Serving Atheists

Atheists Stigmatized in Friendships and Romantic Relationships

Atheists Stigmatized in Friendships and Romantic Relationships

Duane McClearn

July 2020


This essay is a continuation of a look at the Big Survey of atheists, in particular the 4,000 or so from the U.S. Many of the respondents wrote of their experiences of being shunned, denigrated, or otherwise mistreated when they revealed to friends or romantic partners that they were atheists.

First, let’s peek at a sample of atheists and their friends:

I came out to my friends [as an atheist] and I was actually told that being an atheist is worse than being a Nazi.

–Respondent 2342, a 26-year-old, male, nurse in South Carolina


I had a friend and colleague who said she could no longer be a friend to me because I am an atheist. Further, my patients often assume that I am religious (like the vast majority of people in my community) and I am certain that my practice would suffer if my beliefs were shared with them.

–R 2809, a 52-year-old, male, psychologist in Alabama


Friends that I have had for over 20 years, when I debated them (and won) on the veracity of the bible– when I admitted to them that I was an atheist, four friends that I have shared some of the best, and worst, times of our lives, decided I was no longer worth knowing.

–R 2821, a 46-year-old, male, upper-level manager in Texas


I have recently lost friends whom I believed were close to me. They demanded that I respect their religious beliefs while at the same time refusing to respect my atheism.

–R 3284, a 40-year-old male, database administrator, in Texas


My best friend does not know I am an atheist. I will not tell her because I do not want to lose her as a friend. I witnessed her destroying a friendship with someone when she found out he was an atheist, and she told me she could never be friends with one. Her main reason is that she believes they have no morals.

–R, a 27-year-old, female, graduate student, in Wisconsin


A close friend of 20 years told me she can longer be friends with an atheist.

–R 3262, a 57-year-old, female, asset manager, in Michigan

Some notes of interest: We observe friendships that are (or seem) solid until the atheist’s lack of belief is revealed. This one aspect of the friendship is enough to poison it in the believer’s eyes. The atheist is willing to live with the mismatch of beliefs, but the believer is not. One respondent (R 3284) even states that his religious friends demand that he respect their beliefs while they refuse to respect his. The seriousness of the lack of belief in the eyes of the faithful (at least, many of them) is shown by the believer who states that being an atheist is worse than being a Nazi (presumably, this is meant to be extremely bad). We see atheists keeping their views hidden for, quite rightly, fearing the loss of friendships. Incidentally, these few comments by respondents were just the tip of the iceberg. Of the thousands of American atheists who responded to the survey, many hundreds wrote in responses to specific open-ended questions, such as the one about friendships. One frequent pattern emerged: a reluctance to divulge to friends one’s atheism, followed by shunning and denigration when, or if, one did.

Psychological studies have shown that relationships do best when the partners have much in common, including personality characteristics, interests and attitudes about politics and, naturally, religion. So it is not surprising to find that many of the respondents indicated troubles in the realm of romance when their non-belief was raised.

In two cases, I started dating and told the man I was not christian and he eventually stopped dating me when he found a Christian. The second man was okay with me not being Christian, but when he found out I am an atheist, it changed his opinion about me negatively even though he thought just prior to that that I could be “the one.” This is when I joined an atheist group for support. I have been an atheist since high school but pretty much kept my atheism in the closet among most people due to discrimination until this year (I’m 59).

–R 2459, a 59-year-old, female, adoption social worker, in Michigan


I was in a relationship with a believer. She was raised Catholic, but did not attend services regularly. Her parents were fervent believers and very active in their non-denominational church. Her parents did not approve of my open atheism and while I was respectful of their beleifs, I did try my best to answer any questions that she or her parents had. Eventually, she ended the relationship because she “could not see herself in a long-term relationship with someone who didn’t at least believe in a god.” That was over a year ago,k and I have not tried to get back into dating because I live/work in an area where Christianity is taken very seriously and I don’t want to have to live through that kind of rejection again.

–R 2958, a 28-year-old, male, engineer, in Indiana


[I have experienced] massive marital discord and disconnect from having a spouse that is extremely devout evangelical fundamentalist.

— R 371, a 56-year-old, female, retired attorney, in Washington


The only really negative response that I’ve received was from my husband and his family. I am now in the process of a divorce.

–R 3228, a 35-year-old, female, college student, in Arkansas.

As with friendships, many hundreds of respondents wrote of their experiences in romantic relationships. What is presented here is a small sampling. The pattern was similar to that with friendships– strife and rejection.

Many atheists are rejected by family (as discussed in a previous blog), or friends, or romantic partners. Some are rejected by all. As you might imagine, this can carry a heavy emotional burden. For believers who imagine that atheists pass through life in a care-free, hedonistic manner (which is the view of many believers), such is really not the case. The bulk of atheists feel hassled and stigmatized for their lack of belief in God, often from the very people that they care the most about.





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An Accident of Birth

An Accident of Birth

Duane McClearn

June, 2020

The overwhelming majority of Saudi Arabians are Muslims. The overwhelming majority of Saudi Arabians a generation ago were Muslims, as was the generation before that and before that. The majority of the people of India are Hindus. Their parents and grandparents were most likely Hindus. Most Brazilians are Christians (Catholics, in particular). Their parents were most likely Christians, and their parents’ parents were Christians, as well. Similarly, in the U.S. most religious people are Christians, but whatever faith Americans hold, it is likely that of their parents. Among American Christians, people tend to stick to their parents’ denomination. Catholics tend to stay Catholic generation after generation. Mormons tend to marry and raise Mormons.

