Breaking the Religion-Morality Link

One of the first posts on Daylight Atheism, “A Mile Wide and an Inch Deep“, was about the pathetic levels of Biblical knowledge in a nation that’s theoretically 85% Christian. Well, thanks to a widely reported new survey, we can add another fact to that picture: not only do Americans not know much about the Bible, they don’t go to church very often either.

In a more recent study, Hadaway estimated that if the number of Americans who told Gallup pollsters that they attended church in the last week were accurate, about 118 million Americans would be at houses of worship each week. By calculating the number of congregations (including non-Christian congregations) and their average attendance, Hadaway estimated that in reality about 21 percent of Americans attended religious services weekly — exactly half the number who told pollsters they did.

As the article notes, the most striking fact is how often Americans lie to pollsters about attending church. America is an outlier among the industrialized nations not in the number of people who actually attend religious services, but in the number of people who say they do. Sociologists can pin down this deception in several ways: for instance, when Americans are asked, “Did you attend religious services in the past week?”, high percentages say yes. But when people fill out “time-use surveys” which ask them to list what they were doing throughout the day, without priming them with the idea of attending church, the percentages in the pews are much smaller.

This should be greatly interesting to the New Atheists, since it both validates our basic approach and suggests a strategy for our future efforts. What these findings show is that in America, “being religious” is still synonymous with “being a good person”, and vice versa. Whether because they don’t have the time or out of simple disinterest, millions of nominally religious Americans skip church each Sunday. But when a pollster asks these people if they went to church that week, they hear the question as, “Are you a moral person?” And since no one wants to think of themselves as immoral, they often answer yes anyway.

What this means for atheists is that it’s less important to convince people that their religious beliefs are false. Between their lack of church attendance and their lack of biblical knowledge, the actual teachings of religion are already irrelevant as far as tens of millions of Americans are concerned. What’s more important is to break the perceived link between religion and morality that motivates people to claim religious membership as a marker of good character. That link is a vestigial trait: a holdover from the days when, for better or for worse, religion genuinely could claim to be the only source of moral guidance.

And that, in turn, suggests a strategy. The most effective way for atheists to sever that link is to come out! When we’re known to our friends and neighbors as friendly, generous, compassionate people who are also nonbelievers, it will be far more difficult for them to cling to the prejudice that the godless are all wicked misanthropes. This also suggests that when we criticize religion, we should focus less on its factual claims (which, again, are irrelevant to most theists) and more on its moral claims. When we argue strongly that religious books condone horrible practices like slavery, genocide and the oppression of women, we can attack that link from the other direction, proving by example that belief in God doesn’t automatically make one a good person.

It’s no wonder that so many believers react with outrage and try to censor us when atheists unapologetically stand up and proclaim our existence – especially if the message is that the godless can be good people too. As peaceable as that is, from the standpoint of religious culture warriors, it’s the most dangerous message we can possibly convey.

Why Atheism Is a Force for Good
New on the Guardian: Atheists Are Diversifying
How Low Will It Go? The Continuing Decline of American Christianity
New on the Guardian: Beyond Debating God's Existence
About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.


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