11886189-597F-44FC-85CE-22EABE21F267 Created with sketchtool. Atheism and Perceived Morality

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  Last updated August 11, 2017 at 4:19 pm

New research suggests that even atheists see atheists as less moral than religious people. But are the shades of grey this black and white?


A man walks into a jewellery store. He’s dressed in black jeans, a denim vest with a huge eagle’s head patch across the back, and a black hoodie underneath. Which is more likely: is he a) shopping for an engagement ring, or b) casing the joint for a robbery? If you worked in that store, would you speak to him? As that man in black, I can tell you that no one in three out of four stores spoke to me, though I got many sideways glances (I was engagement ring shopping, by the way).


We humans are a judgemental species, whether we like it or not. Try as we might to overcome our instincts, most of us will make judgements about a stranger within the first few seconds of our first contact. Forming narratives about others helps us to determine who to trust and who to distrust. The tricky part about these judgments is that, even when faced with evidence that suggests otherwise, our cognitive biases ignore this evidence to maintain our initial beliefs, or “gut feeling”.


When you make judgments about someone’s moral fibre, how much does that person’s religious beliefs weigh upon your decisions? If you knew of a morally questionable character, would you assume they lack a god or gods in their life? Recent research suggests that atheists are less trusted, and even other atheists have a greater distrust of their atheist counterparts.


In the study, published in the journal Nature this week, William Gervais and his colleagues hypothesised that in a situation where someone is shown to act in an immoral way, we are more likely to assume the immoral person is non-religious  than religious. To test this, they gave more than 3000 participants from 13 countries a description of a man who was “unambiguously immoral”. This fictional man started out by pulling the wings off insects as a child, progressed to torturing animals, and then finally mutilated and murdered several homeless people. The researchers asked half of the participants if the man was more likely to be a teacher, or a teacher who “is a religious person”, and the other half if he was more likely to be a teacher, or a teacher who “does not believe in any gods”. A second scenario asked the participants whether the man was more likely to be religious, non-religious, or a believer in evolution, horoscopes, vaccine safety, or global warming. The third and final scenario asked participants if a man who lured children into his office to molest them was more likely to be a priest or a priest who doesn’t believe in a god.


Across all three scenarios, the majority of people (58%) believed that a person was more likely to be non-religious than those who believed the sketchy character was likely to be religious (30%). Only New Zealand and Finland bucked this trend. In countries like the USA, where religion looms larger in public culture, this isn’t too unimaginable – but even in countries with a historically greater population of nonbelievers, such as China, they found the same pattern. Even participants in the study who were themselves non-religious had the same judgmental bias.


This study suggests that we unconsciously judge people as more likely to commit immoral acts if they are not religious, even if we are not religious ourselves. It would appear that if an individual has no fear of an omnipotent judge who can punish with an afterlife of damnation, we perceive them as having no intrinsic moral compass. This is contrary to a survey from the Pew Research Centre which suggests that many western countries don’t believe religion is essential for morality, including many of those countries involved in Gervais’ research. Perhaps, when asked outright, we say what we think is true but our subconscious reveals our true bias?


It is interesting to note that the study was funded in part by the John Templeton Foundation, which funds and promotes the works of scientists who further the link between science and spirituality. Perhaps it is my own cognitive biases coming into play, but I immediately begin to question the motives of an organisation with a vested interest in the outcome. To play devil’s advocate here, grant money doesn’t grow on trees and, so long as there was no influence exerted on the researchers, it would be a difficult decision to turn down funding.


I would hope all adults know that our moral values are a product of many different contributing factors: our family’s views, the society we grow up in, our friends, and even the media. It is interesting to see how the religious aspect of morality is so ingrained into many cultures that we unconsciously judge others based on whether or not they are religious. Maybe next time I go shopping for jewellery I should wear a cross around my neck and leave the denim vest at home.


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About the Author

Mark Drummond
A former science teacher, now working in education technology, out of Melbourne (via Scotland). Making science accessible, engaging and relevant to young people is the goal. I want young people to see science isn’t just a subject studied at school. It’s a way of evaluating the world; appreciating how awesome it is and avoiding being conned by snake oil salespeople.


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