Atheists and believers have different moral compasses

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The moral compasses of atheists and believers are different in a few key ways, a new study finds.

In some aspects, the moral compass was incredibly alike between the two groups; they both highly rated fairness and protecting the well-being of vulnerable people, for instance, and both highly endorsed liberty but not oppression. However, the groups diverged when it came to matters of group cohesion, such as valuing loyalty and respecting authority, the study found.

This research shows that, contrary to public perception, atheists do have a moral compass, but compared with believers, "their compass is differently calibrated," possibly due to factors such as how they were raised and whether they are highly analytical thinkers, the study's researcher Tomas Ståhl, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Illinois at Chicago, told Live Science.

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It's a common question, including among fellow atheists, whether disbelievers even have a moral compass. A 2019 Pew Research Center poll found that 44% of Americans (compared with 26% of Canadians) think that a belief in God is needed to be moral. A 2011 study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology even found "that the distrust of atheists was comparable to the distrust of rapists," he said. 

To investigate whether atheists have a moral compass, and to see how it compares with the compass of believers, Ståhl did four surveys: The first two included a total of 429 Americans on Amazon's online Mechanical Turk platform, while the second two surveys included a total of 4,193 people from the U.S. (a relatively religious country) and Sweden (a largely irreligious country).

The participants answered myriad questions about their personal histories, religious beliefs, political orientations and moral views. One part of the survey called the Moral Foundations Questionnaire was especially useful, as it asks about five central moral values. Questions on two of the values — caring and fairness — rated people's attitudes toward protecting vulnerable individuals and treating people fairly. 

"Virtually everyone," atheists and believers alike, scored high on these two values, showing that they valued protecting the vulnerable and being fair toward others; and they saw these values as moral issues, Ståhl said. However, he found differences between believers and disbelievers on the other three values: authority (respecting authority figures, such as police, parents and teachers), loyalty (being loyal to one's group, such as a country — not burning a country's flag, for instance) and sanctity (not doing anything perceived as degrading, usually in a sexual sense, such as being promiscuous).

"Those three values are thought to be serving group cohesion, keeping the group together," Ståhl explained. "When it comes to the binding values, there's a dramatic difference [between the groups]. Religious people score much higher on those — they view [them] as much more relevant for being moral compared to the disbelievers." 

In contrast, "atheists don't really think of [these three values] as relevant for morality to the same degree," he said.

The finding held even when Ståhl controlled for political orientation, he noted. 

These findings are consistent with prior research, said Kimberly Rios, an associate professor of psychology at Ohio University, who was not involved in the study. The new and earlier research, some of which was carried about by Rios, shows that the stereotypes that atheists don't have a moral compass are overgeneralizations; however, it also showed these stereotypes "are not substantiated by the actual differences between religious believers and non-believers," Rios told Live Science in an email. "Although non-believers place less importance on group-based moral values than do believers, there is no evidence based on the measures used in these studies that non-believers are more amoral than believers."

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For instance, the two groups scored low on amorality, disagreeing with statements such as "I am willing to be unethical if I believe it will help me succeed." (The survey didn't address whether these groups actually differed in their unethical behaviors.) 

Alike and different

Believers' and disbelievers' moral compasses were alike and different in a few other ways, the new surveys showed. For example, both groups highly endorsed liberty over oppression, agreeing with statements such as "Society works best when it lets individuals take responsibility for their own lives without telling them what to do." Both groups said they saw rational thinking — believing in evidence-based claims and being skeptical of claims lacking evidence — as a moral issue, Ståhl said.

This finding is "intriguing," Rios said. There's a notion in many Western societies that religious belief and rational, scientific thought are incompatible, she said. "Yet, the finding that religious believers don't see rational thinking as any less of a moral issue than do non-believers suggests this notion of conflict may be overstated," Rios said. 

Of note, some religions encourage aspects of rational thinking. For example, the Catholic church has argued that logic and rationality can be useful, for instance when Saint Thomas Aquinas wrote proofs, known as The Five Ways, that argued for God's existence; in the Middle Ages, Jewish thinkers began embracing the rational thought process of Greek's classical philosophers, and they applied it when analyzing religious texts.

In a difference, Ståhl found that atheists were more likely than believers to base their judgments about what is or isn't moral based on the consequences of their actions. For example, in the hypothetical trolley problem, a person has to decide whether to let a runaway trolley kill five people stuck on the track ahead of it, or whether to pull a switch to divert the train, but kill one person stuck on the alternate track.

"In that situation, the disbelievers are more inclined to say 'flip [the] switch and kill the one person rather than five,' because they are assessing the relative harm," Ståhl told Live Science. "Whereas believers are more icky about that because they feel like they're actively killing someone, and they shouldn't kill. So, they are less comfortable with those calculations."

Why the differences?

Studies have yet to sufficiently show why atheists and theists have differently calibrated moral compasses, but Ståhl found a few correlations (although correlation does not equal causation). In the survey, he asked participants whether they were raised religiously and observed important people in their community engage in religious activities (meaning that it would be costly to their lives to think that their religious beliefs were false); whether they viewed the world as a dangerous place (and likely found God to be a protective force); and whether they were analytical thinkers, a trait found more often in atheists than believers.

"We find that, as expected, those things are related to whether you're a believer or not," Ståhl said. "We also find that these variables predict your moral values." So, for instance, if you don't grow up surrounded by religious people and related activities, you're less likely to endorse matters of group cohesion. Similarly, perceiving the world to be less dangerous and being an analytical thinker also predict atheism. 

The findings were replicated in all four surveys, both in the United States and Sweden. Going forward, both Ståhl and Rios said future research should examine whether these patterns hold up in non-Western countries, for example in China, a largely irreligious but very group-oriented country, and in predominantly Muslim countries, such as the United Arab Emirates, where atheism is officially forbidden.

The study was published online Wednesday (Feb. 24) in the journal PLOS One.

Originally published on Live Science.

Laura Geggel

Laura is the archaeology and Life's Little Mysteries editor at Live Science. She also reports on general science, including paleontology. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Scholastic, Popular Science and Spectrum, a site on autism research. She has won multiple awards from the Society of Professional Journalists and the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association for her reporting at a weekly newspaper near Seattle. Laura holds a bachelor's degree in English literature and psychology from Washington University in St. Louis and a master's degree in science writing from NYU.