This topic is one I'm becoming more and more interested in. And it seems to be of interest to others too. 


Miller McCune had an article in November (Distrust Feeds Anti-Atheist Prejudice) summarizing the findings of Will Gervais, Azim Shariff and Ara Norenzayan from a piece they published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology called "Do you believe in atheists? Distrust is central to anti-atheist prejudice." Their findings? “Participants discriminated against an atheist candidate when hiring for a job that required a particularly trustworthy individual.” This means “distrust of atheists translates into discriminatory decision-making.” 


The NY Times Opinionator had a piece called 'Good Minus God' by Louise Anthony in mid-December. Anthony's piece, though a little repetitive, is well-written and philosophically rich. Her points, in brief:

1. Atheism does not entail that anything goes.

2. Morality exists independently of God / gods (answering the question posed in the Platonic dialog 'Euthyphro': is something is pious or good because it is loved by the gods, or is it loved by the gods because it is pious / good?)


I am most certainly in favor of highlighting the unfair prejudices that paint all atheists with an amoral brush. I also favor trying to persuade theists that it is better and more reasonable to believe that good is independent of God. But what I'd really like to see is a persuasive argument that public morality has no practical tie to religion. And since I haven't seen it yet, I guess I'll just have to create it. That should keep me busy for a while....


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Tags: atheism, morality, theism


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Comment by Daniel young on January 12, 2012 at 4:21am

I think that it is our entire genetic emotional tool box that everyone is born with ( to different extents ) that lays the foundation for a moral compass.

Our morality is modulated by our personal environment. It is important to understand that evolved cultural pressures, including religion, plays a huge roll in this, but every persons personal experiences will inevitably modulate there personal morality, and given that our personal experiences can never be exactly the same, nor can our views on morality be.

This does not mean that we cant agree on certain guidelines when it comes to morality.

Throughout our cultures, there is some consistency observable, such as indiscriminately murdering another human being is morally unacceptable. When I say, " indiscriminately murdering " I mean murder without any motivation, and murder without motivation does not happen for some reason that I'm not unaware of. Although I think that someone could give an evolutionary explanation for this.

This is an innate morality that I think we aught to discuss as the basis for a rationally laid out moral structure, for all of humanity.

Sam Harris defines it in terms of "well-being for all conscious creatures" in his book " the moral landscape ". If you haven't read it already, I highly recommend it. 

Comment by Jason Fleming on January 11, 2012 at 11:02pm

Certainly, the lack of religion does not automatically mean a homogeneous default set of moral beliefs. A person can be a bigot for example and be an atheist, no doubt about it.  Bigotry of course is a result again of a failure to empathize with another group of people.

I think you accurately described the benefit that atheists generally share which is a willingness to reassess their moral code. However, this is not universal. There are some stubborn atheists out there. But dogmatically enforced moral code means no deviation without upsetting ones deity and risking one's soul.

The key to the homosexual example is exposure and personal experience. A person deep in the evangelical movement is much less likely to be exposed to openly gay individuals because homosexuality is repressed. In this environment, it is very easy to demonize homosexuals to that person. This makes for less opportunity for empathy.

A person who's moral code is not bound to religious dogma gets to decide for their self. They would likely be exposed to more homosexual people, allowing them to see they are just like anyone else and empathize.

Now as to whether the act homosexuality itself could be determined to be wrong without religious prejudice, I would have to say it is possible, but I can't think of a good argument there either.

Its hard to determine the validity of Matt's assertion regarding the relationship between society and religion seeing as the judeo-christian originated religions have been dominant for nearly 2000 years. However, my understanding of ancient Rome, Greece and the far east is that attitudes toward  homosexuality were far different there. Now, those societies were not free of religion either, so influence cannot be discounted. But we can  say that homosexuality being taboo is not a social default.

Comment by Joel Newton on January 11, 2012 at 9:26pm

Okay - let's flip this around a bit. Forgetting about the nature and origin(s) of morality for a bit, let's examine a specific moral belief, such as the one offered by Matt VDB, that some view homosexuality as wrong.

What about an anti-homosexual atheist? What would be the justification of their belief, since it's not a religious belief? One example is the person who has a frightening personal experience that then (unreasonably?) causes them to become anti-homosexual. However, I can't rule out the possible existence of anti-homosexual, non-traumatized atheists.

