be characterized in evolutionary terms. Under the influence of Herbert Spencer's Social Darwinism, it was once believed that evolution leads to selfishness, but this supposition was rejected decades ago. Evolutionists now think we evolved to be altruistic, because helping others can increase fitness (helping kin spreads our genes and helping strangers promotes beneficial reciprocity and cooperation). These evolutionary models enjoy some psychological support. Felix Warneken and Michael Tomasello have shown that 14 month-old infants exhibit helpful behavior, even in the absence of reward. And even if altuism were not innate, it might be a precondition on stable society, so it might emerge inevitably through the course of "cultural evolution." A moral code of some kind is likely to emerge regardless of religious outlook. Indeed, the moral values of major religions may be products of cultural evolution. Of course, cultural evolution does not guarantee that every society will be peaceful or egalitarian. War and hierarchy seem to be features of most social systems, whether religiously grounded or not.

So far, all this is good news with respect to the atheist threat. But there may be some truth to the anxieties mentioned at the outset. Atheists may be more prone to relativism and, perhaps, less prone to acting in accordance with widespread moral norms.

Let's begin with relativism. The Pew study found atheists are much less likely than theists to believe that there are "absolute standards of right and wrong." 58% of atheists believe in such standards, as compared to 63% of Jews, 72% of Moslems, 78% of Catholics, and 81% of Protestants. These findings are consistent with a new paper by Princeton social psychologists Geoffrey Goodwin and John Darley. The authors found that grounding one's ethical beliefs in the notion of a divine being predicts greater moral objectivism, and it was the only variable to do so. It must be noted that the majority of atheists are not relativists, but these studies do suggest that atheists are more prone to relativism than those who attribute morality to God.

What about moral motivation? A recent book by Arthur Brooks, called Who Really Cares, has sparked controversy by arguing that religious people are more charitable than their irreligious counterparts. Brooks also examines handouts to homeless people, donations of blood, and other measures of charitable giving. Even when he controls for income and excludes donations to religious causes, religious people appear more generous than atheists. For example, Brooks shows that families in South Dakota, a highly religious state, give the same amount of money to charities as families in irreligious San Francisco, even though people in San Francisco earn almost twice as much.

Admittedly, there are some serious problems with Brooks' research. First, he relies on survey data and theists may be more inclined to report charitable efforts. Second, he does not carefully control for cost of living. The average price of a home in California is more than 2.5 times higher than the average home cost in South Dakota. Third, Brooks' own data show that atheists are much more likely to support government programs that give to the needy, and they are more likely to favor tax increases to pay for such programs, so the differences in charity may reflect a preference for centralized strategies rather than relying on what George Herbert Walker Bush called "a thousand points of light." Finally, a reply to Brooks in Scientific American cites a study by Gregory S. Paul, which documents an inverse correlation between religiosity and social health. For example, religious communities have higher homicide rates. Thus, it may not turn out to be the case that religious people are more moral across the board.

Still, the atheists who denounce Brooks may protesteth too much. Theists do seem to make more personal contributions to charity, and this pattern should not be ignored. It is not as if atheists are against such contributions; they just do it less often. This suggests that there is something about religion that promotes giving, and it would be useful to figure out what that is.

Does atheism promote relativism and stinginess? Preliminary evidence suggests that the answer might be yes, at least to some degree. Is this a serious concern? Perhaps not. With respect to relativism, the atheist might say that false beliefs in moral absolutes are a recipe for trouble. Perhaps relativism could increase tolerance and international understanding. The challenge for the relativist is to identify constraints on tolerance. This is a place where some philosophy might come in handy, since philosophers have spent many centuries trying to identify secular foundations for morality. What about stinginess? Here one factor may have to do with the fact that religious institutions create conditions that promote charity. Religious institutions have pledge drives, run soup kitchens, pass around donation cups, raise awareness, and provide weekly reminders to give. They also create social pressure to be charitable, and they draw attention to self-sacrificing role models. Atheists need to work at creating an infrastructure that is conducive to charity. One good thing about the Brooks book is that it may make atheists conclude that they need to do more in order to overcome the accusation of being moral monsters. There is no reason to think that theological beliefs are a precondition for moral motivation-even theists admit that their own moral values and actions do not depend on God. But atheism typically involves a departure from institutions that grease the motivational gears, and that means atheists might want to find alternative institutional mechanisms for facilitating prosocial behavior.

The upshot is that atheism does not undermine morality, but atheists' conception of morality may depart from traditional theistic conceptions. Rather than condemning atheism, we might work to build institutions that promote charity more effectively among those who do not participate in organized religion, and we might try to develop secular foundations for morality to help guide people who do not consider God to be the source of moral rules. Both these efforts would serve atheists and theists alike.

Jesse Prinz is a Distinguished Professor at the City University of New York, Graduate Center and the author of several books on the nature of thought, emotion, and morality.

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