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How do we explain 'moral' atheists?

An old question that seems to have as many or more lives than a cat goes like this: Can you be good without God?

MoralityWhat the question aims to reveal is whether atheists are less moral than believers. It's an interesting question in some ways but it strikes me as one of those queries one is likely to hear in a late-night conversation in a dorm room among college sophomores.

Still, it turns out that a college researcher has taken the question seriously and done some research to try to answer it. As this press release from the University of Illinois-Chicago explains, "Tomas Ståhl, UIC assistant professor of psychology, examined the matter in two large-scale cross-national surveys comparing Americans and Swedes, in addition to two smaller U.S. surveys."

He was trying to answer these questions: "Is there any truth to the cross-cultural stereotype that suggests that atheists are untrustworthy and lack a moral compass? Do atheists care less, or at least think differently about, morality than religious people do?"

What he found, the UIC release says, was this, quoting Ståhl: “Disbelievers do have a moral compass. However, it is calibrated somewhat differently than that of religious believers in some respects, but not in others.”

Ståhl found that "religious disbelievers’ views about morality were comparable in the U.S., a highly religious country by western standards, and Sweden, one of the most secular countries in the world. Religious believers’ views about morality also were alike across the two countries," according to the press release.

Ståhl: "In both the U.S. and Sweden, people who do not believe in God have similarly strong moral concerns as religious believers about not harming vulnerable individuals and about fairness. However, religious disbelievers were less inclined to view values that promote group cohesion — such as ingroup loyalty, respect for authority and sanctity — to be relevant for morality.”

Fine, but it seems to me that the question about morality for believers versus atheists comes down to a question of motive. That is, why should one behave in moral ways?

For religious people, at least part of the answer is connected to their understanding of God and the rules by which God expects people to live -- rules like the Ten Commandments.

For atheists, there is no such overarching rule giver, so the motive for moral behavior must be different. My guess is that what makes atheists make moral choices has a lot to do with personal safety and social expedience. It's sort of like why people obey stop signs when they suspect no police are around to monitor the intersection: To keep from getting smashed into by others. In some ways all of us make such choices to be able to live in a society that is dependable and not susceptible to random violence and unreliable rules.

So atheists often end up being just as moral (in some cases more so) than believers, but for different reasons. On the other hand, we also know that atheistic governments, such as the Soviet one run by Joseph Stalin, had no hesitancy to murder millions of people to stay in power.

Life, as they say, is complicated. Which, no doubt, will make any afterlife that way, too.

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The scenes in Iraq in recent days were focused not on atheism but, rather, on ways that different faith traditions can live in peace and harmony, as Pope Francis visited with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. Together, Catholicism and Shiite Islam account for roughly 2 billion of the world's 7-plus billion population. The New Yorker report to which I've just linked you contains some interesting detail about the pope's trip to Iraq, but concludes this way: "The joyous reaction among the thousands of Iraqis who turned out during the Pope’s visit, despite the physical dangers and the pandemic, provided symbolic hope in a war-ravaged land. But, almost two decades after Saddam’s ouster, the Iraqi government has still not addressed the core grievances and injustices that have riven the country, its faiths, and its political factions. The Pontiff’s historic visit provided four days of wonderment, but perhaps not much more." The world needs wonderment, for sure, but it needs much more than that.


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