The morality question – the Australasian response

Atheist MoralityIt’s very early days in the analysis of Tom’s international survey of atheists. I’ve started a preliminary examination of the Australasian cohort which includes responses from atheists and agnostics from Australia and New Zealand.

From a total international response of over 8,000, the Australasian  (Australian and New Zealand) response was 777, comprising nearly 10 per cent of the total survey.

At this early stage, I’ve only had a chance to consider, in detail, the responses to Question 1:  How do you view the morality of religious believers compared to the morality of atheists?

The Australasian response is broadly in line with the total survey results, varying by no more than a couple of percentage points.  However, while internationally and in Australia, the most popular response is that religious believers and atheists are equally moral, New Zealanders tend to be a little more harsh with the most popular response for Kiwis being that believers are ‘somewhat less’ moral.

Overwhelmingly, 85 per cent of Australasian respondents think that religious believers are either equally, or only somewhat less moral than atheists. Only 15 per cent think that religious believers are much less moral.

What stands out for me in the comments on the ‘morality’ question is the amount of thought that has gone into the responses. Many respondents note that they really struggled with the question – deeming it, perhaps, too broad, too general, to give an accurate response.  The benefit of this discomfiture with the question is that it elicited a great many detailed explanatory responses.

Having answered, many respondents are at pains to note they are speaking ‘generally’, that they have based their response on their own personal experience, or that they are replying in respect of fundamentalists rather than mainstream liberal Christians. Christians are certainly not demonized or caricatured in the comments. The respondents reveal quite a complex understanding of the issues involved.

I am very impressed by the fact that, regardless of how they answered, the vast majority of respondents seem to accept the innate morality of all human beings – regardless of their world view or beliefs.

In fact, many respondents are eager to tease out the difference between the morality of individual believers and the morality of religious institutions. They feel that while innately moral, human beings are sometimes enticed by religious dogma to do bad things or to adopt bigoted attitudes. Overwhelmingly, though, respondents  see this as the fault of religious institutions and their leaders rather than individual devotees.

The overriding sense one gets from the Australasian survey responses is that atheists, generally, do not view human beings – regardless of their beliefs –  as ‘naturally’ immoral. This, of course, is in stark contrast to the Abrahamic religions which cast human beings as innately sinful.

Surprisingly, perhaps, even amongst those who think religious believers are much less moral than atheists,  there is an acknowledgement of the innate goodness of humans.

“Some believing that god is on their side – justify actions no moral person should consider,” said one respondent, before adding, “Actually [it] depends on the individual, not all religious people are less moral. We all want a peaceful just society, atheists are no different.”

I am also impressed that, in the responses to the first survey question, there is very little sense of atheists taking the moral high ground. Many respondents happily acknowledge that atheists are just as capable of immorality as theists. There is a ready acknowledgement that, just as theists cannot claim a monopoly on morality, nor can atheists claim that theists are the font of all evil.

Typical remarks include: “People are people”, “morality is not determined by belief or non-belief”. “You are just as likely to find moral and immoral people within both groups – atheists and believers”; “[t]here is the full spectrum of moral behaviour in both groups.”

As evidence, one respondent points to ‘the pervasive problem of sexism and racism in the atheist community’.  Certainly this is a minority view [in terms of the Australasian cohort at least] but Australasians have been fairly peripheral to the divisiveness of recent debates taking place within the atheist and sceptical communities in the United States. It will be interesting to see to what extent the fallout from ‘elevatorgate’ has impacted the views of respondents from other countries – especially the US.

While Australasian respondents mostly regard religious believers as equally or only somewhat less moral than atheists, the minority of respondents who replied that religious believers are much less moral did not arrive at this position lightly.

“This was a difficult question,” one respondent acknowledges. “I initially chose ‘equal’ because to me, morality and belief are separate. I changed my mind when I thought of the atrocities (and subsequent cover ups) committed in the name of god.”

I might just pause to explain the context of this remark. Like many other countries, Australia has been appalled by revelations about the extent of the sexual abuse of children by clerics. Following some recent media exposés of abuses and growing public outrage, the Australian Federal government has recently convened a Royal Commission into the institutional abuse of both children and adults. So, religious atrocities and subsequent cover ups are a very topical issue in Australia at the moment. In fact, for various reasons, the culture wars we once hoped were particular to America are beginning to be played out here. As we move further through the survey, I expect that this will be reflected in the answers and comments.

After a close reading and analysis of the comments appended to Question 1 of the survey, I have identified seven key ‘themes’ or categories arising from the responses to this question.

  1. Morality is subjective
  2. Religion does not so much cause immorality as it is used to rationalise it
  3. Morality which is imposed rather than reasoned is sub-optimal.
  4. Believers ‘cherry pick’ their moral positions from their religious texts.
  5. Individuals tend to be innately moral but are corrupted by religion which is inherently immoral.
  6. Morality is cheapened when practiced out of fear of punishment or expectation of reward.
  7. Immorality is easier for those who can outsource the blame to a deity or religious leader or seek and receive ‘absolution’ for immoral acts.

Morality is subjective

Some respondents point out thatmorality’ is subjective. As one respondent explains:

“It’s highly plausible that religious and nonreligious may have different interpretations of what is moral, so the answer has to be indeterminate.”

