A new study in PLOS ONE suggests that, while atheists and theists share moral values related to protecting vulnerable individuals, atheists are less likely to endorse values that promote group cohesion and more inclined to judge the morality of actions based on their consequences.
In many countries, including the United States, it is widely believed that atheists lack a moral compass.
To test this, Tomas Ståhl of the University of Illinois at Chicago, conducted two small internet-based surveys examining the moral values of 429 American atheists and theists and two larger surveys involving 4,193 atheists and theists from the US (a predominantly religious country) and Sweden (a predominantly irreligious country).
He found that theists are more inclined than atheists to endorse moral values that promote group cohesion. Atheists are more likely to judge the morality of an action based on its consequences.
However, both atheists and theists appear to align on moral values related to protecting vulnerable individuals, liberty versus oppression, and being epistemically rational, i.e.: believing in claims when they are evidence-based and being sceptical about claims not backed by evidence.
So why do they reason differently? Ståhl believes that theists are more affected by their community, while atheists work ethical issues out on their own.
Ståhl sums up the message of his findings as follows: "The most general take-home message from these studies is that people who do not believe in God do have a moral compass. In fact, they share many of the same moral concerns that religious believers have, such as concerns about fairness, and about protecting vulnerable individuals from harm. However, disbelievers are less inclined than believers to endorse moral values that serve group cohesion, such as having respect for authorities, ingroup loyalty, and sanctity... It is possible that the negative stereotype of atheists as immoral may stem in part from the fact that they are less inclined than religious people to view respect for authority, ingroup loyalty, and sanctity as relevant for morality, and they are more likely to make moral judgments about harm on a consequentialist, case by case basis."
Michael Cook is editor of BioEdge
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