Farming arose in the Near East around 10,000 years ago and, for the first time, this allowed for huge societies to flourish. Cities, armies and empires became a reality. This also coincided with a rise in belief in moralising, commandment-giving deities (some of which are still believed in today). This relationship has led many to suggest that large populations created an environment in which these beliefs were beneficial. Thinking that there was some supernatural being mandating everyone behaved themselves kept them all in line. People who behave are less likely to be cast out the society; so those who hold to it become successful and it spreads throughout the society.
The practical upshot of all this is that belief in law-giving deities, society, morality and the rule of law all became intertwined; and to a certain extent still are today. Most people will no doubt have heard the old adage “how can an atheist be moral?” in some form or another (perhaps even asked it themselves). As a result not believing in these law-giving deities often carries with it a social stigma. Studies have shown atheists are less likely to be trusted by theists, more likely to be expected to be immoral and less likely to be voted into public office (despite the fact statistics show atheists are no more likely to behave immorally than other groups).
But just how much does this stigma influence the thinking of other atheists? A new study into the matter shows that, contrary to what you might expect (unless you read the title of this post), atheists will rate other atheists as more immoral than theists; even when presented with an atheist and theist who behave in the exact same way. What’s more, their moral appraisal of the atheist is effectively the same as that of the theist. They both rank atheists equally as low, morally speaking.
The study involved almost 400 University students from California State University and the College of Charleston (in North Carolina); who were presented with the following two hypothetical people: Steve, a devout Christian who regularly attends church and gives lectures to his congregation and Brian, who doesn’t believe in God and regularly attends his local humanist group where he regularly gives lectures. Now, both Steve the Christian and Brian the atheist are married. But when they go to a conference for work they both have an affair!
Participants were then asked a bunch of questions about this scenario. How ashamed and guilty do you think they were? How likely are they do right the wrong? How well do you think this represents Christianty/atheism as a whole? How likely are they to be shunned by other Christians/atheists? How likely is that Steve/Brian secretly does/not believe in God after all? Also, a bunch of demographic information (including religious belief) was gathered about these participants.
And, despite being essentially the same person behaving in the same way, the atheist was viewed as more immoral. They were ranked as less likely to feel ashamed; less likely to right the wrong. The community as a whole was also viewed poorly. It was viewed as more consistent with atheistic belief and the community was more likely to forgive them. Steve was also ranked as more likely to secretly not believe in God, whilst this was viewed as perfectly consistent with Brian’s atheism. They also repeated this experiment; but with a good outcome. This time Steve and Brian donated half their yearly income to a homeless charity. Again though, the Christian was viewed as more moral than the atheist. In fact it was even voted quite highly that Brian secretly believed in God after all.
In both cases the difference was minor (with the exception of the consistent with community. The bad behaviour was viewed as a lot more consistent with atheism; the good a lot more inconsistent). Steve was only viewed as slightly more moral than Brian in these situations, but that’s not what’s interesting about these results. No, what’s most interesting is that when the results were cross referenced with demography, both the religious and non-religious were equally likely to rank the atheist as less moral; even suggest that when he was moral, it was because he secretly believed in God.
The rating of the atheist’s and Christian’s behaviour in the immoral action
However, before drawing too many conclusions from this study something leapt out at me as fishy. The authors noted that both the atheists and Christians were just as likely to answer the same way. Yet one of the questions was to rank the possibility of the individual being punished by God. Surely atheists, regardless of how they viewed the morality of others, would rank this as very low in both cases. After all, they don’t believe in a God.
Sure enough when you dig down, you find that they were separating out religious v. non-religious when examining their participants. The problem is that non-religious is not the same as atheism. It includes all those “spiritual but not religious” types, many New Age-ers and a bunch more categories that aren’t atheistic. Without breaking it down further and looking at just how many atheists ranked their fellow atheist as immoral these results don’t really show anything. It might just be showing that spiritual people are just as likely as overtly religious people to rank atheists as immoral!
Still, it raises some interesting questions. After 10,000 years, has the relationship between religion and morality become internalised to the point that even atheists will rate other atheists as immoral? Non-believers of the world: are you particularly judgemental of others non-believers?
The rating of the atheist and theist’s behaviour for the moral action
WRIGHT, J., & NICHOLS, R. (2014). The Social Cost of Atheism: How Perceived Religiosity Influences Moral Appraisal. Journal of cognition and culture, 14(1-2), 93-115.