Are Atheists More Moral Than Religious Believers?

by Joseph Shieber

In a recent essay on Slate, Phil Zuckerman, Professor of Sociology & Secular Studies and Associate Dean of Faculty at Pitzer College and the author of the 2020 book, What It Means To Be Moral: Why Religion is Not Necessary for Living a Moral Life suggests that atheists are more moral than religious believers.

It’s important to be clear about the claim Zuckerman is defending. In particular, in contrast to the stated thesis of his book, Zuckerman is not arguing that religion is not necessary for a moral life. Rather, in his Salon essay, Zuckerman instead suggests that nonbelief is in fact more compatible with morality than religious belief. As Zuckerman puts it, “When it comes to the most pressing moral issues of the day, hard-core secularists exhibit much more empathy, compassion, and care for the well-being of others than the most ardently God-worshipping.”

Zuckerman’s brief for the moral superiority of nonbelievers consists of a list of the positions held more often by nonbelievers than the most dedicated religious believers. In addition to prizing public health during the Covid-19 pandemic, affirming the truth of anthropogenic climate change, and pursuing gun control measures, Zuckerman provides a laundry list of other positions that he suggests highlight the nonbelievers’ greater moral standing:

In terms of who supports helping refugees, affordable health care for all, accurate sex education, death with dignity, gay rights, transgender rights, animal rights; and as to who opposes militarism, the governmental use of torture, the death penalty, corporal punishment, and so on — the correlation remains: The most secular Americans exhibit the most care for the suffering of others, while the most religious exhibit the highest levels of indifference.

My sense is that I actually agree with Zuckerman that the positions that he associates with nonbelievers are the morally right ones. Nevertheless, I am not confident that Zuckerman’s argument establishes what he thinks that it does. Here are three reasons why.

First, it’s worrisome how Zuckerman cherry-picks his data to support his argument. The problem isn’t so much with Zuckerman’s definition of nonbelievers — although he does exclude what he calls the “lackadaisically unaffiliated” from the nonbelievers, thereby restricting his sample to those most likely to support liberal positions. The bigger worry is Zuckerman’s restriction of the sort of believers that he considers “the most devout among us”.

Here’s Zuckerman:

… by the “most devout among us” I mean religious fundamentalists who believe in God without any doubts, who attend church frequently, who consider the Bible the infallible word of God, who pray a lot, and who insist that Jesus is the only way, the only truth, and the only life. These strongly religious folks are to be distinguished from moderately religious Americans, who are generally liberal and tolerant.

Now, evangelical Christians and other fundamentalists would certainly agree with Zuckerman’s suggestion that unquestioning faith, Biblical literalism, and belief in intercessory prayer are necessary for religious devotion. However, many of those that Zuckerman characterizes as “moderately religious” would disagree. Indeed, it would seem a mistake to suggest that what Zuckerman characterizes as “moderation” with respect to those fundamentalist positions is somehow incompatible with strong religiosity or religious devotion.

Second, there is the question of the purpose of the argument. It doesn’t seem to me likely that the argument can do more than contribute to the self-satisfaction of nonbelievers. It is true that nonbelievers tend to support gun control, believe the scientific consensus about anthropogenic climate change, and so on with respect to the whole laundry list of positions accepted by voters who tend to support Democratic Party positions on these issues.

However, it’s equally true that fundamentalist religious believers who embrace the countervailing positions on these issues — support gun “rights”, deny the existence of anthropogenic climate change, and generally toe the Republican Party line — believe that their positions are the morally correct ones. If this is correct, however, then those religious believers would deny Zuckerman’s premise that the positions that nonbelievers tend to affirm are morally right.

Third, Zuckerman’s argument seems at least to imply that the nonbelievers’ skepticism about religion is what is driving their embrace of the morally superior positions on the range of views that Zuckerman lists. There is a great deal of evidence, however, that party affiliation is now driving religious conviction, rather than the other way around.

At various points in his essay, Zuckerman seems to back away from any implication of causation, for example when he writes that “the correlation remains: The most secular Americans exhibit the most care for the suffering of others, while the most religious exhibit the highest levels of indifference” (my emphasis).