It’s not as if people are generally questioning their own religion, working through it, comparing it to other religions, then concluding that their own is obviously the true one (or True One). Very few religious people, it would seem, pause for reflection about religions other than their own. It may be that few pause to reflect, or have knowledge, even on their own. In the U.S., for example, biblical illiteracy is remarkably high, especially considering how many politicians and other public figures declare that this is a Christian nation. In his book, Religious Literacy, author Stephen Prothero refers to  a study that found, among other things, that only half of American adults could not name even one of the four Gospels of the New Testament and most couldn’t name the first book of the Bible. And it isn’t as if atheists are dragging the averages down. In fact, atheists tend to score as well as, if not higher, than most Christian denominations on measures of Bible knowledge.

Several years ago I was teaching a college course about global issues. One day I asked students to take out a sheet of paper and explain: Why  aren’t you a Hindu? I already knew that none of them was a Hindu, and that all were raised either Christian or Jewish in the U.S. They asked for guidance. What, exactly, were the beliefs of Hinduism? What were the practices of Hindus? It didn’t really matter for the purposes of their assignment, I responded. You know that it is the majority religion of India, and you have the sense that it is different from Christianity and Judaism in its beliefs and practices. So write away. They struggled a bit more. They tried to get me to divulge more about Hinduism. I wouldn’t.

Perhaps I was being too obtuse. What I was trying to get at was that it didn’t really matter what religion I asked them to write about; it could have been Zoroastrianism or Jainism or Kemetism (the religion of the ancient Egyptians).  It didn’t matter if they knew what the beliefs were or had examined them carefully, and weighed their merits. The reason that they weren’t Hindus was almost certainly that they weren’t raised as Hindus, and the reason that they weren’t raised as Hindus was most likely because they didn’t have Hindu parents and were not born in India. So to the Christians in my class, I asked: how many of you have seriously studied other religions before settling on Christianity. The answer: none. The reason that they were Christians is that that is how they were brought up–their parents were Christians, their neighborhoods were Christian, their towns (to a greater or lesser extent) were Christian, their churches were Christian (obviously), and so on.

So I asked the obvious question. If you had been raised in Saudi Arabia by Muslim parents, do you think that you would now be a Muslim? The answer: Well, yes, almost certainly. And if you had been raised in a Hindu village in India by Hindu parents, would you now be a Hindu? Yes, of course, they replied.

I would venture to guess that most people of faith don’t come to embrace a religion based on considering the various religions on offer around the globe. Rather, they accept without question what they are told by parents and the others around them starting at a young age. This means that for the majority of the world’s religious people, their faith is really just based on an accident of birth, much as if you are likely to be a Denver Broncos fan if you are born and raised in Colorado and a Seattle Seahawks fan if you are born and raised in Washington state (that is, if you care about football).

If there is a single True Faith, and billions of people seem to believe that there is, and if you are rewarded by a celestial being or beings for adhering to it and punished for not adhering to it, then I have to conclude that it is one of the big lucky life lottery draws for the people who happen to be born in the right place to the right parents.

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A Survey of Atheists


A Survey of Atheists; Atheists Stigmatized 

Duane McClearn

July, 2020

    Some several years ago, Tom Arcaro, of the Department of Sociology, and I, of the Department of Psychology, put together a survey to be answered by self-identified atheists. Approximately 8,ooo people answered from around the world; about half of those were from the US. I will refer to this survey from now on as the Big Survey. 
     The purpose of the survey was to gauge the views of atheists on issues of religion and their place in society. For respondents in the US, that meant to a large extent asking how it felt to be a non-believer in a largely religious society.
     I will concentrate on one survey item here. The item asked:

  Do you feel any social stigma related to your atheism?

The response possibilities, and the percentage of respondents answering each, were as follows:

1. I feel no social stigma related to being an atheist. (13.6%)
2. I feel a slight social stigma related to being an atheist. (33.2%)
3. I feel a moderate social stigma related to being an atheist. (31.7%)
4. I feel a strong social stigma related to being an atheist. (21.5%)

Respondents were invited to make follow-up statements about ways in which they felt that they had been stigmatized because of their atheism.  Many of the statements made by the respondents were telling and poignant. In this essay I include only statements made about problems that arose with family relationships..  

       Many of my family members have excluded me from contact as they are uncomfortable that I do not believe in their (or any) deity.

     –Respondent 1279, a 38-year-old, male, adjustor, in Wisconsin


     I’m already generally stigmatized among my family because I’m an atheist and no longer hide that fact in my private life. I have been cornered and confronted by multiple family members telling me I’m smarter than that, or that I’m going to hell, or that I’ll grow out of it.

     –R 1213, a 27-year-old, male educator, in Pennsylvania


       The religious in my extended family are no longer welcoming at all.  I’m shunned by them at reunions.  My mother has nearly zero interest in my children despite daily interaction with her religious grandchildren.

     –R 1255, a 34-year-old, male, computer programmer, in Ohio


     I come out of fundamentalist Christianity, so my family views my atheism as meaning that I have turned my life over to the Devil. My presence is viewed as dangerous to them.

     — R 1937, a 25-year-old, female, graduate student, in Oregon


       My family disowned me after finding out that I am an atheist.  My life is better for it, I just wish it would’ve happened sooner.

     –R 2349, a 39-year-old, IT technician, in Texas


       Well, I “came out” as an atheist when I was 14.  My entire father’s side of the family disowned me.  Other than that, I live and work in a university environment where such things are irrelevant.

     –R 2411, a 26-year-old, male, biologist, in Texas


       My Mother asked me not to be a member of her family anymore.

     –R 3572, a 34-year-old, 911 dispatcher, in Kentucky


    My parents disowned me. I was homeless for a few months.

     –R 723, a 25-year-old, female, intermittently employed, in South Dakota


     I was perpetually harassed for months and eventually disowned by more than half of my family when I was found to be an atheist.

