What are your thoughts on the relationship between obedience and conformity vs. the moral behavior of individuals?

As a free thinker, obedience is one of my most poignant fears. There are countless myriad examples of generally decent individuals performing heinous crimes under the authority of others. Experiments on these matters are equally frightening.

Links to wikis:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stanford_prison_experiment
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Asch_conformity_experiments
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Milgram_experiment

Most atheists are by definition non-conformists to some degree on another. What do you think makes it possible for you to stand your ground where others fail?

Tags: authority, conformity, obedience

Views: 33

Replies to This Discussion

"I think the fact that you define us, is conformist."

Funny! :) But, if you were being serious, what I meant was that, due to the majority of society existing in a theistic framework, those of us who are not theists (aka atheists) are by definition not conforming to an extremely powerful social norm.

"I don't know if the experiments you link to necessarily show us any data on the atheist subset. Is there data to support a certain 'rejection of the status quo' found among those who reject theism?"

As far as I am aware, there is no such data. If you have something, please post. I would love to see it.

I find that "rejection of the status quo" is the logical conclusion for atheists, as I explained above. Please feel free to disagree.

I find myself in social situations constantly which call for some decision to be made on my part about whether to conform with the group for the sake of group harmony, or whether to stand up for my personal (atheistic) beliefs. This is prominently true at work, but occurs in family situations as well. I find myself not saying what I truly believe periodically at work. I don't lie. I hold my tongue. By doing so, though, I am conforming by not explicitly stating my opinion.
I don't think atheists can be considered non-conformists by definition, since most atheists are atheists because we find belief in God untenable, not because we don't want to be sheep. (we don't want to be sheep, but I don't know anyone for whom that's the reason for being an atheist. And I don't doubt that some atheists are so only because of others).

"I don't lie. I hold my tongue. By doing so, though, I am conforming by not explicitly stating my opinion."

But what are you conforming to? Is the issue really your beliefs, or rather the fact that arguments will cause disharmony? If it's the latter you're conforming to social norms of etiquette, not others' religious beliefs. That's not a bad thing (we wouldn't have survived as a species without that sort of conformity).

I do think most atheists are not likely to easily bend to the will of authority where that will doesn't already align with our own. I think that's one of the main things which makes us able to stand our ground; we usually try hard to think for ourselves.

However, standing one's ground is not only a result of free thinking. It's also a result of stubbornness, which is an attribute of dogmatism. I would be very surprised if committed religious believers were not also very capable of standing their ground against authority, at least where that authority tells them to act in a way they consider immoral. But I'd also expect them to bend to authority if that authority appeals to a common morality.
Excellent points all around Mark!

"However, standing one's ground is not only a result of free thinking. It's also a result of stubbornness, which is an attribute of dogmatism. "

This is probably true. Perhaps it stems in the belief that one is absolutely correct, where others are wrong. :)

There are authority figures who, I think, can lead people into doing things that are well beyond and outside of beliefs. It's interesting, and frightening.
I agree with Mark.

I find there is an unopened can or worms on the subject of underlying motivations for taking an atheist stance.

From attitudes I read and hear in several atheist groups, there are those who hold atheism as much as a dogma as result of free-thought. They hold it as their core identity. I saw an humanist group fall apart because of arguing over whether one can be a humanist and NOT be an atheist.

I also see evidence of those who are motivated more by a need display non-conformance than for behaving rationally. I also strongly suspect that there are may who hold to atheism which also behave or subscribe to anarchist principles, particularly when it come to the ideas of social norms versus individual social contracts.

just two cents...
I did some searching of psycinfo for studies on conformity and religion. The pickings are slim but I did find some stuff. Here are a few abstracts to give you an idea. These first two I do not have access to the full text online, the third one I do have the full text (but haven't read it yet) and I can't find a publicly accessible link though if you want it I can email it to you.

RELIGIOUS AFFILIATION, RELIGIOUS ACTIVITIES, AND CONFORMITY.

BAROCAS, RALPH, U. ROCHESTER, GORLOW, LEON

Psychological Reports, 20(2), 1967. pp. 366.

THE STUDY WAS UNDERTAKEN TO EXPLORE DIFFERENCES IN RESPONSE TO SOCIAL INFLUENCE AS A FUNCTION OF RELIGIOUS AFFILIATION AND ACTIVITY. 1-WAY ANALYSES OF VARIANCE FAILED TO REVEAL SIGNIFICANT DIFFERENCES AMONG 3 RELIGIOUS GROUPINGS OR AMONG RELIGIOUS ACTIVITY GROUPINGS IN THEIR SUSCEPTIBILITY TO SOCIAL INFLUENCE. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2007 APA, all rights reserved)



CONFORMITY IN YOUTHS TO PARENTAL RELIGIOUS BELIEFS.

TEWARI, J. G., BARAHSENI COLL., ALIGARH, INDIA, SINGH, R. P.

Journal of Psychological Researches, 11(2), 1967. pp. 49-53.

