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Good without god

July 6, 2011
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They’re not categorically immoral either.

In the past three days on my Facebook page, I’ve been called an antichrist1, a Mormon basher2, ignorant3, and unrighteous 4. I imagine that these commenters have replaced any semblance of what I’m actually like with a caricature of a scowling, hate-filled monster bent on abolishing the whole of Christianity. They assume that I’m immoral, and don’t see me as a real person anymore, playing with my kids, helping our neighbor’s 2-year-old get sand out his shoe, or taking a pair of lost sunglasses to the lost and found at the water park. They didn’t see me yesterday remind the clerk at Best Buy that he had failed to charge me for installing a car radio, or momentarily diverting my spray of water from our newly-planted grass to our neighbor’s strawberry patch that also needed a drink. They don’t see me visit pleasantly with the store clerk wearing a cross necklace or putting on my sons’ ties on Sunday mornings. These are not moral behaviors of which only theists are capable—these are simply little acts of human kindness that theists and atheists alike perform every day.



And I expected something like “20 unwanted pounds” or “self doubt!” She hasn’t defriended me yet. Anyway, I’ve never bashed a Mormon in my life! Good folks, Mormons. I just don’t share many of their beliefs anymore.



One of the reasons I started this blog was to promote civil equality for atheists by taking advantage of the “gay friend effect:” People who know someone who’s gay are less likely to be prejudiced against gays. Similarly, people who know an atheist are less likely to marginalize atheists. Image from: more atheists come out, the greater is our progress toward a society where all people are treated with fairness and respect. To remain silent about one’s atheism is the easier route, to be sure, but silence is an implicit endorsement of the pervading Christian privilege.

Given this recent bout of name-calling directed at me, I see that I’ve overestimated some people’s ability to be thoughtful and reasonable, and I’ve underestimated how reactively they would engage their cognitive biases. The most troubling accusation is that people are by default unrighteous if they don’t have faith in Jesus. This is incredibly dismissive of the majority of the world’s population. I sometimes hear this as, “You can’t be good without God.”

I have no doubt that one can be good without believing in God, let alone having faith in Jesus. Let’s look at what research has found regarding the morality of nonbelievers.

In 1934, Abraham Franzblau found a negative correlation between acceptance of religious beliefs and three different measures of honesty. As religiosity increased, honesty decreased.

In 1950, Murray Ross conducted a survey among 2,000 associates of the YMCA and discovered that agnostics and atheists were more likely to express their willingness to aid the poor than those who rated themselves as deeply religious.

In 1975, a study found that college-aged students in religious schools were no less likely to cheat on a test than their atheist and agnostic counterparts in nonreligious schools.

In the most recent studies of religious belief among prestigious scientists, only 7 percent of members of the American National Academy of Sciences believed in God, while only 3.3 percent of the UK’s Royal Society said they believe in God. Are all these scientists unrighteous? Ignorant? Atheism is often the product of understanding the scientific process, not some secret cabal.

In his book, The Psychology of Religion: An empirical approach, David Wolf reviews dozens of studies of this nature that reveal a consistent and positive correlation between “religious affiliation, church attendance, doctrinal orthodoxy, rated importance of religion, and so on, with ethnocentrism, authoritarianism, dogmatism, social distance, rigidity, intolerance of ambiguity, and specific forms of prejudice, especially against Jews and Blacks.”

There have been several interesting studies in which ethical dilemmas are presented to people of various faiths, including to people of no religious faith at all. You can read about these experiments in some detail here. They’re quite fascinating, and I recommend you read them if you’re not already familiar with them.

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In these ethical dilemma experiments, atheists consistently make the same moral decisions that believers do. Maybe they’re just absorbing the religious values from those around them, you may say. However, adapted versions of these ethical dilemmas were presented to a tribe of people who had almost no contact with the outside world, and they too made the same moral decisions. Additionally, consider how to explain people’s morality when they live in a society where almost no one believes in a supernatural God, most notably Buddhists.

One interesting study found differences between areas of the country with various concentrations of believers and nonbelievers. Believers tend to be more concentrated in ‘red’ (Republican) states as opposed to ‘blue’ (Democrat) states. Sam Harris noted that, “Of the twenty-five cities with the lowest rates of violent crime, 62 percent are in blue states, and 38 percent are in red states. Of the twenty-five most dangerous cities, 76 percent are in red states, and 24 percent are in blue states. In fact, three of the five most dangerous cities in the U.S. are in the pious state of Texas. The twelve states with the highest rates of burglary are red. Twenty-four of the twenty-nine states with the highest rates of theft are red. Of the twenty-two states with the highest rates of murder, seventeen are red.”