— R 3148, a 21-year-old, female, engineering student, in Indiana


     I’m no longer allowed to babysit my young cousins because I might “corrupt” them.

— R 3385, a 26-year-old, male, accountant, in Michigan


     About a year ago,  I spoke with a good friend about this survey. She is a practicing Catholic. She was surprised and skeptical that there is actually any stigma associated with being an atheist. I assured her that there was. The few respondents highlighted here show how seriously their atheism can be (and is) taken by family members. Being “disowned” or turned out of the house is no small thing. Many are made to feel unwelcome in other ways. The few examples put forth here are a small percentage of the number that indicated problems with their families due to their beliefs (or, rather, lack of beliefs). On a positive note, many respondents, such as R2349 above, are happy that they “came out” as atheists.

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Slavery and the Bible

   Slavery and the Bible

   Duane McClearn

May, 2020

   Virtually all Americans would agree, I hope, that slavery is morally abhorrent. To own other people as property, to have the right to treat them in any way that one desires even to the point of killing them, strikes the normal person as cruel and barbaric. We hear of stories of modern slavery, for sex or labor, and are repulsed.

Of course, this nation has had its own long history of slavery. From its early days, slavery was a divisive issue. Behind the arguments for and against slavery were appeals to morality. And many of the appeals to morality were supported,in turn, by reference to the Bible.

A modern Christian, or non-Christian, for that matter, might imagine that the Bible would speak clearly about the morality of slavery. Many Christians view the Bible as the foundation of all morality so, ipso facto, they assume, it must speak out forcefully against a practice so repugnant as slavery. Therefore, the reasoning goes, the abolitionists (mostly Northerners) must have stood on pretty firm ground by using the Bible as a weapon against slavery, while the proponents of slavery, mostly Southerners, must have had a pretty hard time of it. Actually, such was not the case.

In 1784 the Virginia Assembly took up the debate on slavery; thousands signed a pro-slavery petition stating that slavery was ordained by God. A saddended Bishop Asbury in 1798 wrote” “I am brought to conclude that slavery will exist in Virginia perhaps for ages; there is not sufficient sense of religion nor of liberty to destroy it; Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians, in the highest flights of rapturous piety, still maintain and defend it.” The Richmond Enquirer declared in 1820, ” … whoever believes that the written word of God is [truth] itself, must consequently believe in the absolute rectitude of slave-holding.” Popular evangelist George Whitfield appealed to planters by denying the sinfulness of slavery and supporting the spread of slavery in the Lower South.

In 1831 as Virginia debated slavery, John Thompson Brown of Petersburg asked, “In what code of ethics is it written that slavery is so odious?” Jesus “came into the world to reprove sin. Yet he rebuked not slavery.” Alexander Stephens, who eventually became vice-president of the Confederacy, declared that the morality of slavery was founded “upon a basis as firm as the Bible,’ and would be sustained “until Christianity be overthrown.”  Charles Clark, Mississippi’s governor during the Civil War, stated that the South would not” abandon its cherished and Christian institution of domestic slavery.”

A standard Southern argument came to be that God not only allowed , but commanded the Israelites to hold slaves. Reverend Mr. Crowder of Virginia declared in 1840, “in its moral aspect, slavery was not countenanced, permitted, and regulated by the Bible, but it was positively insituted by God Himself.”–He had, in so many words, enjoined it.” And if slavery was moral for the Israelites, the thinking went, it must be moral for all times. As a candidate for the Texas legislature, Ashbel Smith stated, “That which is once right in the eyes of God is always right.”

Abolitionists, mostly in the North, for antislavery voices in the South were silenced over the years, found it difficult to find passages in the Bible to support their antislavery stance. Usually they bolstered their arguments with references to Enlightenment ideals and the Declaration of Independence. But in terms of appealing to the Bible for moral guidance, renowned historians Elizabeth Fox-Genovese and Eugene D. Genovese write, “Proslavery men had much the better of the historical argument. Israelites did hold slaves as well as indentured servants.” And “the historical scholarship of the early nineteenth century had said as much, and by the 1850s [leading thinkers] confidently declared scriptural argument settled in favor of the South.”

In sum, on the issue of slavery many Southerners were absolutely convinced that they were morally right, that their cause was sanctified by God, and that the Bible justified human bondage. It would appear that on the third point, at least, they were correct: the Bible does indeed justify slavery.

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Thou Shalt Not Kill, or Something

Thou Shalt Not Kill, or Something
Many years ago I was engaged in a conversation with a young woman on the topic of morality. She informed me after a bit that she derived her morals from the Bible. I soon came to understand that she took the Bible as the inerrant word of God. Everything was exactly true as written; there was to be no interpretation. This, incidentally, is the view of a sizable proportion of the Christians residing in the United States.

I asked her what she took the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” to mean. She said it was obvious. It was never morally acceptable to take a human life. I asked if the rule was perhaps too strict and maybe meant for an earlier time in history. She said no, it was meant for back then, and now, and forever into the future, for all places on Earth, and beyond, for that matter. It was absolute. It was God’s law. It was written in plain language. There were no, absolutely no, exceptions. She was extremely adamant.

I asked, “By the way, what’s your view on capital punishment?”

Without a moment’s hesitation, she replied, “Oh, I’m in favor of it.”

After I determined that she understood that capital punishment meant taking the life of a human being, I asked if that meant she was allowing an exception to the so-called absolute rule of never taking a human life. She said, “Well, the people they execute are really bad, so they deserve to be killed.”

I replied, “Perhaps so. But then that would be an exception, and you said there were no exceptions– absolutely no exceptions, ever, for any reason whatsoever.”

We went back and forth for a while, I thinking that she was being inconsistent. She got a bit flustered and said I just don’t understand. We then parted ways.

