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.

About Adam Lee

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

  • Snuggly Buffalo

    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.

    I cannot get over the irony of interpreting the question as “Are you a moral person?” and then lying in your answer to say “yes”.

  • neosnowqueen

    So if I *am* a wicked misanthrope, I should just stay in the closet?

  • Alex Weaver

    This is interesting because in my arguments with liberal believers especially it’s almost always the factual claims that get drug out. (A common pattern is: liberal believer makes an offhanded remark implying the applicability of their theological notions to events in others’ lives; either they remember I don’t believe that stuff and comment on it or I politely demur; liberal believer describes some event they’re alleging is proof of the existence of supernatural entities and asks “what other explanation is there?!”; I offer another explanation; liberal believer is angry and insulted and grumbles about me being “just as fundamentalist as…”, especially if the explanation involves the quirks or fallibility of human cognition or memory.)

  • http://GodlessPoetry.blogspot.com Zietlos

    People lie.

    Huh. What an insight.

    Ahh, I’m just ribbin’ you, I know this is important. :)

  • http://Daylightatheism.org J. James

    The “You can be good without God” posters take on a new, good light. Now that we know what makes them squirm, we can make them squirm all the more.

  • http://www.WorldOfPrime.com Yahzi

    What Snuggly Buffalo said, x10. Nothing is as funny as the sentence “how often Americans lie to pollsters about attending church.”

    And of course, it points out what we already knew: religion is about identity politics, not facts. Of course, so are regular politics.

  • InTheImageofDNA

    There was a study conducted in 1973 at Princeton Theological Seminary with future ministers. It found that circumstances were a better predictor of behavior than religious ideals. The seminary students were divided into three groups and told they had an important talk to deliver across campus. One group was told they were already late, another had no extra time, and the last had plenty of time. On the way they would encounter a staged event of an individual who was in great distress. Only 10%, 40%, and 60% stopped to help, respectively. It made no difference that half of the students were supposed to be delivering a talk on the parable of the Good Samaritan.

    Source: http://tomgraf.wikispaces.com/file/view/Good+Samaritan.pdf

    Of course, we all know this from just a bit of introspection–people, for the most part, only frame and rationalize their morals with religion. Look at the rhetoric surrounding the Civil War. The Union condemned slavery using Christianity and the Bible while the Confederacy justified it with the same thing. The moral judgment about slavery was not sourced from Christianity but was justified by it. We see the same thing with the range of Christian stances on homosexuality today.

    Of course, I’m not saying that this always works like this, but I’d wager it is the general rule. The challenge for atheism is not necessarily to sever the link between religion and morality, but to find an alternative way to frame ethics. That is one of the reasons why there is the religion-morality link to begin with, it is the only game in town providing a ready-made ethical framework.

  • efrique

    religion genuinely could claim to be the only source of moral guidance

    When was that, exactly? It couldn’t have been ancient Greece, since several Greek thinkers pretty clearly established a disconnect between the two. So it must have been earlier.

    So when was this, and what changed since?

    On the other hand, our pre-religious early ancestors still had morality (heck, my dog has morality), so there must have been some period in between where this pre-existing source of morality disappeared.

    So at some time, there was a period where already existing sources of morality were lost. That must have been a shitty time. No wonder religion was invented.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    So if I *am* a wicked misanthrope, I should just stay in the closet?

    Yes, neosnowqueen. The world must never know of your existence. ;)

    religion genuinely could claim to be the only source of moral guidance

    When was that, exactly? It couldn’t have been ancient Greece, since Greek thinkers pretty clearly established a disconnect between the two. So it must have been earlier.

    Actually, I would say that it was later: the Dark Ages and medieval times when Christian kings and emperors banned pagan philosophy and the church was the only game in town as far as education goes.

  • bbk

    @ InTheImageofDNA

    Of course, we all know this from just a bit of introspection–people, for the most part, only frame and rationalize their morals with religion.

    The challenge for atheism is not necessarily to sever the link between religion and morality, but to find an alternative way to frame ethics.

    Even if people use religion to justify anything they want, that doesn’t make it neutral. It just makes it worse. That’s why we have all these Janusian theists who claim that their religion is full of love and at the same time they want to slaughter anyone who disagrees. All the more reason to break the link. And if Ebon is right that facts don’t matter to theists, you would have to break the link before you provide an alternative.

  • KShep

    ….What these findings show is that in America, “being religious” is still synonymous with “being a good person”, and vice versa.

    This is probably true, but I think we should also consider that religious people are called “followers” for a reason. They so want to fit in with who they perceive to be the “in” crowd that they’ll blatantly lie about their church attendance lest their neighbors exclude them.

    I mean, humans are pack animals after all. Believers are just more inclined (in my observation/opinion) to consider that alone to be a virtue.