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Atheism, Morality, and Society

Is God necessary for goodness?

According to a recent study conducted by the Pew Research Center, only 44 percent of Americans say that it is necessary to believe in God in order to “be moral and have good values.” Or put differently, a majority of Americans—around 56 percent—think that you can be moral and have good values, even if you are an atheist.

They are absolutely correct.

The evidence is clear that atheism does not result in immorality. If anything, secularity is strongly correlated with sound ethical living.

Despite the horrible, murderous crimes of various infamous atheist dictators—such as Cambodia's Pol Pot or the USSR's Stalin, who criminally forced their atheism on captive populations and sought to destroy religion—in societies where atheism isn't coerced, but emerges naturally in free, democratic contexts, the result is usually not inhumanity, crime, and chaos, but well-being, safety, and sound moral life.

First off, many highly secular societies in the world today with the lowest rates of belief in God—such as Sweden, Japan, and the Netherlands—are among the safest, most well-functioning, and most humane societies on earth, with the lowest murder rates, violent crime rates, infant mortality rates, child abuse fatality rates, incarceration rates, etc. Conversely, those nations with the highest rates of corruption, murder, inequality, political repression, and violence—such as Colombia, El Salvador, and Jamaica—are among the most religious. Granted, this is merely a correlation, but it is a powerful correlation that may knock out the knees of the claim that “only God” can provide morals and values for civilization.

Secondly, within the U.S., those states with the highest levels of belief in God—like Louisiana, Arkansas, and Alabama—have much higher rates of violent crime and other "social pathologies" than those states with the lowest levels of belief in God—such as Vermont, Massachusetts, and Oregon. If popular belief in God kept people moral and widespread atheism led to immorality, then we would expect to see an opposite correlation; we would find that those states (and nations) wherein God-belief is strong would have the lowest levels of violent crime, while those states (and nations) wherein God-belief is weak would have the highest. But we typically find just the opposite.

Third, we can look at a single society over time and observe that, in many instances, a precipitous drop in religiosity does not result in an increase in day-to-day violent crime. Consider the Netherlands: the homicide rate in the capital city of Amsterdam has dropped from 47 per 100,000 people back in the mid-15th century—when religiosity was strong—down to around 2 per 100,000 today, a time when there are more atheists than ever before in Dutch history. And the homicide rate in medieval England—a deeply religious time—was on average ten times that of 20th century England, a time of rapid secularization. That is, contemporary England—now one of most irreligious societies in the history of the world—is 95 percent less violent than it was back in the Middle Ages, when faith in God was strong.

We can even just look at our own recent history: In the past five decades, religion has weakened significantly in the United States—and yet the crime rates have simultaneously gone down, not up.

Finally, at the individual level, various studies have found that secular people are, in fact, less likely to commit violent crimes than religious people and that atheists are under-represented in prisons; indeed, atheists make up an infinitesimal 0.1 percent of federal prison inmates in the United States. Furthermore, atheists and agnostics, on average, exhibit lower levels of racism and prejudice than their more God-believing peers, as well as lower levels of nationalism and militarism, greater levels of honesty, more robust tolerance for those they disagree with, as well as higher acceptance of women’s rights. Secular individuals are also much more likely to support helping refugees, death with dignity, as well as the rights of non-traditional couples to have and adopt children. Secular humanists are also significantly less likely to support the use of torture than their religious peers.

It seems that neither societies nor individuals need God in order to be moral. They simply need compassion, empathy, and the active desire to alleviate suffering.