Incidentally, I had a very good friend years ago, now unfortunately deceased, who was a devout Christian. He took what he construed to be the peaceful message of Jesus to heart. He was against all violence, including all wars. He was against capital punishment. He told me he would never kill another human. This was his principled stand, based on his close study of the Bible. I presented a variety of moral dilemmas to him and in all he said he would refuse to take another human life. He would rather that he die rather than do so. Although I disagreed with him on many aspects of his stand, I gave him great credit for his moral integrity, his thoughtfulness, and his consistency. It is my impression that his view represents a minority view among Christians.

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The Afterlife: A Note on Numbers

The Afterlife: A Note on Numbers

Duane McClearn

Sept. 2019


Recently I was reflecting on a lengthy conversation I had during my college years with two guys who wanted to convert me to their brand of Christianity. Among other things they were convinced that when Judgment Day arrived, only a very select few would ascend to heaven. The overwhelming majority of the remainder of humanity would be flung into Hell, to suffer everlasting pain and anguish. A small slice of the population would be allowed to exist in a sort of limbo, neither Heaven nor Hell. Of this they were absolutely convinced. The number who would be allowed into Heaven, based on their reading of the Book of Revelations, was exact: 144,000.

Not getting in.

I had a few questions. Who would get into Heaven? Not surprisingly, one requirement was to have received Jesus into one’s heart—in a very specific way, which would pretty much rule out anybody who was not a member of their particular church. People who refused Jesus and failed to meet the other requirements were locked out. I asked: What about people who had never been exposed to the Bible because of an accident of birth, for instance, they were brought up in rural India or China or some such place and didn’t get the message. Well, the response went, they couldn’t really be blamed for their ignorance, so they would go into a sort of limbo when Jesus returned to Earth. What about infants and toddlers who are too immature to understand language or the concept of Jesus. Well, they also couldn’t be held accountable, so they would go into limbo as well. What about mentally impaired individuals who can’t understand concepts of immortality, God, and so on. They too would be placed in limbo. And people who lived before Jesus existed? They also would pass into limbo. I don’t know if the two proselytizers with whom I was conversing were representing their church accurately, but I got them to admit that the number of people who would be sent into limbo, instead of being a small minority of all humanity, would actually be the bulk of it.

What about the number going to Heaven—the very precise number 144,000? Years ago when I spoke to the two Christians, they admitted that this was a small proportion of humans indeed.  There were billions of people living at the time of the conversation and billions who had already lived, so that meant that the percentage of humans granted acceptance to Heaven was trivial. I think I estimated that it would be about one person in 50,000. Even if members of their own church were the only people allowed in, there would still be great competition. And here they were, trying to talk me in to joining their group; if I did so, I could potentially bump one of them out of a coveted slot.

Today I looked up some population numbers. There are now living on Earth about 7.5 billion people. It has been estimated by the Population Reference Bureau that 108 billion people have ever been born. The 144,000 figure represents about 2 of every 100,000 people currently living. And it corresponds to slightly more than 1 per million of the figure for people who have ever lived. It would appear that by this particular Christian group’s calculations, Heaven is a very selective place indeed. Incidentally, based on the number of current members of this church, and if only current members of this group are allowed into Heaven,only 2 percent of them will be admitted. If we take into account members who have already died, that would mean by their own reckoning only about 1 percentof them would be allowed into Heaven if Jesus returned today. And, like I said, this assumes that there will be no admittance for members of any other faith, for atheists (of course), or even for Christians of other denominations.

If the two proselytizers from my college days were correct about the limbo status for certain people after death, it would appear safe to conclude that, by their own calculations, the overwhelming majority (99% or more) of members of this particular church will be spending eternity in limbo with ignorant Chinese peasants, infants, and the mentally impaired.





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A New Book on Atheists? Some thoughts by Duane

A New Book on Atheists

Duane McClearn


In recent years a spate of books has been produced addressing the veracity of God or the morality of religion (sometimes Christianity, in particular), or both.  Several of these books have enjoyed tremendous popularity, attesting to the fact that there is a keen interest, at least in some sectors of the public, in critically examining the tenets and practices of religion.

For instance, in “The God Delusion” (2006), noted biologist Richard Dawkins argues pointedly against the existence of God.  His positions are grounded in logic and science; he roundly condemns the inconsistency, irrationality, and hypocrisy of those who embrace religion.  Beyond this, he shows that religion is inherently lacking in morality, and specifically that religious believers are less moral in their thinkingatheistand behavior than atheists.

Quick on the heels of “The God Delusion” came “God is Not Great” (2007) by essayist and oft-ascerbic gadfly Christopher Hitchens.  He takes much the same approach as Dawkins in first arguing against the existence of God, and then against the higher morality of the religious believer.  The subtitle to his book, “How Religion Poisons Everything,” is a telling indication of the views expressed in the text.

A.C. Grayling, in his very recent book “The God Argument” (2013), puts forth a philosophical and scientific rationale for denying the existence of God.  He refutes one by one the debating points of Christian believers.  He also argues for the moral superiority of secular atheism over religion.

In the vein of morality, Jack David Eller takes several religions to task in “Cruel Creeds, Virtuous Violence” (2010).  As the title connotes, this work details the tremendous suffering perpetrated in the name of God or religion.  Sometimes the motivation cannot be mistaken, for the atrocity is dictated by God himself, as when the Israelites are commanded to slaughter all their enemies, including babies, and show no mercy in doing so.

In “Crazy for God” (2007) author Frank Schaeffer recounts, among other things, his extensive associations with members of the Christian right, particularly within the evangelical movement.  He describes his disillusionment with the leaders of the movement, decrying their hypocrisy, mean-spiritedness, and propensity for self-aggrandizement.  He faults the leaders as well as the run-of-the-mill believers with a failure to consider deeply the ramifications of their beliefs.  Ultimately, he converts to the Greek Orthodox Church, considering it to be truer to the ideals of Christianity.  Thus, although critical of many facets of Christianity, at least as practiced by many in the mainstream, he does not reject Christianity outright.