Similarly, Phil Zuckerman, sociologist and author of Society Without God: What the least religious societies can tell us about contentment, found that the Scandinavian countries, particularly Denmark and Sweden, have the lowest percentage of believers and the highest percentage of atheists, and yet they are incredibly moral countries. They have the lowest rates of violent crime in the world, the best elder care, the best childcare, strong education, and high literacy rates. But aren’t they sad people who find life meaningless? Not at all—they have one of the lowest rates of depression and the highest measures of happiness in the world. They find meaning in their work, families, causes that they are involved in, etc.

Another interesting bit of data comes from the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, which found in a 1997 study that one in ten people in the U.S. were atheists or agnostics (in 2008, the figure had jumped to 16%), whereas only one in 200 prisoners are atheist or agnostic.

This doesn’t mean that atheism necessarily increases morality, although humanism, the ethical system that often goes with atheism, probably does. Another good possibility is that atheism is correlated with some third factor, such as higher education, intelligence, or reflectiveness, which might counteract criminal impulses. Neither do these data disprove the existence of God, but they are evidence that 1) people can be good without believing in God, and 2) that the morality of nonbelievers is not likely the product of being in a society steeped in religion.


So the only reason one tries to be good is to gain God’s approval and reward, or to avoid his disapproval and punishment? That, of course, is not morality. That’s just sucking up. If people are good only because they fear punishment and hope for reward, then we are a sorry lot indeed. If you agree that, in the absence of God, you would commit robbery, rape, and murder, you reveal yourself as an immoral person and we would be well advised to steer a wide course around you. If, on the other hand, you admit that you would continue to be a good person even when not under divine surveillance, you have fatally undermined your claim that God is necessary for us to be good.

So research does not support the idea that those who don’t have faith in Jesus are unrighteous, or that people become immoral when they lose their faith in God. Indeed, the existence of altruism, compassion, generosity, kinship, and compassion can be explained very well by evolution by natural selection. Such behaviors are reported over and over in studies of animals, such as birds, bats, elephants, whales, rhesus monkeys, and others, and it is all well supported by the theory of evolution.

Skeptical? Read or listen to any or all of the six books below. They all present and summarize the peer-reviewed, published research that lays out the evolutionary origins of our moral instincts.

Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life by Dacher Keltner
Natural Selections: Selfish Altruists, Honest Liars, and Other Realities of Evolution by David P. Barash
Our Inner Ape: A Leading Primatologist Explains Why We Are Who We Are by Frans de Waal
The Moral Lives of Animals by Dale Peterson
The Science of Good and Evil: Why People Cheat, Gossip, Care, Share, and Follow the Golden Rule by Michael Shermer
The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement by David Brooks

Or you can just continue to call me names. Doesn’t bother me a bit. But you can’t get away with calling atheists immoral. Morality is about how you behave and how you treat others, not what theological opinions you hold.

From → Uncategorized

  1. Hi Kevin,

    I stipulate that you are indeed a good and moral person. I like you personally. As you know however, I disagree with you about the evidence for spiritual phenomena. There is lots and lots of phenomenological evidence from thousands of people’s first hand experiences of seeing ghosts, remembering past lives, having near-death experiences, etc. I am writing a book on these phenomena.

    Believing in them (or not) does not make one more or less moral though. Morality seems a very different category from belief. But as to the ontological truth of a spiritual dimension to life, I think the data are clear and convincing. As such, I think you are wrong to make a categorical statement rejecting such beliefs in others. Having said that, I am not saying that people should believe every specific religious belief as TRUTH. Each possible truth statement should be evaluated on its own.

    As a result of the above conclusions, I do believe in a deity (not a very theistic one). I do not accept any sacred text of any religion as inerrant truth. In particular, I reject the stories where “God” hates others, wants us to kill others, or kills them “himself.”

    blessings and peace,

  2. Jonathan permalink

    I obviously won’t agree with everything said here, but this, in my opinion, is one of the best posts you’ve written. You explain your reasoning well and don’t fall into the common traps (that I’m sure I’ve fallen into at times while responding) of ad hominem arguments and hypocritical attacks. You back up your statements with a plethora of links that I would love to get to as soon as possible. I really found this a stimulating read.

    A couple of points, though unreasearched, might follow like this: first, regardless of the color of the state, large cities tend to be blue. It’s possible that the correlations may be interpreted differently when examined further. I’ve also heard of research suggesting that conservatives are more generous with the poor and that religious people are actually less prone to crime, though I cannot provide a reference at the moment. Also, there seems to be a connection with the incarcerated and newfound religiousness; people often become very repentant when facing consequences. While I’ve not done much research in this realm, I suspect there is some sturdy ground to stand on when composing a true counterargument.

