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Why Don’t We Trust Atheists?

Post Author: Bill Pratt 

Atheists often complain that they experience prejudice directed at them by theists. Theists, they claim, accuse atheists of being immoral because atheists have no transcendent standard of morality. There is a level of distrust, at least for some theists, that exists.

So why do some theists worry about the ethics of atheists? Is this worry warranted?

Recently I finished a book written by Dan Ariely called Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions. In this book, Ariely chronicles numerous psychological studies intended to discover how human beings react to a wide range of situations (very similar to Thinking, Fast and Slow).

Ariely is very interested in business ethics and he reports on several experiments that shed some light on human dishonesty. Based on these studies, Ariely concludes that “when we are removed from any benchmarks of ethical thought, we tend to stray into dishonesty. But if we are reminded of morality at the moment we are tempted, then we are much more likely to be honest.”

He goes on to recommend that the ethical crisis he sees in America can be turned around by people regularly reading the holy books which codify their moral values. This is because his research shows that those people who are reminded of their moral values frequently act more ethically.

There is nothing new here that hasn’t been recommended by great thinkers for thousands of years. Moral virtue is a practice. You don’t just wake up every day and act with high moral integrity. It takes effort.

Herein lies why I think atheists are not trusted. Theists wonder, “When is the atheist reading his holy book?” Never, because he doesn’t believe in holy books. Is the atheist regularly being reminded by a pastor how he is supposed to behave? Is he studying the words and deeds of moral saints? No and no. These things usually happen in religious gatherings which most atheists avoid.

Speaking personally, I don’t go more than a week without reading or hearing about moral duties and virtues because I am reading the Bible and listening to godly men and women teach the moral precepts found in the Bible. I am also watching men and women of great moral character at my church every week. I am soaking it up.

Now, before I get a bunch of nasty comments, let me say that I know many atheists who are decent, law-abiding citizens. I even know some atheists who go above and beyond to help other people. So this is not meant as some kind of blanket indictment.

But, I am asking some hard questions of atheists. If you are an atheist, when are you soaking up moral teaching? How are you learning to be virtuous? Who is challenging you, week after week, to act with the highest integrity and morality? These are important questions for you to answer. The Christian who goes to church and reads her Bible regularly has a real advantage over you.

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  • L.W. Dicker

    Five children killed by lightning while decorating a Christian cross!!??

    Praise Jeeezuus!!!!!!! Praise his holy name!!!!!

    A huge crucifix of Jesus falls and kills… atheist?

    No. A young Catholic man!!!!!!!

    Goddamn but I love Jesus’ sense of humor!!!!! Don’t you!!?

    Jesus, you you are one bitchin’ savior!!!

    But what a shame it couldn’t have been Pat Robertson or Franklin Graham.

    Now THAT might cause me to rethink the credibility of the Christian God!!!!!!!!!!!


    Five children killed by lightning while decorating a Christian cross!!??

    Praise Jeeezuus!!!!!!! Praise his holy name!!!!!

    A huge crucifix of Jesus falls and kills… atheist?

    No. A young Catholic man!!!!!!!

    Goddamn but I love Jesus’ sense of humor!!!!! Don’t you!!?

    Jesus, you you are one bitchin’ savior!!!

    But what a shame it couldn’t have been Pat Robertson or Franklin Graham.

    Now THAT might cause me to rethink the credibility of the Christian God!!!!!!!!!!!


  • Andrew Ryan

    “But, I am asking some hard questions of atheists”

    Bill, the brass tacks is this: Do we have actual evidence that atheists are more likely to lie, cheat, break the law or in general act in ways that make it irrational to trust them? The answer seems to be no. I guess atheists are getting their ethical reminders elsewhere. Reminders in general that you’re being watched, that a police force exists, that your actions have consequences – all these also do the job of reminding people to act ethically. As for myself, I read newspapers and websites that are always banging on about morality. Either that does it for me, or I’ve just got a strong sense of fairness and ethics in general.

    Finally, I’m pretty sure Ariely is an atheist – are you sure you can trust his book? :) Smiley face there, as I’m not entirely serious!