Dan Barker was an evangelical preacher who describes his rejection of Christianity (and religion more generally) in “Godless” (2008).  Currently he is one of America’s leading and most outspoken atheists.   His book describes his personal odyssey from devout believer, through many stages of questioning his faith, to his ultimate conclusion that there is no God.  He argues that the Bible and Christianity, far from being guiding lights for proper behavior, are fundamentally immoral.  He further takes the position that atheists can (and do) lead moral, happy, and fulfilling lives.

One aspect of atheism that has been relatively unexamined is the thinking of everyday atheists, as opposed to high-profile religious figures who have turned away from one or more features of religion (such as Schaeffer and Barker).  The current project, undertaken by Tom Arcaro, Chrys Stevenson, and me, seeks to fill that void.  Tentatively titled “The Atheist Next Door,” it has as its goal not to argue against the existence of God, as has been done forcefully and eloquently by Dawkins, Hitchens, and Grayling.  Its point is also not to attack the morality of the Bible or religion more generally, as has been done by Eller, Barker, and Shaeffer, as well as Dawkins, Hitchens, and Grayling. Rather, it seeks to describe atheists primarily in their own words, although it adds force to its observation by the use of statistical analyses.  And the number of atheists it describes is huge—approximately 8,000 self-described non-believers from dozens of nations responded to a lengthy survey about their attitudes toward religion, reasons for embracing atheism, and problems associated with being a non-believer.

(Very) preliminary examination of the results shows that atheists have felt quite stigmatized for their beliefs, and degraded in society.  Many who have not been open about their atheism fear that their beliefs will become public knowledge.   The atheists in our sample indicate that they feel that they are just as moral as religious people, if not more so.  They also feel that they lead reasonably happy and productive lives, in spite of being stigmatized.  They do not for the most part report a huge gap in their lives without religion.  All in all, the atheists in the study come across as being normal people—they have normal jobs, seek normal pleasures, and have normal expectations.  The stigma that believers so often place upon atheists turns out to be misplaced and undeserved.

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Some preliminary numbers coming from the data

Some Numbers on Atheists

Duane McClearn


It has often been noted that atheists are, as a group, not particularly popular.  A variety of polls and research studies have shown that the general public, most of whom are believers in God, view atheists in a quite unfavorable light.  A primary reason is that they think that atheists, lacking a belief in God, must therefore suffer a lack of morality (insofar as believers tend to view God as the source of morality).  Further, many believers see atheists as being psychologically maladjusted.  After all, if belief in God is, in their estimation, so obviously warranted and the foundation of correct thinking and right behavior, then it stands to reason that atheists must be lacking in mental health.   Not surprisingly, many atheists feel unfairly stigmatized.  They claim that the negative assumptions of the general public (believers, in particular) are simply not justified.

Rarely addressed are the views of atheists on these matters.  The survey research headed by Tom Arcaro has uncovered some interesting findings about what atheists think about religious believers.   The comments made in this essay take into account the responses of the subset of the American respondents, who numbered a bit over 3,800, or about half of the total number of respondents.

One item on the survey asked, “How do you view the morality of religious believers compared to the morality of atheists?”   Over 55% of the respondents indicated that believers are either somewhat less or much less moral than atheists.  A bit less than half (44%) indicated that believers and atheists were equally moral.  Less than ½% said that religious believers are more moral (either somewhat or much more) than atheists.   In other words, a staggering 99.5% of the respondents indicated that atheists were either equally moral or more moral than believers.  Atheists are clearly not neutral in the issue of their morality.  It would appear that whatever misgivings believers have about the morality of atheists, atheists themselves return the sentiment in spades (although no doubt for different reasons).

And what about the role of religion in the world?  Arguments have been made about the relative weight of good deeds done by religion (helping the poor, succoring the ill, etc.) and the bad ones (the misdeeds of the Spanish Inquisition, wars of conquest in the name of God, and so on).  An item on the survey dealt with this issue directly.  It asked, “How do you view the net impact of religion in the world?”  Here the results were even more lopsided than in the previous question.  A huge majority (87%) of respondents viewed religion, overall, as a moderate or strong force for bad in the world.  A mere 11% viewed religion as roughly equally good and bad.  And a paltry 2% indicated that religion was a force for good in the world.

What about the perceived psychological well-being of religious believers?  A further question on the survey asked, ”What is your view of the comparative psychological health of believers in God and atheists?”  Over half (56%) answered that believers are either somewhat or substantially less psychologically healthy than atheists.  About 39% said that believers and atheists are equally psychologically healthy.  Only 4% indicated that religious believers are more psychologically healthy than atheists.  Thus, atheists overwhelmingly  think of themselves and each other as being at least as psychological healthy as believers.

Another question on the survey was, “Do you feel any social stigma related to your atheism?”  Only 14% percent indicated that they felt no social stigma.  Thus, the overwhelming majority (86%) said that they personally felt some degree of stigma (the options being slight, moderate, and strong social stigma).  A bit over half (53%) felt moderate to strong social stigma associated with their atheism.

In sum, atheists view themselves generally to be at least as moral as believer and at least as psychologically healthy.  They view religion generally to be a force for bad in the world.  And indeed they do feel themselves as unfairly stigmatized.

One might ask: Are the respondents who see believers as substantially less moral than atheists also the people who view religion as a strong force for bad?  Are they the same people who indicate that believers are substantially psychologically less healthy than atheists?  And are those who indicated feeling personally stigmatized for their atheism more or less likely to view religion less favorably than those who feel less stigmatized?

