The Pew Research Center recently released the results of a survey that asked a single question: Is belief in God necessary to be a moral person? The results are about what you’d expect but nonetheless a little disheartening.
Generally, the survey found that the higher the national GDP, the less likely people would think that God is a necessary component of morality. This also coincides with high levels of religious belief, as one might expect. The United States, as seems to be the case when it comes to religion, bucks the trend of wealthy, Western nations.
Some of the results aren’t surprising: Almost everyone surveyed in Pakistan, Ghana, and Indonesia said that belief in God is necessary to be a moral person, which matches the high levels of religious affiliation in those countries. Meanwhile, less than a fifth of people in France, Spain, and Great Britain agreed.
But some trends stick out. In China, only 14 percent of people agreed that faith is essential for good values. Greece was more fervent than the rest of Europe, with almost half of respondents agreeing that God is necessary for morality. And the United States continued its tradition of defying religious patterns in the rest of the West and developed world: Compared to people in other countries with a similar per-capita GDP, U.S. respondents were much more likely to say that belief in God is necessary to be a good person.
In fact, 53 percent of Americans think that belief in God is necessary to be moral.
This isn’t exactly an unexpected result, in my view, but it is disappointing. Especially when the religiously unaffiliated, called “nones,” are on the rise.
Not to mention that this is just so demonstrably untrue. How many ostensibly religious politicians have fallen from grace, as it were? Do I need to remind you of who got us into the Iraq War? Of who perpetrated 9-11? Of who voted to cut food stamps and jobless benefits? It’s impossible to get elected in this country without professing some religious belief, and yet this is what happens. Who can argue with a straight face that these were moral decisions? I’m not saying that being religious makes you immoral, but I am saying that believing in God certainly doesn’t make you a moral person.
I know what comes next. But these people don’t “really” believe in God. If they did they’d do X, Y and Z. This isn’t actually a very good argument. It’s the No True Scotsman logical fallacy. It’s like saying that a person isn’t a real Christian if they don’t believe in marriage equality or hell or the Easter bunny or whatever. It’s a method of maintaining an unreasoned assertion in the face of evidence to the contrary. And, when it comes to the assertion that non-believers are immoral, there is plenty of evidence to the contrary.
This conventional wisdom that atheists are somehow morally bankrupt is actually pretty harmful. It lends credence to the notion that we’re all angry nihilists who can’t find beauty or meaning in the world. (Paging Oprah.) And this way of thinking finds its way into mainstream reporting about disaster relief. After the tornado that destroyed Moore, Okla., a Time magazine cover story asserts without evidence that there were no secular humanist groups providing aid to the tornado’s victims. Hemant Mehta at The Friendly Atheist destroyed that egregious assumption with a simple Google search. The atheist community is doing all of this even without the built-in charity structures that churches and other religious institutions have.
Of course, giving money to charity doesn’t necessarily make someone a moral person, but it is indicative that atheists aren’t self-absorbed egomaniacs just looking out for Number One. At least, not any more than everyone else.
Not only does the idea that atheists are immoral not stand up to real-world experience, I find it personally insulting. Unlike anyone who just accepts morality handed down from on high, I have spent a lot of time thinking about what positions and actions I consider moral. Just because I don’t have a God telling me what is right and wrong doesn’t mean that it’s not something I think about. You don’t have to have religion to want to do good in the world, and I resent any implication otherwise.
I’m not arguing that all atheists are good people. (Trust me, I know that isn’t true.) But people are complicated animals. Even though we try to fit people into neat little boxes, no group is a monolith. Every group has their jerks and their saints, so to speak, and most of us probably fall somewhere in the middle. But compassion and respect for fellow humans exists whether you believe in one god, or many, or none.
Photo Credit: Jennifer Boyer via Flickr