When does the world become completely atheistic?
The moral compass of the atheists
Atheism doesn't have it easy. In many, at least Western, countries with a majority, it has no public lobby worth mentioning - in contrast to the religions. Then there is his bad reputation. In the US, around 95 percent would now elect a qualified African American, Jew or Catholic for president, but only 60 percent would elect an atheist candidate. Belief in God is necessary for morality and thus also for politics, so the underlying prejudice.
44 percent of Americans share it, stresses the psychologist Tomas Stahl of the University of Chicago. In more religious countries such as Brazil or Tunisia, according to a study from 2019, it is much more at 84 percent, in secular countries such as France (15 percent) and Sweden (nine) it is much less. Although there is no evidence that believers and non-believers actually differ in their actions, anti-atheist prejudices are widespread even among atheists, another study showed.
The only question is: why? Tomas Stahl investigated: In the current issue of the specialist journal “Plos One” he does not provide any philosophical or theological arguments in an article, but tries to underpin moral psychology with empirical data. Do believers and non-believers have different concepts of morality, he wonders? The starting point of his approach is the Moral Foundations Theory, which is popular in Anglo-Saxon countries. Morality, she says, rests on five foundations that determine our “good or bad” decisions: caring / suffering, fairness / deception, loyalty / betrayal, authority / subversion, and purity / pollution. The first two pairs of opposites should ensure the protection of individuals, the other three for that of the group.
In several empirical experiments, Stahl has now investigated whether and how believers and non-believers assess these moral foundations differently. In two opposing countries: on the one hand in Sweden, an emphatically secular country, and on the other hand in the USA, a country where religion is the norm. In both countries, according to a central finding, believers support more of the moral foundations that strengthen group membership. This fits in with the idea that one of the core functions of religions is to bind their members into communities.
Giver of consolation in a dangerous world
On the other hand, there were few differences in questions of morality relating to the protection of individuals, i.e. questions of care and fairness, and also in the general assessment of morality. The moral compass is just calibrated differently for atheists, concludes Thomas Stahl. Believers would become more involved in communities and therefore value group values higher. Non-believers, on the other hand, are more consequentialist in their morality - they judge the moral value of an action more according to its consequences. As they deal with the "case by case", the morality of believers is based on rule-based norms.
The psychologist Tomas Stahl has tried to investigate where these differences come from using a series of hypotheses. One of them: Faith gives consolation - and you need that especially under difficult circumstances. This has been proven in the study: Those who are more of the opinion that they “live in a dangerous world” and “are existentially endangered” are therefore more inclined to believe - and more to moral convictions that force group membership. This attitude is more widespread in the religious United States than in secular Sweden.
Crucial: role models and thinking style
A preference for group morals is also related to role models in the immediate environment: If you have contact with such religious people in childhood, the likelihood of later becoming religious yourself increases. The "Faith Relay" is passed on through concrete practice in the churches and communities - such as church services or social enterprises. It is the other way around with a certain analytical style of thinking: According to the study, those who tend towards this tend to belong to the group of atheists - although they do not see themselves as a group.
This is exactly what could have caused her bad “moral reputation”, says Tomas Stahl. A more individualistic approach, paired with less respect for authorities and less group solidarity - these are the ingredients for the supposed “atheistic amorality”.
By the way: agnostics were not part of the current study. All those who ticked “don't know” on the forms when asked about God were immediately excluded.
Lukas Wieselberg, science.ORF.at
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