Preliminary statistical (correlational) analyses of the American respondents have provided answers to these questions.  In brief, it was found that the respondents who viewed religion or believers the most negatively for one question also viewed them most negatively for the other questions.  Also, the respondents who felt most stigmatized were, on average, most likely to hold religion and believers in lowest regard.  The findings were quite robust, from a statistical point of view.


Posted in Perspectives of a Psychologist | 1 Comment

Religion – A force for bad or good?

Religion PeaceOf the 8,302 atheists worldwide who responded to our survey, 46 per cent think religion is a strong force for bad in the world, 41 per cent think it is a moderate force for bad while 9 per cent think it is roughly balanced in its impact for good and for bad. Only 1 per cent of respondents think religion is a moderate force for good. That’s a pretty poor report card for the public relations efforts of the world’s religious organisations!

Despite Australia and New Zealand being two of the most secular countries in the world – countries in which the harsh effects of religious fundamentalism are less apparent than, say, the USA – Australasians are notably more harsh in their assessment of religion’s impact.

Results for Australia and New Zealand are almost identical. Fifty-one per cent of Australians and New Zealanders – a full 5 percentage points more than the worldwide result – think religion is a strong force for bad. Thirty-eight per cent rate religion as a moderate force for bad, 9 per cent think it is roughly equal in influence and, consistent with the overall result, only 1 per cent give religion any credit for being a moderate influence for good.

Forget about religion being bad – let’s talk about the survey question!

Some Australasian respondents were unhappy with the survey question. There are complaints that ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are subjective terms. One critic explains it is a ‘bad question’ because it has ‘many answers’.

Fortunately, many of those answers are supplied in the comments and most respondents seem more than capable of sorting out the difference between ‘good’ (tolerance, diversity, kindness, peace) and ‘bad’ (intolerance, divisiveness, violence). As with my first analysis of the survey data, I was struck by respondents’ determination not to make sweeping generalisations, not to vilify believers and to concede, not only that religion is not all bad but also that there are other, non-religious ideologies which may be equally toxic.

Why Religion is ‘Bad’

Why do 89 per cent of Australasian respondents believe that religion is a force for ‘bad’ in the world?

“9/11!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” explains one respondent, succinctly.

Certainly, it can be argued that the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon focused the world’s attention on the dangers of religious fundamentalism and sparked the ‘New Atheist’ movement, inspired by the post-9/11 books of Sam Harris (2004), Richard Dawkins (2006), Daniel Dennett (2006) and Christopher Hitchens (2007). But most survey respondents took a much broader view – both geographically and historically.

“Religion is at the heart of most of the suffering on this planet,” argues a 27 year old Australian male respondent.

Others cite religion as the “root cause of most evil and oppression in the world”, “a retarding force in the struggle for human rights” and the “largest justification for the most heinous acts in the world”.

Religion is “often the primary reason for opposition to science, rational inquiry, gay rights, women rights et cetera” says a fire fighter from Australia. Further, says an Australian psychologist, “The majority of genocide, war, oppression and evil has been carried out in the name of religious beliefs – and still is.”

The elaborations of religion’s sins of commission and omission are eloquently elaborated in the comments on the survey question. Religious war, religious genocide, honour killings, honour rapes, bigotry, racism, slavery are all cited to explain why religion is a force for bad in the world. There are complaints, too, about religion’s ‘anti-scientific barbarism’ and its dogmatic rejection of simple life-saving initiatives such as condoms in AIDS-ridden parts of Africa. Religion’s impact on children is another key theme – especially the indoctrination and enforced ignorance of children and the clerical abuse of children (and its concealment by church authorities). Also mentioned is religion’s massive oppression of women and minority ‘out-groups’ over thousands of years.

Is religion all bad?

Despite respondents’ almost universal belief that religion has a negative impact on the world, there is broad acknowledgement from respondents that the issue is not completely ‘black and white’. Religion is not universally demonised; there are plenty of Australasian respondents who acknowledge that religion performs some useful functions.

For example, a university professor from New Zealand concedes, “While I think the overall effect of religion is negative I see that it can be a cohesive force to give people a sense of belonging.”

Another two Kiwi respondents also give religion credit for some positive influence:

“Religion motivates some people to be more good than they would otherwise normally be.”

“Some churches have the energy in numbers to perform good deeds, irrespective of their misguided belief in the supernatural and mythical figures.”

Similarly, an Australian computational scientist acknowledges that, while religion’s net effect may be negative, it can be positive for some individuals:  “Religion is used to justify prejudice and hatred and murder, but it does provide comfort to many individuals.”

“On a personal level,” adds another Aussie, “religious belief can be good for some people. In particular, many find the sense of community comforting. Humans are an extremely social species so it makes sense that anything that fosters strong support networks is a good thing, and religion has traditionally filled that roll.” But, she goes on to explain, “That being said, when we look at the overall impact of religion, we are forced to look at the whole of these organisations. And when we look at the whole, we see religions refusing to consider evidence that refutes their doctrine or dogmas. We see criminal activities covered up purely to save the image of the organisation itself. Religion spreads misinformation, and often where it does this most is among poorer, less educated communities. And it is among these communities that religion is often at its most damaging … ”

The key question considered, and overwhelmingly answered in the negative by respondents is, “Does the good done by religion outweigh the intolerance, self-interest, ignorance, violence and killing done in its name?”

“This question is difficult,” admits an Australian business owner, “… how does one balance the good against the bad? Does a village provided with a clean safe supply of drinking water balance out the rape of children by religious authorities for instance?”

