Monday, September 15, 2014

Religion And Morality: Belief Isn't Better

"Godless Atheists," huh?
It's no secret that when it comes to what the public thinks, atheists are usually at the bottom of the "nice" list. Back in 2006, associate professor Penny Edgell of the University of Minnesota conducted a poll that found that of all the listed minority groups (including immigrants, gays and lesbians, conservative Christians, Jews, Muslims, blacks, Hispanics, whites, and atheists), people were least likely to think they could share their visions of society with an atheist -- about 54% of respondents stating they thought they could. Professor Edgell was shocked by the results, stating: "We thought that in the wake of 9/11, people would target Muslims. Frankly, we expected atheists to be a throwaway group."

Keeping in mind this study was conducted only 2 years after 9/11, so her surprise is most likely well founded; however, this wasn't the first, nor the last of a long series of studies which show that the average American is not too fond of the atheist. In 2011, Gervais, et al. published a study, Do You Believe in Atheists? Distrust Is Central to Anti-Atheist Prejudice, in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. There were actually several studies within this one published article, but in one study specifically, the researchers asked 105 undergraduates at the University of British Columbia to read the following excerpt:
"Richard is 31 years old. On his way to work one day, he accidentally backed his car into a parked van. Because pedestrians were watching, he got out of his car. He pretended to write down his insurance information. He then tucked the blank note into the van’s window before getting back into his car and driving away.

Later the same day, Richard found a wallet on the sidewalk. Nobody was looking, so he took all of the money out of the wallet. He then threw the wallet in a trash can."
The subjects were then asked which would be more likely: (A) that Richard is a teacher; or (B) that Richard is a teacher and something else. That something else was randomly selected as the filler from four possible categories: Christian, Muslim, rapist, or atheist. The test was to see how often the respondents committed something called the "conjunction fallacy." Simply put, the conjunction fallacy occurs when someone assumes that the probability of two events occurring together (or in conjunction) is higher than that of one of the events occurring alone, even though statistically speaking, it is always less likely for the conjunct to be true. In this study, for example, it is always more likely that Richard is a teacher than it is that he is a teacher and an atheist.

The results, however, showed that while only 4% and 15% committed the conjunction fallacy for Christians and Muslims respectively, 46% and 48% committed the fallacy for rapists and atheists respectively. That's right, people thought it was more likely that Richard was an atheist than he was a rapist. Well, actually, the two frequencies were not statistically significant from one another, so it was about the same for rapists and atheists. That makes it better, right?

So there's an obvious problem here. The public has a general distrust for atheists that can match, or possibly exceed, even that of rapists; and even in post 9/11 America (only 2 years after), atheists were still distrusted more than Muslims. It's obvious that the average person believes that the atheist is not as socially compatible as other minority groups, and is probably a lot more immoral.

Wait, what was that?

All the time I hear people claiming that atheists tend to be more immoral than "believers." This is, of course, completely outrageous on two accounts. Good old Hermant Mehta from Patheos emailed the Federal Bureau of Prisons to ask what the religious make up of the prison population was, and you can find the response here. To summarize, though, atheists make up 0.07% of the federal prison population that self-reported their religious affiliation in America. Of course, this data isn't perfect, but of what we have it's pretty impressive.

So that's one account: the statistics (of course, if you assume that breaking federal law is sinful). The other account I mentioned is on definition: What the heck does the statement even mean that atheists tend to be more immoral? By most Christian definitions, atheism itself is immoral, so no duh they're going to be "more immoral" than "believers." How are we defining morality here? This is such a problematic statement, and the framing is so biased, that it can't even be looked at in good health. Of course, by whatever group's morality you're making the judgment from, that group is going to almost always turn out more moral.

But... what if we based it on both groups' morality?

On September 12, 2014, Hofmann et al. published a study in Science entitled Morality in Everyday Life. The study repeatedly assessed moral/immoral actions in a sample of 1,252 people via self-reporting using ecological momentary analysis and found that religious and nonreligious people, as they see it, do not differ in terms of likelihood or quality of immoral/moral acts. Many have criticized these findings due to the use of self-reporting (even though they had a panel of independent judges draw conclusions as well), but that's the point. These experiences were based on the respondents' own definition of morality, and therefore isn't confounded by biased definitions. It means that in accordance with one's own principles, it seems to not be the case that the religious are more moral than the nonreligious.

As I said already, the framing of the question "are atheists more immoral than theists?" is already flawed and biased, but it helps to know that when you go by multiple lines of inquiry, you find this to not be the case, empirically or just pragmatically. Hopefully people can abandon their biases and begin to look at atheists in a more open way, because when it comes down to it (as Ricky Gervais said), if you kicked all the atheists and agnostics in America out, you'd lose 93% of The National Academy of Sciences, and less than 1% of the prison population.

How helpful would that be?

Thank you all very much for reading.

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Gervais WM, Shariff AF, & Norenzayan A (2011). Do you believe in atheists? Distrust is central to anti-atheist prejudice. Journal of personality and social psychology, 101 (6), 1189-206 PMID: 22059841  

Hofmann W, Wisneski DC, Brandt MJ, & Skitka LJ (2014). Morality in everyday life. Science (New York, N.Y.), 345 (6202), 1340-3 PMID: 25214626


  1. Sort of a quibble, but I really dislike the "conjunction fallacy" as it's often formulated (including here). In normal conversation it's generally understood that when you are offered a choice between 'something' or 'something and something-else', it is implied that the first something does not have 'something-else' as well. In this case it's no longer a fallacy.

