“If God did not exist, then we would have to invent him,” said the French philosopher Voltaire. His point: that without a divine being to check right and wrong, any number of atrocities are possible and could go unpunished.
A recent study (of more than 3,000 people in 13 countries) published in the journal Nature Human Behavior echoes Voltaire’s maxim. Looking at intuitive thinking—presumptions drawn by individuals through unconscious biases—researchers led by Will M. Gervais, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Kentucky, discovered that most individuals intuitively conclude that a serial killer is more likely to be an atheist (approximately 60 percent) than religious (approximately 30 percent).
While this assessment may resonate with many religious individuals, it undoubtedly is far from the conscious conclusions of most atheists, who find social prejudice difficult to overcome.
The idea that atheism is a gateway to moral anarchy, for example, is not new. Other studies on public views of atheism indicate that 40 percent of Americans disapprove of nonreligion and 27 percent see atheists as not sharing their values.
Secularists and atheists “use words like ‘good’ and ‘bad’ and ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ and ‘rights’,” Ham said. “They will use those sorts of words, and you just need to challenge them every time. How do you know? Where do you get that from? Who decides?”
Echoing his thoughts from an earlier interview on Real Time with Bill Maher, well-known atheist Richard Dawkins tells The Daily Beast that this kind of thinking is a “shamefaced admission.”
“The only reason you behave morally is that you fear a great spy camera in the sky, watching your every move and reading your every thought?” he asks incredulously.
Gervais’s study, however, goes deeper into the embedded prejudices.
“These effects appeared across religiously diverse societies, including countries with Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Muslim and non-religious majorities,” says the new study, “showing that intuitive moral prejudice against atheists is not exclusive to Abrahamic or monotheistic majority societies. To the contrary, intuitive anti-atheist prejudice generalizes to largely secular societies and appears globally evident even among atheists.”
“For many people, including many atheists,” the researchers say, “the answer to Dostoevsky’s question ‘Without God ... It means everything is permitted now, one can do anything?’ is ‘Yes,’ inasmuch as ‘everything’ refers to acts of extreme immorality.”
However, non-believers—atheists, agnostics, and secular humanists—find this assertion problematic.
James Croft, a secular humanist and outreach director at The Ethical Society of St. Louis, sees this conclusion as unwarranted. “This statement is not remotely justified by their research and will be used out of context to smear atheists,” he tells me.
“Their research does not show that many people, or many atheists, believe that ‘without God everything is permitted.’,” says Croft. “Rather, it shows that people have an intuitive bias against atheists, such that they intuitively associated immoral acts with disbelief in God. This says nothing about the participants’ own moral beliefs, nor about their beliefs regarding any relationship between religion and morality.”
When asked about Croft’s concerns, Gervais reiterates that the study is only descriptive of individual intuitions.
“It’s really important to note that our paper focuses on people’s perceptions of a religion-morality link,” he says. “Perhaps most people on Earth intuitively feel that morality requires belief in a god or gods. But at the end of the day, morality is a really complicated beast, built upon various prosocial intuitions and cultural processes, including—perhaps, in some cases—religions.”
On that point in the study, Croft is not shocked by the results.
“Just as members of other marginalized minority groups often imbibe prejudices about people like themselves, atheists could have done so also, and this seems to me a reasonable explanation for the phenomenon observed here.”
Other atheists agree.
“This study verified how powerful prejudice against non-believers really is, and how difficult it will be to overcome that prejudice,” says Maggie Ardiente, a secular humanist who serves as director of development and communications at National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty.
“Prejudice is learned,” she says, and in America “most of us grew up in a religion that taught us that nonbelievers are bad people.”
“We are products of our culture,” says Monette Richards, a board member for Secular Woman, an organization that seeks to “amplify the voice, presence, and influence of non-religious women.”
She too sees this as the result of centuries-old indoctrination. “Our culture is so steeped in upholding the religious as good and worthy of respect and casting unbelievers as evil, that a few years of increasing numbers of non-believers isn't going to break that right away.”