    It seems to me in this post that, while you say you don’t mind people calling you names, you still seem to feel a bit hurt. This saddens me because I think the efforts of others and myself are directed differently. Others may act out of passion and impulsivity and feel that by ostracizing you they strengthen their own stance. This has never been my intention. I know you are more educated than I, but as I’ve read your writings, I’ve felt you lacked some perspective, and so I’ve tried to provide it as eloquently and powerfully as possible. I doubt I will ever change your mind, but I’ve thought that perhaps I’d at least broaden your viewpoint. If I ever have offended you or have come across as making any similarly rude and thoughtless statements, I apologize. Once again, it’s not been my intent.

  3. Very well said. I’m sorry you had some (more) toxic crap thrown your way. I sent you a Facebook friend request! I will spam you with positive sunshine and happiness, instead, to balance out the people who take cheap cracks at you for simply speaking freely about your personal beliefs. You are inspirational to me!

  4. Jonathan permalink

    I had a couple of additional thoughts as I pondered this topic this morning in the shower. The first deals again with crime in cities in red states. To me, one of the likelier explanations has little to do with the religiosity or education of the criminals, but is more likely having to do with the social benefits provided in blue states that are not present in red states. Since relative poverty motivates people to resort to crime, and since a state that places more emphasis on personal responsibility and utilizes fewer social programs will result in relative poverty, more crime may result. That’s delving into politics, sociology, and economics, but it could relate. On the other hand, with that emphasis on personal responsibility, red states tend to be more economically stable and productive, and therefore those who find themselves successful contribute to a more powerful and stable society. In fact, it is often successful individuals who find themselves supporting the welfare programs that perpetuate government dependency in more blue areas, ultimately leading to a decline in a society that could eventually lead to greater political turmoil and crime. Look at the instability in present-day Greece for an example.

    My other point is more vague, and based somewhat on the last. That is again the caution that correlation does not equal causality, and the further the jump in logic, the less likely it is true. To illustrate, state political affiliation is very broad and does not reflect regional affiliation or personal affiliation. Nor does it take into account the confounding factors that also influence behavior, such as those I mentioned above. The United States, the most religious nation in the developed world, is also the most generous nation, donating billions of dollars to other nations and peoples in aide and research and more. This in turn leads to our own instability and makes it harder for us to devote dollars to our own social programs, which are being cut so drastically that it is painful, even for us conservatives (as I in my profession am experiencing). We have the best researchers in the world, the lowest cancer rates, protect other weak nations who then devote their dollars to their own people and welfare programs, and the greatest capacity to ward off evil men in the world. This all from a religious nation.

    Oh yeah, I did have one extra thought. I can imagine that a prestigous scientific organization would attract individuals who are skeptical in nature and do not tend to rely on faith. Moreover, such an organization leads to a sort of peer pressure to conform to non-belief. A better study would relate to IQ and education, not to membership in an organization. It may reveal similar results, but it would be a more accurate reflection in any case.

  5. Jonathan permalink

    Another thought here involves the statement that atheists are no less moral than religious persons. While not disagreeing with the findings or conclusions or anything else, I wish to point out that morals are often very subjective, and that this is enhanced by the belief that there is no God, and therefore no true final say on the matter. Take murder. You and I would agree that murder is wrong. But at the same time, another atheist might say that murder may be for the greater good, as sparing the lives of genetically unhealthy individuals perpetuates those traits in their offspring. Therefore, they may feel justified in murdering certain “inferior” individuals and feel perfectly justified, looking at those who are unwilling to do so as inferior. On a simpler level, jsut the morality of basic political issues, such as social welfare versus personal responsibility and how far they are permitted to encroach on each other is subject to debate. It seems difficult to me to compare the morality of different individuals without a true baseline. Maybe some means of obtaining one was utilized, I don’t know, but it’s a thought I had.

  6. Jonathan permalink

    I know you were attacked by others and that is a major part of your post, your points on morality have actually attracted much interest from me, and that is why I comment so frequently on this post. An intelligent discussion gets others to think, and I hope my comments generate at least some thought in your readers’ and your minds.

