New Study Shows Breakdown of People Who Believe You Need God to be Good

A new study by the Public Religion Research Institute and the Brookings Institution has a couple of notable results (PDF) regarding religious demographics in America and whether you need God to be moral.

First, the demographics:

A couple of things stand out there, neither of which is particularly shocking but both of which are still worth celebrating:

You’re seeing the demise of religious conservatism; it’s 47% of the Silent Generation and only 17% of the Millennials.

Non-religious people (which admittedly include those who believe in a “higher power”) make up a larger proportion of each successive generation. Nearly a quarter of Millennials are non-religious.

Then there’s this breakdown of how various groups of people respond to the idea that you must “believe in God in order to be moral and have good values.” It’s going underreported in both accounts of the study and PRRI’s own press release (perhaps for good reason), but it’s really fascinating to see:

This may not be newsworthy only because it confirms everything we already thought we knew.

When it comes to the idea that belief in God is synonymous with morality, the list of people who disagree include: the young, educated, politically independent, liberal, religiously unaffiliated, and rich.

What do those groups have in common? My first thought was: They’re all people who are often surrounded by non-religious individuals. They have more exposure to people who are good without God.

When God is a big part of your life and you’re in a bubble that doesn’t allow you to fathom any other way to live, it’s not surprisingly that you think God is needed to be moral.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • new_atheist

    The thing that baffles me is the occasional survey of atheists who are asked a similar question. Without fail, there are atheists out there who actually believe that you can’t be moral without God. Who are these people?

    • tyler

      i would assume the kind of folks that use the term ‘sheeple’ unironically

    • DougI

      There’s always some nutters out there. You know the type, Atheists who advocate religion, women who vote Republican, Blacks who agree with Sean Hannity. Always people out there willing to sell themselves out, probably out of some self-hatred.

      • Michael W Busch

        Not “nutters”. “Hypocrites” would be better.

    • 3lemenope

      Some of them are confused, but some of them are actual moral nihilists, who believe that there are no proper moral categories and/or we completely lack access to them without a hypothetical lawgiver.

    • Sven2547

      A buddy of mine is one.
      He was raised in a very religious family before dropping religion. He’s convinced that while religion is fiction, it provides a crucial moral framework for people. He also seems to fear that in the absence of religion, people will worship The State instead.

      He and I have argued about this a number of times, haha

      • 3lemenope

        It sounds an awful lot like your friend read The City and Man by Leo Strauss. Strauss argued (rather infamously) that religion is important for social stability despite the fact it is likely hokum, because he believed that religious ideas were so completely entwined with secular social structures that the latter’s validity depends upon a religious substructure.

        • Sven2547

          I dunno. He likes to talk about the books he reads (and urge others to read them too) and he’s never brought it up.

      • Axel

        Wait, if he believes religion is fiction – and therefore made up by people – how can he simultaneously believe that people can’t come up with their own coherent moral framework? Furthermore, if, and he would need to be blind not to notice it, religious moral frameworks do change with time, and they do, then how can he deny that people don’t form their own?

        • Sven2547

          It’s not that he thinks religion is full of objective moral truths, more like he thinks people are dumb animals and they generally need religion, any religion, to keep them in line. He’s quite aware of the fact that religious doctrines change over time, but at least there’s still structure.

          You’re preaching to the choir, because I disagree almost completely with his position.

          • Richard Wade

            Ask your friend why he personally does not behave like a rabid thief/rapist/torturer/arsonist/bomber/murderer, and also doesn’t behave like a mindless robot of “The State.” ( I assume he doesn’t, since you describe him as your friend.) He seems to be living proof that his opinion is incorrect.

            I anticipate that he might try an argument that essentially casts himself as somehow different from most people, that he is for some reason above the crowd. If he does, ask him for an explanation for that intrinsic superiority, and for evidence to support it. If he simply refers back to his own more-or-less good behavior without having to believe in a deity, point out how his argument is circular.

            I doubt that any of this will persuade him to reconsider his views, since it might be coming from an emotional need to feel intrinsically and significantly superior to others. Reason bounces off of such emotional structures like ping pong balls off of a stone wall.

            It just might be fun to mess with him a little. After all, what are friends for? ;)

            • 3lemenope

              The easier way out for the friend is simply to point out that he lives in a world saturated with religion, and so the social benefits of religion (which, he could argue, restrains his criminal impulses by underwriting structures, like the law, which dissuade bad acts and punish them accordingly) redound onto him regardless of his personal atheism. Or he could even make the more direct argument that he is the beneficiary of the moral heritage of religious ethical thought even though he is not religious, because the society in which he belongs by-and-large has ratified those ethical rulings into legal ones that all must follow regardless of belief.

              This position, even as an atheist, does not require the person making the argument to believe they are in any way superior or better to everyone else, except perhaps in arguing that they are aware of the nature of their fetters while everyone else is fettered and knows not why.

        • C.L. Honeycutt

          Consider John Galt’s opinion of the bulk of humanity. It’s related.