One Australian respondent, now working as a high school teacher, gives an insight from her personal experience:

“In my previous career in international development, I saw religion inspire people to help those in need and a lot of excellent charities are religious. However, it is also the root cause of the oppression of women and lack of access to contraception, advice on prevention of AIDS and abortion for victims of rape, especially in war-torn areas and some refugee camps, where religious organisations are supposed to help not make things worse.”

Others agree:

“Religion certainly contributes to charities worldwide, however they can equally have negative effects on a community and the world through discrimination, abuse, etc,” said one 16 year old respondent.

An Australian business executive adds:

“While there are some individuals who genuinely work for the disadvantaged because they feel that is what religion is about there are many, many instances of the opposite. The Catholic Church has unbelievable wealth but does not use it all for the poor, in fact, it is the world’s biggest slum landlord. Missionaries, while they might provide schools and health, also have to convert people destroying local cultures and communities as a result.”

To be fair, the odd respondent points out that religion is not the only obstacle to a civilised society:

“Not all violence of course is religious, but there is far too much to be ignored, in both Western and Eastern civilisations,” says a 28 year old lawyer from Australia.

“Corporate greed & laissez faire capitalism are one step worse [than religion],” argues an Australian scientist.

Yet another respondent ponders whether religion can be blamed entirely for its faults – perhaps religious fanaticism is the fault of “the culture and society”.

For one respondent, a philosophy post-graduate, blaming ‘religion’ is a cop out:

“…  I view religious institutions are purely human institutions which, as a result can be turned in any direction the constituent members wish. To talk of “Religion” having moral culpability is to remove responsibility from those who constitute the religion.”

Many respondents cite ‘tribalism’ as one of the negative effects of religion. But, as one Australian respondent points out, “Religion is only one form of tribalism. I regard nationalism as equally destructive.”

Others freely acknowledge that, as bad as the religious may be, “… there are equally horrible non-believers.”

“People can and do, do bad things in the name of religion, but so do many non-religious people.”

Is religion necessary?

While acknowledging that religion is not ‘all bad’, some respondents insist that the ‘good’ done by religion is not (or need not be) dependent upon religious belief.

The consensus is aptly summarised by an IT programmer from Australia:

“All good forces which stem from religious belief don’t need religious belief to come about, but many bad forces which stem from religious belief could not come about without it.”

“Religion has produced good,” concedes a female lawyer from Australia, explaining that:

“Many charities, et cetera are established and continued through religion, and possibly would not continue to exist in a non-religious world. However equally, religion has often created the problems which the charities need to meet in the first place (e.g. poverty caused by having too many children because of the ban on contraception). However, there is a great deal of evil perpetuated in the world because of religion. And none of the good things in the world rely on religion to exist, they could exist just as much without religion.”

This view is expanded upon by a 30 year old, unemployed Australian respondent:

 “Human creativity in the form of say architecture or music does not require religion as a source, the people that create such art are talented regardless of their religion and could therefore have achieved their masterpieces anyway; the only thing religion provided that might otherwise have been difficult to obtain was funding. Other things such as community, charity, et cetera, are demonstrably provided by other organisations or pursuits independent of religion. Thus the positive aspects unique to religion are minimal, while I think the negatives such as war and ‘ethnic cleansing’ outweigh these by far.”

“While religion does give a lot of people hope, there are plenty of secular reasons for people to have hope for the future, and the air of intolerance that many religions create far outweighs any good they have done,” argues a 20 year old tertiary student from Australia.

The point is neatly summarised by another Australian student, “The good caused by religion would occur without it. The bad, in many instances, would not.”

Indeed, the consensus seems to be that:

“Actions which are actually beneficial to society are good whether or not done from religious motivation. But there are many harmful actions which are only done from religious motivation, and have no secular basis; so the net effect of religion on behaviour is significantly harmful.”

Religion’s historical record

In weighing up the net impact of religion on the world, many Australasian respondents consider its history.

As one respondent wryly observes, “Looking at history, religion has a lot of explaining to do…”

“Religion can be used to motivate people to perform both good and bad acts. Religion has been the root of wars and suffering, but it has influenced very important cultural developments (for example, the development of the courts of equity in England based on Christian morals as opposed to common law). It has been used both to oppress and to free the oppressed. Overall, it is a human tool, and has been used for both good and bad accordingly, ” says a 19 year old Australian student.

A similar historical perspective is offered by a retired public servant in his 60s:

“In the past religion offered a moral framework for life necessary in what were often barbarous times. In an evolved society where people are educated to understand the need to behave in certain ways, for the common good, and where the rule of law and a functioning democracy exist, it is less necessary and can impose or support values that are out of date, for example, strictures denying the rights of women and homosexuals.”

An engineering manufacturer from New Zealand also argues that religion once served an important purpose but is now redundant:

 “In tribal times, religion or superstition, would serve to bond groups and increase the survival rate of that group, so it may be that religion is an evolutionary selected trait and in that sense it is a generally positive influence. However, most religions have failed to match the evolution of human morality. Therefore, where it may have had, in the deep past, a weak or strong positive influence on the group survival, in this age, its net negative influence on actions and morality has a strong negative impact: sowing division, anti- scientific attitudes, prejudice and distrust of others in such measure as to outweigh the small positives such as charity work or solace of those in need.”

A retired university lecturer in biological and environmental sciences sums up the argument, noting that, “In the course of human history, perhaps religion was something humans ‘had to have’ in order to structure societies, but the civilised world has surely moved on.”

Religion and Power

Many respondents draw a strong connection between religion and political power, arguing that religion is a “strong force for bad” because it is “a method for subduing the population by those in power.”

“Religion would be a neutral force but for the fact that people in power direct its use for their own ends,” notes one respondent.

And, where there is power there is also corruption. As an Australian pharmacist observes:

 “Although some examples of religion led altruism exist, religion has always been tied to power and therefore attracted the corruptible in the exercise of that power.”