But I fear I'm descending into conjecture. Without a doubt, religious moral codes do influence what some folks think. And people with very different religious or nonreligious views can hold the same moral beliefs. The atheists do have the advantage, though, of being able to modify their moral beliefs if they chose, while religious folks may be forced to suppress their personal beliefs to avoid conflict with the beliefs of their religion, or they may suffer a crisis of faith. But what to us atheists and freethinkers appears as an advantage to  religious folks probably appears as a lack of responsibility, and this fosters the distrust mentioned in the articles from the original post.

Comment by Maruli Marulaki on January 11, 2012 at 1:42pm

The morality in christian culture implicitly enables the desensitization to hurting and harming others under the delusion, that a god rewards for suffering in the afterlife.   This is especially strong concerning invisible emotional harm.   An atheist moral needs a paradigm shift towards consideration and responsibility.   Even people without empathy can learn to consciously be interested in the consequences of what they do to others.    There is no god to repair the damage for them.   They have to avoid the damage themselves. 

Comment by Jason Fleming on January 11, 2012 at 1:34pm

Just to add, circumventing empathy is achieved through disassociation. Sociopaths excel at this.

Comment by Jason Fleming on January 11, 2012 at 1:31pm

Simply put, morality is a derivative of of empathy. Empathy is the instinct that allows one to feel a connection with other people and place themselves into someone else's position. Human cooperation and civilization would not be possible without this. It is arguable as to what degree other animals exhibit signs of empathy.  

Immorality requires one to circumvent that empathy. This is usually done by demonizing other groups of people. "Us and them" is born out of that.

Comment by Rob van Senten on January 11, 2012 at 12:39pm

I do hope that our innate morality is stronger than the one taught by religion, it would explain how there is a complex interaction between the values and norms of societies as a whole and the religions in them. Religious norms have changed considerably as do the societies that interact with them. Sometimes it is a  step forward, yet sometimes it is a step in the wrong direction when religious bigotry affects the rights of individuals. 

Some of religious values are not bad though, as a freethinker I try to take things for their merits and there is a lot in the NT for instance (hippie Jesus) that I quite like. Likewise from the Bhagavad Gita etc. heck, I've learned quite a few valuable lessons on morality from cartoons.

Being influenced by something is not the problem in itself, it's what you do with it that counts. You can use religious texts to find a reason to bash people for whatever reason, and you can find beautiful verses on love and compassion.

Good people tend to be good with or without religion in my experience, but religious prejudice, just like any other prejudice can make good people do immoral things to one another. People beat each other's faces in with beer bottles in my country over soccer matches, I mean come on, if soccer can do that, what can religion do?

Anybody that ever watched or engaged in a typical discussion on AN about veganism, libertarianism, socialism, 9/11 truths or circumcision knows that things can get pretty volatile. Good people can be corrupted by a belief, that's one of the facts of life. People have done pretty much anything imaginable to each other in the name of pretty much anything (For Ponies!), and religion has been a major contributor to social change, for better or worse.

Comment by Matt VDB on January 11, 2012 at 12:05pm

I think there is something there, to an extent. For instance it's often true that conservative Christians will formulate very hateful arguments against homosexuals on the basis of their religion, but when it turns out that their son or daughter is homosexual, many seem to find that they can't sustain their previous prejudices.

That would suggest that our innate morality is still stronger than the one taught by religion.

But then again we also have to acknowledge that sometimes parents actually expel their children for being homosexual (or alternatively, an atheist). What we have there, it seems to me, is someone treating another person badly based simply on a religious prejudice.

So I think that it's worth pointing out, but I don't see how it makes for an argument that people aren't influenced by religious beliefs in treating other people.

Comment by Joel Newton on January 11, 2012 at 11:24am

Matt, thanks for reading and for the comment. I'd like to run something by you and see what you think - I think there's a distinction to be made between "public morality" and "the dialogue about public morality." I would define "public morality" as how people act towards other people. The dialogue about public morality is what we're doing here.

I fully agree with you that the dialogue about public morality is very closely tied to religion, since the majority of people are religious and turn to their religious code when making a moral argument. But I wonder if there is some way to show people that all members of a society, regardless of whether they're Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist or atheist, are, and act like, generally good people. And by doing this, we're (hopefully subtly) making the point that they could be good without religion.

Make sense, or is it too much semantics?


Comment by Matt VDB on January 11, 2012 at 5:03am

It seems self-evident that public morality is tied to religion to a large extent.

After all we wouldn't be having such long discussions on gay marriage if Christian notions of marriage and homophobia were not so deeply engrained in our society.

I think most people's religion absolutely does influence what they think is right or wrong. The point is simply that they could do just fine without religion as well.

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