A 6-ITEM INVENTORY OF RELIGIOUS BELIEFS (THE 1ST 2 INDICATING ATHEISTIC, THE 3RD AGNOSTIC, THE 4TH DEISTIC, THE 5TH MODERN HINDUISTIC, AND THE 6TH CONSERVATIVE HINDUISTIC BELIEFS) WAS ADMINISTERED TO 341 MALE AND 201 FEMALE UNDERGRADUATE STUDENTS. SS CHECKED THE INVENTORY FOR THEIR OWN BELIEFS AND FOR THOSE OF THE MOTHER AND FATHER. FINDINGS SHOW THAT MORE GIRLS WERE CONSERVATIVE THAN BOYS AND THAT THE MODAL IDEOLOGY OF THE BOYS WAS MODERN HINDUISM, WHILE THAT OF THEIR PARENTS WAS CONSERVATIVE. IN GENERAL, SONS WERE FOUND TO HAVE MORE RADICAL RELIGIOUS BELIEFS THAN THEIR FATHERS. THE MODAL IDEOLOGY OF GIRLS AND THEIR PARENTS DID COINCIDE WHILE THAT OF BOYS AND THEIR PARENTS DID NOT. THE MORE RADICAL THE PARENTS' BELIEFS, THE GREATER THE PERCENTAGE OF CONFORMING SONS AND DAUGHTERS-THE HIGHEST PERCENTAGE WAS FOR ATHEIST PARENTS. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2007 APA, all rights reserved)



Christian Religiosity, Self-Control and Social Conformity.

Welch, Michael R., Tittle, Charles R., Grasmick, Harold G.,

Social Forces, Vol 84(3), Mar 2006. pp. 1605-1623.

Survey data from a southwestern metropolitan area are used to analyze whether the ability of personal Christian religiosity to predict social conformity is spuriously due to self-control. Results indicate that both personal religiosity and self-control display statistically significant, independent negative net relationships with many forms of projected misbehavior. And interaction between self-control and religiosity in predicting deviance appears to be limited. Thus, self-control does not seem to account for the effects of religiosity, leaving the issue of how and why religiosity leads to conformity unresolved. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2007 APA, all rights reserved)(from the journal abstract)
First off here is another fun conformity experiment by Muzafer Sherif. This is one of my favorite experiments, basically they project a single dot of light on a wall in a completely dark room. Because of the lack of reference points the dot of light seems to move around even though it is in fact steady. Then they ask people how far the dot moved and have confederates give their 'answers' first to see how others responses influence the participants.

http://home.student.uu.se/t/thni9583/pp/8/sherif37.pdf

Next I think that conformity is so deeply ingrained in our psyche that it does have significant effects on all individuals regardless of religion or lack thereof. I'm sure you have probably sat in a class when the teacher asked if anybody has question and you had one yet did not ask it. Or a time when you were thinking something but didn't voice your opinion until another person said something. IMO conformity is an evolutionary survival tool, it doesn't matter how you try to survive if you do so in a group you are more likely than by yourself.
Pack animal thing really. Either you are with the group or you are against it. Quite interesting to note only pack animals bully others of the pack, sometimes for no real reasons either. I have come to think bullying has a psychological meaning to unite the rest of the pack, although for the one being bullied... it's incredibly painful to go through, particularly since it does mean rejection and to not be accepted.

But the group can also backfire. There are instances where the bigger the group, the less the possibility someone will act out due to standing out too much. This is very common when accidents happen and people just walk up and watch but they don't do anything themselves, like calling an ambulance. This also speaks for how important individual thinking can be in certain situations. I once read when I was studying behaviorism that a girl was actually being raped in the middle of an open street with people passing by. No one intervened although they all obviously which was going on. Scary as hell.
Bullying can build group cohesion by increasing the individual's dedication to the group. The more you are willing to give up in order to obtain something the greater value it will have. This is used extensively by fraternities even if they don't call it hazing anymore. And cults use this wonderfully well. Basically if the person endures a lot to be in the group then they will endure a lot to stay in the group because they have already invested so much.

As for the accidents and rape you are talking about that is mostly due to diffusion of responsibility. In a larger group there is less chance of somebody helping than in a smaller group because each member bears less responsibility to act. So when there are dozens of people then they think well nobody else is acting so why do I need to. But if there is only one or two people then they will be more apt to take action. Also you can overcome this by assigning responsibility, this is why first aid classes teach you to tell a specific person to call 911 instead of saying "somebody call 911". You actually single out and point out an individual and speak to them, then they feel responsible for accomplishing the task assigned.

Here is the wiki on this and one on Kitty Genovese which spurred much of the research on this subject. If you want more let me know and I am sure I can find a few actually studies.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bystander_effect

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kitty_Genovese
Yeah, I know what you are talking about, but it's still scary. If you generally look in terms of survival, the better we treat each individual, the bigger the chance right? Particularly in small societies. Well, it's a very dangerous mentally to think everyone else will do it for you. I always try to act of how I want to be treated in the same situation, I guess that also increases a higher feeling of responsibility since I know how I wanted to be treated myself in such a situation, and that is not ignorance.
Either you are with the group or you are against it.

I think LeaT's comments tie into the evolutionary psychology of humans and their response to groups. It does not require bullying to achieve conformity. As a thought experiment:

Suppose I find myself alone and stranded in an unfamilar environment, with openly hostile people and no chance for finding a safe haven with "the Law" (take Somalia, Cuidad Juarez, or East L.A. for example). I do find some interaction with locals who, it is clear, hold to values and ethics that I disagree with (for example, their treatment of women and religious beliefs). They are willing to provide me with safety and help me eventually get back to my home environment. They make it clear though, that I must conform to their social norms and I must demonstrate some aspect of conformance. Should I take my chances on my own so that I do not have to compromise my individualism and "conform" or, as a pack animal, do I conform and hope to live to see another day? Which course of action would be the "fittest" from an evolutionary perspective?
In the end, I think people who don't feel they fit into a society at all become quite unhappy, even though they try to keep a low profile so to say. It's very hard to repress yourself as a person, even harder when the only thing you crave is a little recognition and acceptance from others.

I have to agree though, I really dislike social norms. Not that I can say I follow that many, but I also remember that I did grief me a lot and sometimes it still does, particlarly when people force their social norms upon me.
Yep..hiding is no fun!

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