A team of researchers led by Tomas Ståhl of the University of Illinois, USA, found that both atheist and theist morality aligned on the ideas about looking after vulnerable individuals, liberty vs oppression, and trying to believe in evidence-based claims.
In their study, published in PLOS ONE, researchers gathered data from 4000 individuals from the USA (a predominantly religious country) and Sweden (a predominantly irreligious country), across individuals who identified as Christian, Muslim, Jewish, agnostic, atheist and other. It is the first study of its kind to systematically examine the differences in perception of morality between religious and non-religious groups.
“The most general take-home message from these studies is that people who do not believe in God do have a moral compass,” says Ståhl. “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.”
Perhaps contrary to what one might think, the two groups only differed in a couple of areas: theists were more likely to endorse moral values that increase group cohesion, and atheists were more likely to judge the morality of an action based on the consequences of action or inaction.
“Disbelievers are less inclined than believers to endorse moral values that serve group cohesion, such as having respect for authorities, ingroup loyalty, and sanctity,” explains Ståhl.
“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, in-group 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,” says Ståhl.
This study hypothesises about the cause of the differences, but only shows correlation in perceptions of morality between theist and atheist. Most of the religious group surveyed were Christian and Caucasian as a whole group, so some cultural differences may not be observable.
Nevertheless, as a systematic attempt to explore morality in atheists, good news for the non-Godly: you passed.
Deborah Devis is a science journalist at Cosmos. She has a Bachelor of Liberal Arts and Science (Honours) in biology and philosophy from the University of Sydney, and a PhD in plant molecular genetics from the University of Adelaide.
Read science facts, not fiction...
There’s never been a more important time to explain the facts, cherish evidence-based knowledge and to showcase the latest scientific, technological and engineering breakthroughs. Cosmos is published by The Royal Institution of Australia, a charity dedicated to connecting people with the world of science. Financial contributions, however big or small, help us provide access to trusted science information at a time when the world needs it most. Please support us by making a donation or purchasing a subscription today.