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 Are Atheists and Theists Morally Equivalent?

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The Philosopher

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PostSubject: Are Atheists and Theists Morally Equivalent?   Mon Dec 12, 2011 4:05 pm

Dawkins goes on to claim that religion is a form of child abuse that should not be taught to young children. However, a recent study by Reginald W. Bibby, Board of Governors Research Chair in the Department of Sociology at the University of Lethbridge, Canada, shows that atheists rate several moral values less important than theists do. Some of his studies will be introduced in this Article
Religion and morality

Christians are far more likely than atheists to be part of groups that work hard to instill values about being good to other people, and having good relationships. The teachings of the Bible emphasize values such as honesty, love, forgiveness, patience, and generosity. Many of these values are not emphasized in social circles dominated by atheists.

Importance of moral values

A survey of 1,600 Canadians asked them what were their beliefs about God and what moral values they considered to be "very important." The results of the survey are shown below:
Moral Values of Theists vs. Atheists1 Moral Value Theists Atheists
Honesty 94% 89%
Kindness 88 75
Family life 88 65
Being loved 86 70
Friendship 85 74
Courtesy 81 71
Concern for others 82 63
Forgiveness 84 52
Politeness 77 65
Friendliness 79 66
Patience 72 39
Generosity 67 37

Although the differences between theists and atheists in the importance of values such as honesty, politeness, and friendliness are generally small, moral values emphasized by religious beliefs, such as Christianity, including patience, forgiveness, and generosity exhibit major differences in attitudes (30%+ differences between theists and atheists).

What really concerns me is that only half of atheists think that forgiveness is very important. Either these people have not been married or maybe married multiple times, since a lack of forgiveness in a marriage is a sure recipe for disaster. Couple that moral belief with a perception that neither patience nor generosity are very important, and it seems that the divorce rates are likely to go up significantly in the near future.

According to Professor Bibby, Grandma is the "symbolic saintly person in the clan. So valuing Grandma also means valuing many of the things important to her. In successive generations you have a lingering effect of morality. But further down the road generations get further removed from the sources of those values. That's where it gets tricky."


Contrary to the claim of the "New Atheism," it seems that atheism leads to a decline in the perception of the importance of many personal moral values, especially those that have a big impact on interpersonal relationships. Since these new atheists are still being influenced by persons of traditional religious moral values, it seems likely that the importance of these values will diminish even further in the beliefs of the next generation of atheists. According to Reginald Bibby, the author of the study, "To the extent that Canadians say good-bye to God, we may find that we pay a significant social price." In addition, a recent scientific study shows that a certain atheistic belief (determinism or lack of free will) negatively impacts moral behavior.

Does Atheism Lead to Immoral Behavior

Atheism does not lead to increased immoral behavior according to the writing of many atheists. In theory, one can be morally responsible atheist. However, in practice, does atheism/agnosticism encourage or discourage a higher level of moral and ethical behavior?

Principles of Christian morality

Christians are far more likely than atheists to be part of groups that work hard to instill values about being good to other people, and having good relationships. The teachings of the Bible emphasize values such as honesty, love, forgiveness, sexual fidelity, patience,and generosity. In addition, all Christian denominations strongly discourage negative behaviors, such as fornication, profanity,gambling, gossiping, retaliation, drunkenness, and lying. Many of these values are not emphasized in social circles dominated by atheists. Do these teachings influence moral behavior?

Evangelicals vs. atheists

A a random sample of 1003 adults were surveyed in May, 2008 by The Barna Group for their participation in a number of negative behaviors within the previous week. The results showed that there were vast differences in the behaviors of evangelicals compared to agnostics/atheists.
Moral Behaviors of Evangelicals vs. Atheists6 Sin Evangelicals Atheists
Viewing pornography 12% 50%
Profanity in public 16 60
Gambling 2 7
Gossiping 4 34
Sex with non-spouse 3 ?
Retaliation ? 11
Drunkenness 0.5 33
Lying 1 ?
Average 6 29

These results show that atheists/agnostics participate in morally questionable behaviors to a much greater degree than evangelical Christians - an average of nearly five times the frequency! The data calls into question the atheists' claim that moral choices are deterministic and the people do not have the ability to exercise free will. If human behavior were merely a combination of genes and biochemistry, then beliefs would have no effect on moral choices. Obviously, this is a failed hypothesis, since beliefs do influence behavior. Another study, published in 2008, showed that increasing belief in determinism negatively impacted moral behavior (cheating).

Liberal/Conservative morality

The fact that liberals and conservatives see morality from a different perspective is not difficult to discern. However, recent studies demonstrate exactly how differently these groups interpret what is moral/immoral. The graph at right shows how liberals put a high moral value on fairness and lack of harm, but do not value loyalty to their ingroup, importance of authority, or personal purity as being important (left side of graph). However, conservatives value all five categories of morality about the same (right side of graph). Since most atheists tend to more politically liberal, it is likely that their political perspective explains their lack of emphasis on personal purity found in the Barna study. However, whether the political beliefs cause the moral viewpoint or the moral viewpoint causes the political beliefs is difficult to determine from this kind of study.

Doing good

The Barna study is not the only one reporting difference between theists and atheists. The Hoover Institution (part of Stanford University) has studied philanthropic giving and volunteerism among populations.10 Making 30,000 observations over 50 different communities, they found that religious people are much more likely to donate money to charities (91 percent to 66 percent) more likely to volunteer time (67 percent to 44 percent). The amount they give is also quite different with religious people averaging $2,210, compared to only $642 among the secular, even though incomes and education levels are virtually the same. Religious people's giving is not just to religious causes either, since they also out give secular people when donating to secular causes.


Although, in theory, atheists can lead moral lives, the absence of an absolute moral foundation probably leads to moral drifting over time. This phenomenon also occurs in Christians who abandon church and Christian fellowship. As a result, the differences in morality between atheists and evangelicals is striking, with atheists being much more prone to viewing pornography, using profanity in public, gossiping, and drunkenness. For the 8 sins surveyed in the Barna study, atheists were nearly 5 times more likely to commit those sins than evangelical Christians. In addition, atheists are much less likely to donate to charities (even secular ones) and perform volunteer services in their communities compared with religious people. So, even though atheists can lead a moral life, on average, they don't measure up. Although it is possible that atheism is not the cause of moral failure, it seems unlikely that there are genetic or other demographic factors that account for the differences in behavior.

"He who fights monsters should see to it that in the process, he does not become a monster. And when you look into the abyss, the abyss also looks into you." - Nietzche
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