Do atheists have a moral compass?

Sun rays over white clouds
Sun rays over white clouds. Credit Gabriel Lamza, Unsplash

Is there any truth to the cross-cultural stereotype that suggests that atheists are untrustworthy and lack a moral compass? Do atheists care less, or at least think differently about, morality than religious people do?

A new study from a University of Illinois Chicago social psychologist looks into these questions based on what values people view as relevant for morality, as well as what moral principles they rely on when making a moral judgment. It also explores where potential differences in moral values between religious believers and disbelievers may stem from.

Tomas Ståhl, UIC assistant professor of psychology, examined the matter in two large-scale cross-national surveys comparing Americans and Swedes, in addition to two smaller U.S. surveys.

“Disbelievers do have a moral compass. However, it is calibrated somewhat differently than that of religious believers in some respects, but not in others,” Ståhl said.

He found religious disbelievers’ views about morality were comparable in the U.S., a highly religious country by western standards, and Sweden, one of the most secular countries in the world. Religious believers’ views about morality also were alike across the two countries.

“In both the U.S. and Sweden, people who do not believe in God have similarly strong moral concerns as religious believers about not harming vulnerable individuals, and about fairness,” Ståhl said. “However, religious disbelievers were less inclined to view values that promote group cohesion — such as ingroup loyalty, respect for authority and sanctity — to be relevant for morality.”

Religious disbelievers from both countries also were somewhat more inclined than religious believers to focus on the relative harm done by actions versus inactions when deciding whether it is morally justifiable or not.

Why do disbelievers and believers have somewhat differing views about morality?

According to Ståhl, no causal conclusions to this question can be made from this study, but the data suggests the factors that are thought to lead people to become disbelievers in the first place may also be the factors that cause them to think somewhat differently about morality than religious people.

“Viewing society as a dangerous place is thought to gravitate people toward religion, whereas viewing society as relatively safe is thought to reduce motivation to believe in God,” he said.

The study finds religious believers in both countries view the world as a more dangerous place than religious disbelievers do, and it also suggests that this worldview is associated with moralizing values that serve to protect the group.

“Different levels of perceived existential threat can be a partial explanation to why believers and disbelievers have somewhat different moral values,” Ståhl said.

The surveys also find that the extent to which an individual has been exposed to “religious credibility enhancing displays,” such as religious meetings, money donations or fasting when growing up also is strongly associated with being a religious believer, as well as with endorsement of moral values that serve group cohesion. Thus, this may be another explanation for why disbelievers are less inclined to endorse values such as group loyalty, respect for authority and sanctity.

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

The study, which was funded by the Understanding Unbelief Programme, is published in PLOS ONE.

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