Of course you can be good without god

My attention was drawn to this article with the title Can You Be Good Without God? and it does not start out well.

“If God did not exist, then we would have to invent him,” said the French philosopher Voltaire. His point: that without a divine being to check right and wrong, any number of atrocities are possible and could go unpunished.

A recent study (of more than 3,000 people in 13 countries) published in the journal Nature Human Behavior echoes Voltaire’s maxim.

The article quotes the lead author Will Gervais of a new study.

“These effects appeared across religiously diverse societies, including countries with Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Muslim and non-religious majorities,” says the new study, “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.”

“For many people, including many atheists,” the researchers say, “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.”

But as you read the article, all that the paper claims is that 3,000 people in 13 countries believe that lack of religion can lead to bad behavior. That is hardly a surprise given the widespread prejudice against atheists. In fact the title of the actual paper that you can read here is Global evidence of extreme intuitive moral prejudice against atheists, hardly a controversial claim

So while the article header was clickbait, it does go on to quote several atheists who rebut the implication of the opening paragraphs.

“We are products of our culture,” says Monette Richards, a board member for Secular Woman, an organization that seeks to “amplify the voice, presence, and influence of non-religious women.”

She too sees this as the result of centuries-old indoctrination. “Our culture is so steeped in upholding the religious as good and worthy of respect and casting unbelievers as evil, that a few years of increasing numbers of non-believers isn’t going to break that right away.”

But she believes there is a way to change it. “The more we meet those we consider ‘Other,’ and the more we love them, we learn to see the trope for what it is. The knee jerk associations of serial-killer-means-atheist will, eventually, fade. With the numbers of non-believers and unchurched rising like they are, we will see more and more people realizing that atheists are good people, too.”


  1. says

    Also, WTF are they talking about in the paper “culturally evolved” behaviors. That’s really odd use of language; are they trying to imply that there’s an evolutionary component to their measured anti-atheist sentiment? That seems … bizzare.

    I am also extremely suspicious of their claim that they have no WEIRD problems with their sample set, then they go on in the supplemental to describe how they used responses from Amazon Mechanical Turk, and students from University of Kentucky. OK… I don’t understand their sampling at all -- they sampled people from UAE but not Yemen or Saudi Arabia?

    Anyhow, they probably did measure that people say certain things more often about atheists. But I don’t see how that’s “culturally evolved” or what that is compared to a “learned” behavior. It seems to me that they successfully measured that people who are raised to believe certain things, say they believe certain things.

  2. wsierichs says

    If you survey historical Christian literature, you’ll find two things.

    First, the historical Christian definition of atheism is basically: not being a Christian. That’s because refusing to convert means you are rejecting the divinity of Jesus and the doctrine of the Trinity. So Christians historically called all non-Christians atheists. Once the pagans of Europe had been wiped out, the only remaining “atheists” in Christian societies were Jews, so Christian hatred of atheism was concentrated against them. You can blame the Shoah/Holocaust, which was carried out by Christians all over Europe, not just Germans or Nazis, on Christian hatred and fear of atheism more than any other specific cause.

    The reason for this hatred/fear of atheism is the belief that all non-Christians serve Satan, the source of all evil and immorality. In traditional Christian belief, only Christians (and usually you have to be the “right” kind of Christian) serve God, the only source of morality; everyone else serves Satan, wittingly or not. This belief explains why Christians could not tolerate non-Christians in their midst, as non-Christians were a constant menace, with the potential to lead Christians away from God, and therefore into Satan’s service. Jews were granted a certain tolerance for historical reasons, but most antisemitic laws, as well as acts of violence, stemmed from the belief that Jews’ true god was Satan. As a historical note, many Christians believed foes of slavery in the U.S. were atheists because they denied the god-given institution of slavery. For many Southern Christians, the Civil War was a war against atheism.

  3. grahamjones says

    Manum asked: WTF are they talking about in the paper “culturally evolved” behaviors…

    From the paper:

    Evolutionary theories of religion predict that prejudice against atheists may persist even in secular cultures, either as part of a suite of adaptations linking belief to within-group cooperation 20 or as a consequence of culturally transmitted 21 and entrenched pro-religious norms 5

    So two options there: a genetic influence on what people tend to believe, or culturally transmitted and entrenched beliefs. Learned behaviour does not have to be either culturally transmitted or entrenched.

    Here’s what I don’t understand. They measure prejudice by asking participants whether it is more probable that a nasty villain is (A) a teacher or (B) a teacher who is an X. Logically, B is never right, but people sometimes say B anyway, and they make the mistake at a rate that depends on X. I don’t know why they measure things that way. I can see that the simpler choice “the villain is more likely to be (A) a teacher who is a believer or (B) a teacher who is a non-believer” depends on the proportion of believers vs non-believers among teachers, so you don’t know what you’re measuring: prejudice or (estimated) proportion. But does measuring the tendency to make a particular kind of mistake avoid that problem?

  4. Matt G says


    I think that the probability problem is deliberate to identity bias. As you say, the probability that someone is X and Y is smaller than the probability that they are X alone. Most people won’t realize this in a survey and betray their bias.

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