Religion used to rationalise immorality

Others feel that morality stands outside of either religious belief or the lack of religion. This argument is well summarised by the respondent who said:  “I don’t believe religion (or lack of) affects innate morality. [Although] ][r]eligion does give some immoral people something to hide behind …”

Imposed vs reasoned morality

Many respondents feel the critical difference between religious and non-religious morality is the way in which believers and non-believers develop their ‘moral positions’.  Typical remarks include:

“Belief in a religion prevents some from thinking for themselves. How does ‘top-down’ imposed beliefs constitute morality?”

“People who put either no or minimal thought into why they act the way they do don’t deserve the title ‘moral’, they deserve the title ‘obedient’.” 

While I found very little sense of ‘moral superiority’ in the comments, the concentration on this aspect of the debate did suggest a certain sense of ‘intellectual superiority’ from the respondents.  A particularly telling observation was that, in ‘outsourcing’ their morality to a deity or their religious leaders, rather than thinking through issues for themselves, believers ‘deflect their personal responsibility as human beings’.

Cherry picking

More than a few respondents pick up on the issue of religious believers ‘cherry picking’ their moral positions from their holy texts.  But, as one respondent points out, “Religious people don’t tend to actually follow the terrible morals of their holy books” – so perhaps we should be grateful for the cherry-picking!

Immorality – individuals vs institutional

Many respondents are at pains to distinguish between the morality of individual believers and that of ‘religion’ as a whole. This is summed up by the respondent who says, “Religious people may be just as moral as atheists, but religion itself is immoral”.

Indeed, the overarching theme of these comments is that religion is a corrupting force – encouraging otherwise good people to do or believe bad things. “Religion tends to create less moral humans out of perfectly good ones,” explains one respondent.

The consensus is nicely summed up by a New Zealand respondent who says,  “Although the religious that I encounter are just as moral, the overall world picture feels different to me.”

Punishment and reward

The issue of punishment and reward is another very popular theme of the Australasian respondents’ comments.  The consensus here is that, ““Morals enforced by a fear of hell or promise of heaven are not really morals.”

Several respondents note that it is rather frightening that some theists seem to think that, without the fear of punishment or the promise of reward, humanity will devolve into immorality.

For me, this emerges as the greatest difference between the two world views; the religious believing in the innate sinfulness of man, and our atheist respondents overwhelmingly optimistic that the innate morality which has evolved from humans living in social groups is not dependent on a belief in either supernatural wrath or benediction.

Absolution and abrogation

Some respondents feel that immorality comes easier to religious believers because they have, ‘a lazy path to forgiveness’.

“Religious people always have an ‘out’ in that they can appeal to a parent figure (god) and say they’re really, really sorry when they screw up or hurt someone,”  a New Zealand respondent complains.

Others note that religious belief allows individuals to shift the blame for their immoral actions on to their deity or his ‘chosen’ representatives.

“Moral choice is personal,” insists one respondent, “Abrogating that choice to another reduces your moral strength.”

Indeed, there is a strong feeling amongst the respondents that putting one’s instincts and personal feelings aside in order to conform with religious dogma or be accepted by an ‘in group’ is, in itself, immoral.


This is a huge survey which has received a huge, international response. My feeling is that it will take months – possibly more than a year – of analysis to do it justice.

For me, the most exciting part is the comments. Here, perhaps for the first time, we have ordinary members of the international atheist community speaking for themselves on a wide range of topics.

Admittedly, at this early stage, I have looked at the responses to just one question from about 10 per cent of the total number of respondents. But there is a very, very strong sense from those responses that they are, in no sense, flippant. This is a survey which has been taken very seriously by the respondents and they have been meticulous in clarifying their remarks where they feel they have been shanghaied by the question into unfair, broad generalisations.

From the Australasian responses, there is no sense that religious believers are seen by atheists as a homogeneous group. There is no sense that atheists see themselves as innately ‘better’ than theists. There is, however, a strong feeling that human reason is a social responsibility that is abrogated by many religious believers and, perhaps, there is some sense of intellectual superiority in that regard.

From just this one question, it is clear that there is a goldmine of information still to come from the survey responses. This survey will not be done justice with a single academic article. It warrants a series of articles – some targeted at a general audience, others, perhaps, more narrowly directed at academia. Each question or group of questions could easily warrant an article. And then, of course, there is the fascinating task of comparing responses – between different nations and, in the case of the US, between states.  A proper comparative analysis will require us to step outside of the survey and contextualise the different responses with information about the ubiquity of religion in the state or nation being studied and to consider the local circumstances which might account for different responses.

I’m very excited to have been invited to be a part of this project and I am delighted that Tom and Elon University are giving our atheist and sceptical communities the opportunity to speak for themselves and be understood in a much more nuanced way than the ‘militant’ atheist tag with which we are too often stereotyped.

Chrys Stevenson










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    Thank you Chris for your analysis. Just one point and its about what I see as your stereotype cartoon. Why is it you think the elderly are nescesarily “believers ” or resistant to change. My Grandma was definitely hardcore atheist, although I don’t think she ever used the word. My father thought religion was bunk. I’m now 74 and have been a non believer since the age of 12.. Please, a little less of the age stereotyping.

    • Posted March 18, 2013 at 1:01 am | Permalink

      Clive, I’m sure the cartoon is not meant to stereotype older people. My late father, my mother and my elderly aunt are/were all atheists! However, it is true in many Western countries, including the USA and Australia that the younger generation is notably more secular than the older generation. I hope you’ll take the bit of humour in the spirit in which it was posted. Cheers, Chrys

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