But she believes there is a way to change it.
“The more we meet those we consider ‘Other,’ and the more we love them, we learn to see the trope for what it is. The knee jerk associations of serial-killer-means-atheist will, eventually, fade. With the numbers of non-believers and unchurched rising like they are, we will see more and more people realizing that atheists are good people, too.”
Ardiente agrees. “Even though we shouldn't have to prove ourselves to anyone, it’s important to demonstrate that atheists can be good, just like religious people can be good. And atheists can be bad, just like religious people can be bad. It’s as simple as that, and we should call out prejudice against atheists wherever we see it.”
This sentiment—that the atheist or religious are human beings and capable of doing both good and bad—is an important one for atheists.
Richards points to misogyny as an example of the bad shared by everyone.
“It’s not as if churches have a monopoly on misogyny,” says Richards. “Atheist celebrities are mostly men. We’ve seen them deny sexism, harassment, and even rape as problems.” She adds that some call atheism “a guy thing” and even try to discredit the field of gender studies.
“There are plenty of atheists working to make the world better for women,” she clarifies, “but they mostly aren’t the people chosen to represent us on stages and to the media.”
So what about Dostoevsky’s question raised in the study? What about the idea that without God anything is permissible? Are non-religious persons incapable of morality?
“Morality is 100% possible without religious belief,” Gervais clarifies. “Just look at Scandinavia, where you see some of the least religious, most peaceful, most cooperative societies in the history of humankind.” “And yet,” he adds, there is still a paradox. “The intuition that moral evildoers must be atheists seems to persist, even among atheists in largely secular countries.”
That many religious persons see morality as only contingent upon a divine being troubles some atheists.
“Those who ask that [Dostoevsky’s] question are the ones who truly scare me,” adds Richards. “If they lose their faith in god, are we all in danger? Will they go on murder and rape sprees? If the only thing keeping you from being a crappy person is the idea of eternal torment, the problem lies within, not with a lack of absolutes.”
Croft also does not see the study as proving any necessary relationship between believing and God and moral behavior. “The study doesn’t even suggest that the people who participated themselves believe that belief in God is necessary for people to act morally,” he notes. “The researchers were testing intuitive biases, not consciously held beliefs.”
So what drives atheists to do good?
Reaching beyond the unconscious biases discovered by the study, atheists do have explicit rationales for doing good and for not seeing God as a requirement.
“People are, in general, good,” insists Richards, who sees the motivation as something shared by all humans regardless of where they stand on religion.
“It’s how we have managed to have civilizations. Most people don’t want to hurt others, regardless of their religious faith. I have worked with non-religious, religious, converts and de-converts, all of them wanting to make the world a better place, not because it will get them into heaven, but because it is, simply put, the right thing to do.”
Others point out that many nonprofit secular humanist organizations are built on the premise that atheists are capable of doing the right thing without God.
“We believe that being ‘good without God’ means connecting, acting, and evolving: forming strong community ties, making the world better, and becoming better individuals,” says Sarah Chandonnet, program director for Humanist Hub—originally founded as the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard University.
“As a community,” she adds, “we are committed to the power of connection to help us do good and live well. Together, we use reason and dialogue to determine our highest ethical values (like environmentalism, feminism, intersectionality, science), and act on those values with love and compassion.”
Under the auspices of Humanist Hub, she says, atheists, agnostics, and their allies work together to offer chaplaincy services, classes on fighting racism, and social justice initiatives for adults and children.
And this gets at the heart of doing good for atheists.
Regardless of the intuitive impulses of atheists revealed in the study, Voltaire’s maxim, or Dostoevsky’s question—the motivator for living well and doing good is much simpler for non-believers: doing good is its own reason.
When there is no afterlife, there are no do-overs or heavens to make things right.
“Atheists do good in the world because we know this is the one life we have, so we should make the most of it,” insists Ardiente. “I work for nonprofit organizations not because I have to prove to others that I'm a good person, but that working toward an equal and just society makes everyone happier and healthier.”