    E.g. asking "Is the thief more likely to be a teacher or more likely to be a teacher and an athiest?" is like asking: "Are you more likely to want a sandwich with peanut butter or a sandwich with peanut butter and jelly?" Answering that you want a sandwich with peanut butter is understood to mean you want a sandwich with peanut butter and without jelly.

    1. The probability would still be higher for the subject to be X AND ~Y (where the tilde means "not") than it would for the subject to be X AND Y, so it would still be a fallacy. For example:

      "Is it more likely for Richard to be a teacher or is it more likely for Richard to be a teacher AND an atheist."

      Rewrite it:

      "Is it more likely for Richard to be a teacher AND not an atheist; or,
      Is it more likely for Richard to be a teacher AND an atheist."

      To assert the latter would still be a fallacy, because the probability of someone being one thing and not another is still higher than someone being two things. Now, this could be negated by demographic information, but this is generally speaking, as is the conjunction fallacy itself. This isn't a flaw in the fallacy, but in clarification of the meaning. I would argue that most people would not interpret "is X more likely to be Y or more likely to be Y and Z" as "is X more likely to be Y and not Z or more likely to be Y and Z."

  2. I think that a better way of thinking about it is to consider a Venn diagram of Teachers, Athiests, and Dishonest. Obviously the overlap between T AND D is always greater than the overlap between T AND A AND D, but it is quite easy to construct a diagram in which T AND A AND D is larger than T AND ~A AND D. And this latter comparison could quite easily be (and IMO quite often is) understood to be what is meant by the question.

    1. You could construct it that way, but then we would be leaving the realm of basic probabilities. You can manipulate data in many ways -- in fact, it is possible (in some demographic) for it to be more likely that Richard was both a teacher AND an atheist than it was for him to be a teacher and not an atheist, but this wouldn't be very informative.

      And also keep in mind that even if the respondents interpreted it as "teacher AND not an atheist OR teacher AND an atheist" and were thinking in demographic terms, they'd still be wrong. It'd be more likely for him to be a teacher and not an atheist, demographically speaking. The point is that people tend to falsely associate atheism with immorality, but the facts suggest there is no such link.

  3. hhhmm interesting. I myself think Believers tend to be most immoral compared to Aethiest. So many atrocities have occured throughout history in the name of God. I have seen violent acts commited because of a another persons religious view doesnt match up with theirs. there is alot more evidence pointing towards religious people immoral than Aethiest. Its easy for people to do negative things and believe they are doing the right thing in the name of a cause such as "God's Will".
    From my personal experience Aethest tend to be very nice and less judgemental. I think the way the question was asked to participants was stupid in the University of British Columbia though. Could have a similar question in a different way. BTW I believe in God but not like christians. I believe in the we are all one theory and the simulation theory so my beliefs are a mixture of science theories and religion. I used to be a christian though.
    Either way it doesnt matter to much as organized religions like Christianity and Muslum religion are the most dominant religions on this planet so it would be only natural that alot of people would think negative about beliefs that are a total opposite to theirs.

    1. It looks like we have contrary standpoints on this one. I think that it's not representative to say "religion is bad because look at all of the atrocities organized religion has led to." Religion, as a system, is just a tool for social cohesion and promotes the evolutionary success of a group. Such groups will find a way to go to war, to kill outsiders (i.e. not part of the group), to appropriate resources, etc. It's just a matter of survival, and religion happened to be one of the most effective systems by which socially cohesive evolutionary groups were able to accomplish this.

      As for the study design, while I think it could've been phrased better, I actually don't see anything wrong with the question. Another commenter suggested that the framing of the question could lead one to think that saying "is a teacher" actually means "is a teacher and NOT (category)," but if that were the case, then why did so many people think it's more likely for Richard to be a teacher and not a Christian, as opposed to being both? Demographically, this doesn't make sense.

      But the question itself aimed to gauge what biases people held for different groups. I personally think it would've been more informative to throw in a few more random categories, but the study was limited in that it only had 100-some participants. Overall, it's just one piece of data out of many, even within the confines of that particular article. As I said, that one published article actually had several studies relating to religion.

    2. Well I don't think Religion is bad but what I meant is I see more bad from people of God believing religons than what I see from Aethiest. Also I would have to agree with the other commentor's opinion about the question asked in the study. It was a nice read though. I enjoy talks and articles on topics like these

  4. I'm not entirely familiar with research methods, but intuitively the question that everyone seems to have an issue with does seem awkward. I could be wrong though; however, one can still concede that that study was flawed, but still take away the important fact from the rest of this post: atheists don't tend to be more "immoral" than theists. Interesting read.

    1. I'll keep thinking on this, but you're right. The important take away isn't that the question was worded oddly, but that atheists are distrusted, but don't deserve to be. Thank you for your comment!


    you might want to check out his latest publication related to anti atheist distrust

  6. One thing I'm curious to know about is how religious conditioning affects this mentality. Any successful religion is going to discourage leaving, and stigmatizing non-belief is towards the top of the list of ways to do that. The distrust is likely by design to some degree.

    1. That sounds reasonable. The picture at the beginning of this post isn't fake -- people actually made propaganda posters and comic strips to stigmatize atheism. The best example I can think of would be the examples AronRa used at the beginning of his presentation on evolution and racism:

      Around 2:24.


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