Wednesday, 16 January 2013

A message from your friendly, neighborhood atheist

Alright, so previously I talked about whether or not an atheist can make a moral claim. There are different ways you could fall on this argument, but ultimately I also said the question is moot. What matters isn’t whether atheists can make moral claims (we’ll make them regardless), but whether we actually are moral.

So, are atheists good people? As always, the answer is complicated, and I suspect I’ll be returning to this question from time to time, because it’s a *really* good one to ask. 

In an article titled "Atheism: Contemporary Numbers and Patterns," Phil Zuckerman, a Professor of Sociology, does an analysis of many different studies and compares levels of religiosity in various countries with certain economic and social factors, such as a population’s health, wealth, education and level of freedom. He then tries to determine what the data suggests.

For example, the five highest ranked nations in terms of total human development also have high levels of organic atheism (by organic, he means occurring naturally rather than by, say, the force of law). Further, the bottom fifty countries all lack any significant amount of atheism.

Based on this information, he argues that countries marked by high rates of organic atheism are among the most societally healthy on earth, while those with low atheism are among the most unhealthy. Now, he is very, very careful to explain that this only demonstrates correlation, not causation, and I agree. Nevertheless, it’s an interesting finding.

If you’re interested in more information on this particular paper, it’s a short little piece that’s offered free online on the website. Check it out at I dare you!

However, if my schoolyard negotiation tactics aren’t effective enough for you, here’s a little teaser that you can check out at a glance. The following is a series of maps which, if taken together, compare a few social factors (I chose them more or less arbitrarily; many other factors would have worked as well) with religiosity by country: -- Homicide rates by country, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime 2012 -- GINI Coefficient, measures income inequality in nations, CIA 2012 -- Infant mortality rates, CIA 2012 -- Religiosity by country, Gallup Poll 2006-2008

What is the very first thing you notice about these maps? Aside from the missing data in Africa for the GINI coefficient, they’re all very similar to one another.

What conclusions can you draw from this? Again, like Zuckerman, I absolutely cannot say there’s a causal relationship between reducing religion in society and improved social determinants. And even if there was a causal relationship, it would be uncertain if improved social determinants cause irreligiosity (which Zuckerman prefers to think), or if irreligiosity causes improved social determinants (probably much less likely).

Despite this, there is one claim you actually can make: religion is not necessary to create a moral society. So when you hear people like Mike Huckabee saying the Newtown shooting was caused because god has been kicked out of the public arena (, Pat Robertson blaming atheists for the Sikh Temple shooting (, or Glenn Beck blaming atheists for a brutal fight that resulted in the death of Derrion Albert (, they are about as far from the truth as any person can possibly be.

Not only does greater levels of atheism *not* cause these kinds of things, but high levels of atheism are definitively associated with better education, reduced infant mortality rates, greater income equality and, most importantly, lower rates of homicide and violence.

There’s a really beautiful article by Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi titled “Atheists: A Psychological Profile” which can be found in the Cambridge Companion to Atheism (yes, it’s beautiful, and yes, I really AM that nerdy). In it, Beit-Hallahmi reviews a schwack of data (that’s the technical term) related to atheists, including their typical levels of education, political attitudes, how tolerant they tend to be, and so on.

I won’t go over all the specific data in the article, because you really should check it out for yourself, but I’ll include a bit of his conclusion, because it’s a real gem:
We can say that atheists show themselves to be less authoritarian and suggestible, less dogmatic, less prejudiced, more tolerant of others, law-abiding, compassionate, conscientious, and well educated. They are of high intelligence, and many are committed to the intellectual and scholarly life. In short, they are good to have as neighbors.
That is to say, the exact opposite of Huckabee, Robertson and Beck (ooh! burn!).

So, can atheists be moral? Absolutely yes. Are atheists moral? They certainly tend to be. Can religious people be moral? I really didn't get into this (I'd love to in another blog post someday, though), but here I would also be confident in saying.... YES!!!

The only thing I'm trying to make clear here is exactly what Beit-Hallahmi and Zuckerman conclude -- atheists not only can be good people, but very often are. And if someday it could also be demonstrated that atheists have some small advantage (and I do emphasize small) over theists in their moral compass, I certainly wouldn't be shocked.

But I don't think that has been fully demonstrated yet, and I would be happy to concede the point if that's where the data took me. Still, based on the information and points above, I'm not holding my breath just yet. For theists, proving their moral superiority just became an uphill battle.


  1. I think that the issue of atheism and morality is more basic than simply a defense of atheists on the grounds that they, too, can be moral -- though of course this is important. But the sometimes-passionate insistence on the self-evident moral vacuity of atheism flies in the face of all the evidence, as you show. So why this passionate insistence? I would say, it's at least partly because morality is one of the few domains that "religion" can lay claim to. Went to the top of Mount Olympus -- no gods there. Looked into outer space, went to the moon, no gods there. Figured out how the earth came into being, and how humans and other animals originated and developed -- no need for God. So what realm of competence does "religion" have left? Morals. And once you start pointing out that atheists have them, and that they're about the same set of morals as religious people, all of a sudden gods/God/religion doesn't seem to be needed for that, either. In which case, what is it good for?

  2. That's an interesting point, Mr.Anon! You're right, and I believe it's an argument that has been levied against theists by atheists and their ilk for rather a long time. Religion's primary function has always been to explain those things that we have no answer to -- until we do.

    The problem is that, as we acquire ever more knowledge about the universe in which we live, improve our technology and achieve increasingly wonderous feats of science, we asymptotically approach a point at which religion will have nothing left to discuss. At which point, it may well simply fade into the ether (perhaps ironically, just like the idea of the ether).

    Thanks for your comment!