Are Atheists Better People Than Christians? (Day Seven)

Are Atheists Better People Than Christians? (Day Seven) May 9, 2012

I came across a couple of interesting articles today, both of which other folks sent to me. I get a number of things forwarded to me, most of which I don’t get a chance to read thoroughly. But since I’m on vacation, I had all kinds of time to sit, read and simmer on them.

And to be honest, I took the whole “seventh day” sabbath thing pretty seriously. I didn’t do crap today. You probably don’t want to read about be doing nothing, so instead, we’ll go with the articles. actually, I’ll take on one today; assuming there will be another day on this trip when I do little to nothing, I’ll save the second one for then.

The first story came from my friend, Andrew, who considers himself marginally religious, if at all, but he is a regular follower of my stuff. The article he sent cites research that found that atheists are more compassionate and generous than highly religious folks.

Actually, this doesn’t surprise me. Back when I waited tables, the Sunday after-church crowd was the absolute worst of the week to wait on. They took forever, were super picky, were terrible tippers and tended to be the most critical customers I had. It really killed me when, instead of leaving a tip, they’d leave a tract on the table. If you’re not familiar with these, they’re little booklets that some Christians pass out to try and save people. They justify substituting this for money because saving my soul is a far greater gift than a couple of dollars.

Well, I’ve got news for you. Last time I tried to pay rent with a tract, my landlord wasn’t impressed. Second, that assumes an awful lot about me, my beliefs and my needs, doesn’t it?

I’m digressing, but the point is, I identified with this article just by the title alone. It actually reminded me of this church sign that I’ve posted before, but which warrants a second look:

Another friend of mine, Paul, posted the following reflection about why this somewhat counter-intuitive phenomenon might be. He said:

When religious people do “good things” they are often doing so in conditioned response to an ethereal reward/punishment set of beliefs. When non-believers do “good things” its because they want to do them.

Tragic if true, but I think Paul might be onto something. I should note that Paul is involved in ministry like me, so he’s not throwing stones from a distance.

I also wonder if it has something to do with the comfort that comes with being part o the cultural majority. Yes, there are Christians who will claim we’re part of a persecuted minority, but that’s simply ignorant. Christians have had the lion’s share of power in this country for a long, long time, and it shows in our attitudes. We assume that what “we believe” is normal, and that anything else is an aberration. The result of this is that anyone who doesn’t claim to be a Christian is made much more aware of it because of their difference.

It’s like how I’ve written before about the inherent privilege of being straight. Generally, straight people don’t think about being straight as much as gay people think about being gay, namely because the “default” sexual orientation – aka, the majority identity – is that of straight people.

Fact is, we don’t think about who we are and how we act nearly as much when we’re the ones in control.

Atheists, on the other hand, are fairly regularly persecuted (socially at least) for their lack of belief. They are made quite aware of their atheism, either because of how they’re treated for it, or because they have to keep silent about it for fear of being ridiculed. So perhaps with this tendency to be more self-conscious comes an equally more self-aware set of behaviors and attitudes.

Put another way, if you’re part of a group that is stereotyped in a negative way, you might go out of your way to act differently, even at an unconscious level, to try and defy that stereotype.

I could be reaching here, but I think there’s something here that’s basic to contemporary human nature. So although I don’t think there’s anything inherently better or worse about an atheist brain or heart than a Christian one, I do expect that atheists may work a little harder to convince the rest of the culture around them that they’re decent, loving, caring people, regardless of whether they believe in God.

Is this a case for atheism? An indictment of Christianity. Not really either, I think. If I’m right, it tells us more about the power of cultural norms, the potential negative (but relatively invisible) effects of majority consciousness, and the responsibility of those with the privilege of being in the majority to go out of their way to act against the negative effects of such privilege.

All I know is that, when someone tells me I defy many of the common expectations they have of Christians, I take that as a compliment. I wish it wasn’t the case, but it’s clear from the empty seats in many of our churches that we have done an awful lot of this to ourselves.

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  • Great post!  I love this church sign.  The church (much of it in America) has become a kind of franchise with its own logo.  Sadly it should be that people will know one follows Jesus by their love, rather it becomes that society knows them for the very reasons mentioned above.  Thankfully there are folks like you showing a different way.

  • dschram

    I would say that the majority are either agnostic or nominal Christians. Unfortunately it is the nominal Christian (who retain the outer form of religion but deny its power) is what the atheist or agnostic usually see.

  • Otrotierra

    Excellent article, Christian. Your provocative title reminds me that sometimes atheists are more christ-like than evangelicals. And I agree that coming to terms with this is not necessarily (nor merely) about indictment, but about confronting the truth and working toward a better future.  

  • Michael Mock

    So, speaking as an atheist…

    Put another way, if you’re part of a group that is stereotyped in a
    negative way, you might go out of your way to act differently, even at
    an unconscious level, to try and defy that stereotype.

    …I don’t think so. I suppose it’s possible, at some level, but even if it were true, I don’t think it’s enough to explain the results of that study.

    I’m also a little dubious about the study itself. In my personal (and purely anecdotal) experience, atheists aren’t noticeably less moral than Christians… but they (we) aren’t noticeably more moral, either. Which makes me wonder if there isn’t a flaw in the methodology of the study, or – more likely – some flaw/bias in how that article is reporting the results and methodology of that study.

    For example… how did the study define “highly religious”? I mean, are we talking about religious belief, or religious conviction? If they’re measuring in terms of, say, attending church regularly and following religious rules, then what they’re calling “highly religious” might skew more towards authoritarian personalities than actual religious beliefs… and I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find a measurable connection between authoritarian mindsets and a lack of charitable impulses.

    The fact that I find the idea (that atheists are more compassionate and generous) so appealing is precisely why I distrust it, if that makes any sense.

  • Pixie47

    This reminds me of the story of The Good Samaritan. All the super-religious people ignored the person in need, but it was somebody who was an outcast because of his race and religion who showed compassion to a total stranger.

    I find that the biggest predictor of how kind people are to others is to have suffered yourself. Perhaps a lot of athiests who have suffered unjustly for their views are more likely to be sensitive towards others’ pain.

  • That’s exactly why I follow your blog, because I’m definitely not anyone’s idea of a typical Christian.  Which is why it hurts so much when people – even people on the Internet – judge me as soon as I say I’m Catholic, telling me how intolerant and evil I am.

    And I have plenty of atheist friends, and all of us try to be decent people, and we can talk about our views without getting into anything bad.

    I have to agree with two comments below:

    First of all, I too am dubious of the study…I mean, how exactly do you “study” this?  Are we picking random people off the street?  Are we following them around to see their good deeds, or just asking them how many good deeds they do? I mean, what were the parameters of this study?

    And also, I like the idea someone had about atheists potentially doing good because they’ve suffered themselves. My boyfriend and I are the same way…  We were both bullied when younger, and we figure that’s why we tend to not be judgmental now, because we know what it’s like to be the “weird” kids.

  • Bobby

    The idea that Christians do good things because we have to and others do them because they want to is essentially what Christopher Hitchens leveled at many of the Christians he debated with. It’s a good point to keep in mind and while I wouldn’t say the entirety of the discussion can be wrapped up in such a generalization, it makes we Christians go back and do a double take. Loved the church sign, too. And I’ve sadly heard the same sentiment from waiters in other parts of the internet: Sunday crowds right after church suck.