In religion, says a female respondent from Australia, “I see more of a quest for control and power than genuine attempts to help fellow human beings/animals/the planet/society …”

A semi-retired academic researcher agrees:

 “To me, religion (and here I mean organised religion, whether large- or small-scale) is simply about power. It’s just an elaboration on shamans / priests couching what they want to say as ‘this is what the gods say’.”

“It’s a tool of control that uses fear and division,” says another.

“Specifically, religion exerts pressure on politics, making the world a worse place for everyone in it. Think ‘gay rights’,” an Australian education assistant complains.

An Australian retiree with a post-graduate degree agrees, “[Religion] actually stops things from being legalized that the majority of people in society want legalized (eg. voluntary euthanasia).”

Others note that the continuing religious influence on political leaders burdens the country with unwarranted economic costs. For example, an Australian sommelier notes that:

“Apart from historical evils (crusades et al) and distant evils (the non-proliferation of condoms in Africa, with the resultant proliferation of AIDS) and secret evils (the rape and torture of children by figures of authority) we have obvious, ‘hidden in plain sight’ evils, including but not limited to retarding societal discourse on a range of topics, the witch-hunting that goes on in political-scientific circles, and the vast sums of money that disappear from our economies due to religious tax exemption, resulting in a crucial reduction in the average standard of living where a slight difference would have most impact – at the poverty line.”

“The ‘Advancement of Religion’ should not be a worthy pursuit,” says a defence worker from Australia, referring to the basis upon which religions are assigned charitable/tax exempt status, regardless of whether or not their efforts are truly directed towards genuine charity.

Other respondents observe that, in power struggles, religion has always tended to support the status quo.

“Religion’s positive contribution is related to creating communities, outreach to the elderly, alms for the poor, shelter for the homeless and orphans,” says an artist and gallery owner from Australia. “The negative influence in the world is that it also tends to side with the kings and the powerful as it views supporting the marginalized and the poor as tantamount to socialism/communism. Churches have always opposed social reform, repeal of abortion laws, access to contraception for all, perpetuating genderism, et cetera.”

Religion and the Individual

Of particular concern for some, is the negative effect of religion on individuals – particularly children.

“Religious leaders see nothing wrong with indoctrination, says a retired manager from Australia citing the “Jesuit idea of, ‘Give me the child until the age of seven…”

“People don’t seem to get as passionate about anything as they do about religion, and will kill for it,” a physiotherapy student observes. “Religion teaches people to have unquestioning obedience which makes abuse a lot easier. Religion also teaches people not to think critically and to accept things without evidence which makes them gullible. Disagreements over religion cause so much harm on individual and global levels.”

“The main problem with all religions is that they delude people into believing things without verifiable evidence,” explains a retired Australian biology lecturer. “As a result, religion has caused much intolerance and violence throughout history.”

“Religion poisons people’s minds and enslaves them,” says another respondent.

“In my experience,” observes a retired teacher from New Zealand, “good people can become bad and unkind under the influence of religion.”

An aircraft mechanic from Australia agrees, noting that, “religion seems to bring out the worst in people”.

“… [religion] utterly destroys people’s clear thinking abilities; that is a massive bad,” says one respondent.

“Divine authority overrides peoples’ own sensible moral decisions,” complains an Australian artist. “Terrible actions (such as ethnic genocides) are justified as ‘God’s will’, overriding any and all sense of conscience,” adds a 21 year old student from New Zealand.

“Religious belief is one of the few influences that can cause people to behave in excess of what would be their normal moral limits,” says a retired teacher and education bureaucrat, echoing the Nobel laureate, Steve Weinberg’s oft-quoted maxim: “With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil—that takes religion.”


Another recurring theme in the respondents’ answers was the divisiveness of religion:

“Religion is by its very nature divisive …” says a 29 year old nightclub manager from Australia.

“Nothing divides humanity more,” agrees an Australian human resources manager.

A music store manager goes on to explain: “The basic stance of religion is the assumption that the believer has sole access to ‘the truth’ which means that any other belief – or lack of belief – is wrong. This inevitably leads to conflict, violence, and persecution.”

Religion “… creates a huge ‘us and them’ atmosphere that leads to hate and xenophobia,” says a New Zealand scientist. “It’s a dividing force, encouraging prejudice against those of other faiths and creating more in group vs out group dynamics,” adds a 29 year old Australian respondent.

The argument here is summarised by the manager of an Australian family business:

“Religion by its very nature creates divisions, some more extreme than others. Allowing true secularism is the only way to respect all people, even when it comes to ‘mild’ religions.”

What is the net impact of religion on the world?

A succinct summary of the responses to the survey question addressing the impact of religion  is provided by a ‘starving writer’ from Australia:

“Getting rid of religion would not solve all of the world’s problems, but at least we could attempt to tackle them without reference to things and beings that do not exist.”

Respondents, generally, acknowledge that, “There are good religious people, even folk who do good things because they are religious, but religion as both organisations and modes of thought are immensely destructive.”

As a 36 year old stay-at-home mother from Australia argues:

“Illusion is not the answer to doing good in the world – we need to know as much as we can about the true nature of reality in order to make rational choices about good and bad. Female and male genital mutilation is unnecessary and causes lifelong pain. Beheadings, burnings, et cetera are barbaric and cause much harm. We need to be humane in our response to crime or cultural transgressions. Women need more freedoms in the world generally and not to be seen as possessions of men. Religious views prevent these progressions taking place.”

The final word goes to a mature-age, female university student from New Zealand:

“… at times religion is a major source of evil and at other times it can be harmless or even encourage good deeds … but it seems that religion generally tends to do more harm than good.”

It seems that the vast majority of the world’s atheists (at least according to our survey) agree.

Chrys Stevenson

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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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