How Atheists and Believers Differ in Their Morality

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According to a 2020 Pew poll, 44% of Americans think that belief in God is necessary for morality.

Is that really true?

In a new study, University of Illinois-Chicago Assistant Professor of Psychology Tomas Ståhl sought to explore the differences between believers' and non-believers' senses of morality. His efforts were just published to the journal PLoS ONE.

Ståhl conducted two surveys examining the moral values of 429 American atheists and theists. He subsequently carried out two additional surveys involving 4,193 atheists and theists from the U.S. and Sweden.

From his extensive questioning, Ståhl found – unsurprisingly – that both atheists and religious people generally have strong moral beliefs, particularly in regards to cherishing and protecting others, rendering justice according to shared rules, and embracing liberty over oppression. However, they differed on other widely-recognized aspects of morality: submitting to tradition and legitimate authority, being loyal to one's group, and abhorrence for disgusting things. In these three areas, believers tended to be resolute, while atheists were more consequentialist, believing that an action could be right or wrong depending upon the outcome.

For example, while a religious person might be more likely to respect an elected leader's decisions, an atheist might question those decisions depending upon their effect. Moreover, while a believer might express absolute faith in a group member, an atheist would judge them by their character or actions. And while a religious person would likely regard infidelity as inherently wrong, an atheist might judge the act based upon the surrounding circumstances.

Ståhl also probed the root reasons why believers and nonbelievers differ in their moral styles. His surveys suggested that religious people were more exposed to credibility-enhancing displays as youth, seeing others in their community engage in costly behaviors in service of their shared beliefs. On the other hand, atheists tended to grow up in areas with lower levels of threat and uncertainty. Atheists also thought more analytically.

"It is possible that the negative stereotype of atheists as immoral may stem in part from the fact that they are less inclined than religious people to view respect for authority, ingroup loyalty, and sanctity as relevant for morality, and they are more likely to make moral judgments about harm on a consequentialist, case by case basis," Ståhl said.

Source: 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.

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