    • eric

      I would assume those atheists are taking Marx’s “opiate of the masses” position. I.e., Advocating that belief in God can be an effective social control.

    • Michael W Busch

      There is some confusion regarding the meaning of the word “atheist”.

      A Pew study a few years ago found that 20% of the people surveyed who self-identified as atheists also asserted a belief in a god. I’ve talked to several such people, and their actual beliefs were diverse. Some had defined “god” as “the laws of physics”. Some had confused “atheist” for “religiously non-observant”. And one thought “atheist” meant “pantheist”.

    • Greggory Basore

      I’m wondering if it’s cases like this survey where the term “non-religious” is used and potentially gets mistaken for being synonymous with atheist.

  • eric

    I’d be interested in seeing how it changed with internet access and use. The net can expose people to other ideas, but it can also reinforce confirmation bias by giving you more self-selection over the people you talk to. The question is which effect is stronger (or are they balanced).

    It would be tricky to disassociate web use from co-founding factors such as age, but let’s face it, if a social scientist is tesing the hypothesis that “exposure to people who are good without God” is a key factor, they’re pretty much going to have to study internet access and use.

    • Michael W Busch

      Right now there may not be much of a break between the groups – after all, more than 80% of the US population currently uses the Internet. The Internet’s role in changes with time is another story entirely.

      • C Peterson

        Yes, but “uses the Internet” encompasses a vast range of behavior and influence. My Mom “uses” the Internet, but except for wingnut political chain mail, it certainly has no impact on her world view.

        • Michael W Busch

          That is true.

          But simply comparing “Internet access” and “no Internet access” between the group that says “you need to believe in god to be good” and the group that says “you don’t” will not say that much. You’d need to break things down further to get the details of how different groups use the Internet.

  • Tainda

    As a Gen-Xer it disturbs me that we have the highest percentage of religious moderates.

  • Paul Crider

    Wow. I knew the non-religious group was growing, but I didn’t know “religious progressives” were growing in number too. For the sake of secular values, I think this is at least as important as the non-religious growth, and should be cheered.

  • Ryan Hite

    I feel sorry for those that think they need god to be good. God was created to reinforce control over the masses.

  • C Peterson

    So what’s with the blacks and Hispanics? I’m guessing that with the Hispanics we’re seeing Catholicism, and with the blacks we’re seeing membership in churches that were created just for them… and in both cases the situation being maintained by the relative insularity of the groups.

  • MikeTheInfidel

    I’d be more interested to see a study on the breakdown of whether people thought you could be moral (or, worded differently, if morality means anything) if God doesn’t exist. I know lots of Christians who say that even an atheist can be moral because God instilled us all with a moral instinct, so that even a nonbeliever knows what’s right and wrong.

    • 3lemenope

      It’s a good point. I imagine the numbers among the “moderate” religious would plunge at that clarification question.

    • Anat

      Consider those who would respond humans couldn’t exist if God didn’t, making the question moot in their eyes.

  • Savoy47

    Religious conservatives are in the minority and moving deeper into it. When the disgusted leave all that remains is the disgusting! We see them on display more and more right now as they work double time to legislate as much of their dogma as they can before they are pushed off stage.

    In the near future, as the rest of the spectrum slowly starts to unravel the mess that conservatives made of things, I believe we will see religious conservatives waking up to the value of separation of church and state and they will move away from the ideas they now hold about majority rule.

    We can see evidence of the first steps in this direction as reality leaks into the religious conservative bubble and some of them pick up and try on the mantle of persecuted minority while the others double down of their denial. One of the biggest fears of these conservatives is ‘pay back’ or do unto others as they did unto you. They are waking up to the fact that they are becoming the other.

  • the moother

    “The internet, where religions come to die.”

    I’ll have that tattooed on my forehead.

  • Mary Leinart

    I want to feel optimistic about these results, but I always wonder, looking into these types of studies, whether the question of people becoming more conservative and/or religious as they grow older is being asked.

    • Michael W Busch

      Longitudinal studies say otherwise. i.e. Look at the same polling as reported 25 years ago and as reported now and you will find more non-religious Americans in every age group now than then.

      Most such work has been panel studies polling representative samples of the population at different times, rather than cohort studies polling the same sample at different times. That’s because panel studies are far easier to do. But they still say that the cultural changes with time are more important than any possible systematic change in religiosity throughout people’s lives.

      And the few cohort studies Google referred me to say that people don’t become more religious (or more conservative) with age.

  • David Johnson

    Much as I’d like to think it means “You’re seeing the demise of religious conservatism” it may just mean that the older you get, the more stupidly conservative you get.

    That would explain, for example, why the generation of “peace, love and understanding” forty years later keeps voting Republican.

  • Unreal X

    Argh, Americans redefining the word ‘liberalism’ again! Economic liberalism is right wing – not left wing. It should be socialism, social democrat, moderate right, libertarian/laissez faire or something like that. What you guys call a liberal is basically a social democrat anyehere else. Sorry, as a Politics major it just bugs me. Also, it bugs me that there’s no option for Socialism – as a socialist I would have no box to check!