    I’ve thought about the poor methods used in these studies a great deal. You cannot classify individuals based on a group. Your are associating multiple demographics and assuming they overlap nearly equally and therefore draw false conclusions when you do. A more accurate study could be performed thus:

    Find 1,000 subjects at random from a wide range of locations across the U.S.. Provide a Likert-scale questionnaire on what they determine to be moral and immoral, and use that for a baseline. Find another 1,000 subjects at random from various locations. Determine their religious affiliation. Provide them with a questionnaire of hypothetical situations. Interview their family and friends. Investigate their past records. Determine from there who is more moral. Anecdotal evidence is notorious for allowing single cases to outweigh vast stores of evidence to the contrary, and the kind of tests listed above provide false causalityies.

    Let me provide some interesting statistics for you, political in nature, quoted from, which in turn took its statistics from a book entitled Who Really Cares: The Surprising Truth About Compassionate Conservatism:

    “– Although liberal families’ incomes average 6 percent higher than those of conservative families, conservative-headed households give, on average, 30 percent more to charity than the average liberal-headed household ($1,600 per year vs. $1,227).

    — Conservatives also donate more time and give more blood.

    — Residents of the states that voted for John Kerry in 2004 gave smaller percentages of their incomes to charity than did residents of states that voted for George Bush.

    — Bush carried 24 of the 25 states where charitable giving was above average.

    — In the 10 reddest states, in which Bush got more than 60 percent majorities, the average percentage of personal income donated to charity was 3.5. Residents of the bluest states, which gave Bush less than 40 percent, donated just 1.9 percent.

    — People who reject the idea that “government has a responsibility to reduce income inequality” give an average of four times more than people who accept that proposition.”

    The conclusions in this book: their increased generosity is attributable to the generally greater religiosity of the people. Of course, there we begin to step away from the true comparison that I am trying to get at, that is morality and religous beliefs, but nevertheless, it shows that studies might indicate differently from what you conclude. The book provides a number of other findings that would be immensely interesting. Looking at the critiques, the biggest I can find is that the results are based on self-reporting. While I agree that there is an inherent flaw in relying so heavily on that, I cannot help but feel that exaggerations would be equalized through the randomness of the study, leaving both liberals and conservatives equally likely to misreport. Further research should be done, but things don’t initially appear to be so clear cut in favor of atheism and blue states.

    Other studies indicate inverse relationships between religious belief and crime, such as Baier and Wright’s “If you love me, keep my commandments: A meta-analysis of the effect of religion on crime.” And this is not a lone study on the topic.

    I should add that the same Sam Harris you appeal to is notable (or notorious?) among his colleagues for his “fundamentalist” approach towards religion. Not intended to be an ad hominem attack, Sam Harris has his credibility threatened through his means and conclusions, even by a number of aheists who equally consider atheism superior.

    Kevin, I doubt I’m done touching on this article. I like you a lot, and become very defensive when others criticize you or atheists as immoral. I really believe that most people are good, and that defining individuals based on a group to whom they belong is almost always wrong. There is more good to religion than you and so many seem to realize.

  7. Jonathan permalink

    I know, I know, another thought to add. As it turns out, crime in Utah is very low. Crime in Louisiana is very high. This seems to be more economic in nature than anything. The southern states, which are largely Republican and conservative, also happen to be the states where slavery was still in place (maintained, by the way, by Democrats, while Republicans opposed slavery). An economy so dependent on slavery would greatly suffer when their land is invaded and slavery outlawed. The Civil War still has repercussions today, and this has been evident to me, even long before this post brought the possible tie between religion and crime to my attention. And back to Louisiana, a state also happens to be a state highly populated by people of French or African descent. Should we make the jump in logic that its high crime is due to the presence of these races/ethnicities? Clearly not. My point once again is that the tying of religion to violent crimes based on state violence is an ignorant one that fails to take into account multiple factors.

  8. Jonathan permalink

    By the way, if we are to associate crime with the religiosity of the population, let me point out that the countries with the most homocides were largely either Latin American or African. After that, many countries that are mostly irreligious begin to show up, such as Russia, Ukraine, China, Mongolia, North Korea, Cuba, etc. Along with them, many Middle Eastern/Muslim countries begin to arrive, followed by the U.S., and then several other countries. So we can of course assume that there is connection between Catholicism/Islam/inidigenous religions and violence. Or we can assume that there is a connection between hispanics and blacks with violence. Or we can assume that many atheist countries are more violent than the world’s most religious country, the U.S. Or we can be rational and accept that this is a complicated topic with the presence of guns, drugs, gangs, poverty, and a lack of education, disparities in wealth, victimized groups of people, etc. may contributing to the overall crime of a region. In spite of Mr. Harris’s confident assertions, he is jumping the gun in concluding that religion leads to violence.

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