In a recent article for The Daily Beast, reporter Brandon Withrow writes about a piece of new research published in the journal Nature Human Behavior (I’m quoted in the article, actually!). The research is pretty interesting: it shows that, even in highly secular societies, people seem to unconsciously associate atheism with immorality.
This is an interesting finding. We know that anti-atheist prejudice is widespread in America, but to find that intuitive biases against atheists persist in Finland, New Zealand, and the Netherlands (for instance) is surprising.
Why is this the case? Why are people more inclined to associate immoral actions with people who don’t believe in god?
It seems unlikely that the answer can be that they are generalizing negative experiences they have personally had with atheists, because the intuitive biases are stronger in some of the countries with fewer atheists than in some of the countries with more. Also, I know of no evidence that atheists actually act less morally than do believers, so that seems like an unlikely explanation.
Evolutionary explanations are likely unhelpful, too. The concept of god, for contemporary people, is just too bound up in cultural meanings and expectations for an evolutionary explanation to hold much sway. It is simply inconceivable that people literally evolved to associate our modern idea of god with moral action.
Nor, I think, is there any merit in the idea that there is actually a link between belief in god and morality, which “even atheists” perceive beneath conscious awareness. I’m sure some conservative theologians would love to draw this conclusion, but the proposed theological links between god and morality are extremely spurious, and any connection between god and people’s intuitions about morality are more tenuous still.
Rather, I suspect this is simply a manifestation of religious privilege, evidence of the culturally-created link between belief in god and moral behavior. For generations people – including people in very secular cultures – have been taught that there is a close relationship between god-belief and moral action, so it is no surprise that many people carry some element of that cultural assumption with them.
It’s not even surprising that some atheists might have the intuitive sense that belief in god makes one more moral: groups often internalize the prejudices the broader culture dispenses about them, and sadly we are not at liberty simply to reach into our own psyches in order to repair the damage culture has done to us.
We should try, though, to fight this battle through culture. It’s important that we atheists push back against the stigma which accompanies the term. If it is the case that people intuitively associate belief in god with moral behavior, we should find ways to challenge that assumption at every turn.
Reducing anti-atheist prejudice (that’s what an intuitive bias such as this is – a prejudice) is good for everyone: it enables atheists to live more freely, without fear of being stigmatized for their religious beliefs, and it allows believers to explore the range of options regarding belief in god without worrying that they will be subject to stigma if they change their mind. Everybody’s religious freedom is enhanced when we stop intuitively associating particular belief systems with immorality without justification.
Luckily, the research Withrow describes suggests that these sorts of intuitive biases are changeable. The very fact that they found much variability in the bias across cultures hints that it is not a human universal to associate atheism with immorality, but rather something culturally contingent. I look forward to the day that the stigma that atheists are immoral is defeated.
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