However, mere correlation would not be sufficient for Zuckerman’s purposes. Suppose it turns out that people who consume more elitist gourmet sandwiches tend to harbor the morally superior positions Zuckerman enumerates. This wouldn’t tell us anything about the moral — or even purely rational — superiority of the consumption of elitist gourmet sandwiches!

That’s why, at the conclusion of his essay, Zuckerman aims for more. There, he suggests that accepting the greater consonance of nonbelief with morality is significant because “a more consciously secular citizenry, one that lives in reality, embraces science and empiricism, and supports sound policies — not prayer — [is] a way to make life better, safer and more humane.”

Zuckerman NEVER establishes the stronger connection needed to make this argument, however. He might as well also argue that consuming elitist gourmet sandwiches is “a way to make life better, safer and more humane”!

Now, Zuckerman’s essay does seem to contain the makings of an argument in support of the stronger connection between nonbelief and morality. I’ve quoted Zuckerman as arguing that “hard-core secularists exhibit much more empathy, compassion, and care for the well-being of others than the most ardently God-worshipping” and that “the most “secular Americans exhibit the most care for the suffering of others, while the most religious exhibit the highest levels of indifference”. Now if empathy, compassion, and care were strongly linked with morality, then this would be potential evidence for a link between nonbelief and morality that is stronger than mere correlation.

It’s not obvious to me that there is such a strong link between empathy, compassion, and care and morality, however. The study to which Zuckerman alludes as support for the claim that “the most secular Americans exhibit the most care for the suffering of others” is a study in the journal Social Psychology and Personality Science entitled “My Brother’s Keeper?: Compassion Predicts Generosity More Among Less Religious Individuals”. That study, however, does not in fact show that secular Americans exhibit the most care for the suffering of others.

Rather, what the study demonstrates is that the motivations for moral behavior differ between religious and nonreligious people. Describing the results of the study, the UC Berkeley social psychologist Robb Willer, one of the co-authors of the study, notes that “Overall, we find that for less religious people, the strength of their emotional connection to another person is critical to whether they will help that person or not. The more religious, on the other hand, may ground their generosity less in emotion, and more in other factors such as doctrine, a communal identity, or reputational concerns.” (Quoted by Yasmin Anwar in the UC Berkeley write-up of the study to which Zuckerman links.)

Crucially, the study doesn’t actually establish that nonreligious people in fact behave more morally than religious believers. Again, the aim of the study is simply to investigate differences in motivation between religious and nonreligious believers. If what is at issue, however, is moral behavior — or even moral attitudes — then I’m skeptical that there might be a strong connection between motivations and behaviors or attitudes.

It will help to expand on this point a little. Suppose that helping little old people cross busy intersections is a morally correct action. What I care about, then, is that someone, when the occasion arises, will help a little old person cross a busy intersection. (I might also care that, if asked, that someone would assent to the claim that helping little old people cross busy intersections is good, although I would be inclined to say that I care more about the concrete behavior than about the attitudes.)

If what I care about are the morally correct actions, I am less concerned with why someone pursues those morally correct actions — so long as they do so. Furthermore, it’s not obvious to me that someone who pursues the morally correct action because of an emotional appeal is more moral than someone who does so because they felt called to by God or because that action was dictated by the moral law within them.

Indeed, in the UC Berkeley write-up of the social psychological study, the lead author of that study, Laura Saslow, “said she was inspired to examine [the question of moral motivation] after an altruistic, nonreligious friend lamented that he had only donated to earthquake recovery efforts in Haiti after watching an emotionally stirring video of a woman being saved from the rubble, not because of a logical understanding that help was needed.” To my mind, the idea that someone would need first to see a video of a single person being saved from earthquake rubble before recognizing a moral imperative to act does not strike me as evidence of great moral fiber!

(It does call to mind the Tucholsky quote — frequently misattributed to Stalin — “The death of one man: that is a catastrophe. A hundred thousand deaths: that is a statistic!”)

Overall, I’m inclined to be skeptical of Zuckerman’s argument for the same reason that I’m inclined to be skeptical of parallel arguments intended to show that religious belief is necessary for — or even merely more conducive to — living a moral life. There are many routes to ethical behavior; what ultimately matters is the behavior itself.