Benjamin Wiker is Professor of Political Science, Director of Human Life Studies, and Senior Fellow of the Veritas Center at Franciscan University. His newest book is In Defense of Nature: the Catholic Unity of Environmental, Economic, and Moral Ecology. His website is www.benjaminwiker.com.
A new study has just found something rather interesting: even atheists don’t trust atheists. Or, to put it the other way around, atheists themselves assume that religious believers are more likely to act morally than their fellow atheists, and atheists are more likely to engage in grossly immoral acts. In the words of the study, “people overall are roughly twice as likely to view extreme immorality as representative of atheists, relative to believers,” so that “even atheists intuitively associate immorality more with atheists than with believers.”
An atheist might reply that such “studies” hold good only in religious countries, where believers are brainwashed into thinking that eliminating God means eliminating any and all moral restrictions. But such is not the case. As the study points out, moral distrust of atheists is also the norm in the most secularized countries. “Effects hold even in highly secular countries such as Australia, China, the Czech Republic, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom,” where researchers found that, once again, “even atheists… associate serial murder more with atheists than with believers in these countries.”
Several things are worthy of note about this study. First and foremost, the name of the study reveals the researchers’ discomfort with the results: “Global evidence of extreme intuitive moral prejudice against atheists.” The authors clearly believe the assumption that people who don’t believe in God are far more likely to be serial murders, child molesters, and animal torturers (some of the examples used by the researchers) is a “prejudice,” an ungrounded, misguided, and irrational error that blinds its adherents—including atheists themselves—to the truth. Allow me to quote the summary of the study, which most succinctly states both the results and the researchers’ discomfort with them.
In summary, participants intuitively assume that the perpetrators of immoral acts are probably atheists. These effects appeared across religiously diverse societies, including countries with Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Muslim and non-religious majorities, showing that intuitive moral prejudice against atheists is not exclusive to Abrahamic or monotheistic majority societies. To the contrary, intuitive anti-atheist prejudice generalizes to largely secular societies and appears globally evident even among atheists. Notably, our primary experimental paradigm used extreme examples of immorality where anti-atheist prejudice would presumably be less explicitly defensible. We tested moral prejudice using vicious acts of cruelty (animal torture, serial murder and mutilation), which participants—including atheist participants—nonetheless intuitively associated with atheists. Combined, these results show that across the world, religious belief is intuitively viewed as a necessary safeguard against the temptations of grossly immoral conduct, and atheists are broadly perceived as potentially morally depraved and dangerous. Viewed differently, people perceive belief in a god as a sufficient moral buffer to inhibit immoral behavior.
It shouldn’t be that way, the researchers declare.
Our results highlight a stark divergence between lay and scientific perceptions of the relationship between religion and morality. Although religion probably influences many moral outcomes and judgements, [science tells us that] core moral instincts appear to emerge largely independent of religion. Additionally, highly secular societies are among the most stable and cooperative on Earth.
But science is of no avail against the intransigent prejudices defining lay perceptions, which are ironically embedded quite deeply into the psyches of atheists themselves. So, even though science declares atheists and the secular societies they dominate to be morally impeccable,
Nonetheless, our findings reveal widespread suspicion that morality requires belief in a god. For many people, including many atheists, the answer to Dostoevsky’s question “Without God... It means everything is permitted now, one can do anything?” is “Yes”, inasmuch as ‘everything’ refers to acts of extreme immorality.
The authors conveniently overlook the astounding prophetic witness of Dostoevsky, the great Russian novelist, who foresaw the coming barbarity of societies that would jettison belief in God, such as happened in his own mother country, decades after his death, where Lenin and Stalin would demonstrate that without God tens of millions could be slaughtered.
The authors similarly overlook the great holocaust of abortion and eugenics perpetrated in “highly secular societies,” a very real indicator that unbelief leads to the extreme immorality of the destruction of the unborn and mentally and physically impaired.
Such “oversights” don’t appear to be especially scientific. Perhaps what the study reveals, even if not to its authors, is the obvious truth that nearly everyone grasps: If there is no God, there are no real, definitive boundaries to our actions. That is as true of individuals as it is of societies.
Of course, I am not making the case that religious societies and individuals do not commit atrocious acts. That would be absurd for the obvious reason that it is untrue. But it is even more absurd to ignore the massive carnage that has been caused by atheistic or secular societies.
Perhaps what the study reveals, then, is not a prejudice, but a deep human realization that if we are indeed alone in the universe, an accidental product of blind processes of an indifferent and often cruel nature, then indifference and cruelty are just as natural as kindness, and therefore, “everything is permitted” because nothing is prohibited.