Atheists Don't Lack A Good Moral Compass, Study Finds

A recent study published in PLOS ONE looked at the widespread stereotype that atheists are untrustworthy and amoral. If you are an atheist or know many atheists, you will probably not be surprised to find out that their study dispels this myth. But what is interesting is that the study found that there are key differences in the morality of theists and atheists. The primary distinction is that theists place more emphasis on group cohesion.

Forty-five percent of people worldwide believe it is necessary to believe in God to be moral.


The U.S. follows this trend, as 44% of Americans believe that God is a necessary aspect of morality. However, this varies considerably by country. For example, in Canada, that number drops to 26% and lowers further to 20% in the U.K. There is a strong negative correlation between a country’s GDP and their thoughts on morality. Kenya, for example, has a low GDP and 95% of the population sees a connection between religion and morality.

Prejudice against atheists stems from distrust.


Religious Americans are less accepting of atheists than any other religious or ethnic group, including Muslims, who face considerable racism in the U.S. Psychologists believe two factors encourage believers to distrust atheists.

First, religious people do not feel that atheists share their values. A person's religion is generally only mentioned when discussing topics that are divided by religious belief. So, religious people are more aware of the ideas that divide theists and atheists than the ideas they share.

The second reason is that even if someone thinks that an atheist is moral, they believe that they are still more likely to act poorly because there is no god to monitor them. If no one is watching you, it is easier to misbehave.

The study surveyed people in the U.S. and Sweden.


Despite stereotypes, the study found no relationship between moral behavior and religion. However, the study did find that atheists are less likely to have a binding moral foundation. Instead, they judge morality on a case-by-case basis and determine the moral thing to do by the consequences an action has, not a general rule of behavior. This means that their moral choices are not guaranteed to align with their larger community, which may make them appear less moral in the eyes of the community.

So, atheists are moral; they just view morality differently than believers.


Tomas Ståhl, the study's author, summarized his findings in a statement:

“The most general take-home message from these studies is that people who do not believe in God do have a moral compass. In fact, they share many of the same moral concerns that religious believers have, such as concerns about fairness, and about protecting vulnerable individuals from harm.

"However, disbelievers are less inclined than believers to endorse moral values that serve group cohesion, such as having respect for authorities, ingroup loyalty, and sanctity… 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.”


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