  • Matt “Brisancian”

    Hi Bill,

    I’m a former Christian, now agnostic atheist, so I sympathize as much as I disagree with what is here. In trying to be helpful, however, I’d like to give some information for digestion.

    Before the civil rights movement, many whites felt that blacks were intellectually inferior. There were pet scholars and scientists that backed this kind of thinking, such that it made it seem well founded and reasonable to think so. But this was the science cart following the racist horse, so to speak.

    As someone that has changed sides in this ideological battle, I look back and find my former Christian perspective to have been – for lack of a better way of putting it – bigoted. I was bigoted toward homosexuals and toward atheists. Bigotry doesn’t feel like bigotry when we are walking in it… because to us there are reasons.

    The rationale above indicates a lack of understanding where the data actually fall on the question of morality. Here I’d like to point to a succinct 10 minute video done by Potholer54 on “Atheists are Immoral — Debunked”.

    Sam Harris has also talked at length about this in The End of Faith and The Moral Landscape.
    Better data leads to putting down the intrinsic biases we carry. Blacks aren’t intellectually inferior. Atheists aren’t less moral.
    Ultimately, it just doesn’t work the way you’ve described here. Weekly consultation with religious texts doesn’t make people behave better. Morality comes from a number of directions – from our innate self sense, from our empathy for others, from social reinforcement, and yes, from moral thinkers and contemplations (religious or not).
    Better data leads to less bias and bigotry. Food for thought. Cheers…

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  • Bill Pratt

    I appreciate your comments. I still don’t think that you can argue that being reminded daily or weekly of your moral duties, by an authority that grounds all morality for you, is not going to lead to greater moral reflection and potentially greater moral action.

    I think this is born out by the complete domination of charitable giving by Christian organizations around the world.

    But I must stress that this is a generalization, and that there are many atheists who are quite moral.

    I also want to add that Sam Harris blasts many atheists and secularists who are moral relativists. He sees moral relativism as a serious problem for secularists. This is because he thinks relativists are morally blind; they can’t see what is obviously right and obviously wrong.

    I agree with him, and I believe that atheists who are moral realists have a big leg up on atheists who are moral relativists.

  • Bill Pratt
  • Andrew Ryan

    You’re talking about self-reported behavior! So evangelicals are less likely to admit to lying or using pornography… OK.

    There’s a good talk by Professor Luke Galen on religious prosociality research. 14:00 minutes in and 18:00 minutes in had some relevant stuff, but there’s lots of interesting stuff there.

  • Bill Pratt

    But don’t all polls and surveys collect self-reported behavior? What other kind of reporting is there unless you’re running an experiment in a lab?

  • Andrew Ryan

    There are other ways – divorce rates are hard to fake. We can see adult material usage by area. And yes, there are the lab experiments, which is after all what Ariely is using himself, and what your article above is based on.

    Regarding adult material, for example, (I’ll use that term to avoid this page attracting the wrong kind of google results) you can see that among areas with higher church attendance, usage drops on Sundays. However, in those areas it then rises again enough on other days to bring usage in line with the rest of the country.

  • Andrew Ryan

    Bill, you may find this talk interesting too. It’s a different speaker but based on Galen’s research again. It discusses again prosociality, and specifically goes into the flaws in self-reporting and talks about other methods of gathering data in this area.

    Of interest, if you’re in a hurry, are 8:00 onwards, and around 24:00. But there’s lots of good stuff there, including saying that while religious priming can boost social behaviour, it can also raise aggression and racial bigotry.

    Link: I can’t paste on this iPad, but googling ‘Galen’s bulldog edition’ takes you there directly.

  • Bill Pratt

    Committed Christians divorce at a far lower rate than the total population.

    Here is some other data taken from 2007 research:

    “One of the most significant differences between active-faith and no-faith Americans is the cultural disengagement and sense of independence exhibited by atheists and agnostics in many areas of life. They are less likely than active-faith Americans to be registered to vote (78% versus 89%), to volunteer to help a non-church-related non-profit (20% versus 30%), to describe themselves as “active in the community” (41% versus 68%), and to personally help or serve a homeless or poor person (41% versus 61%). They are also more likely to be registered to vote as an independent or with a non-mainstream political party.

    One of the outcomes of this profile – and one of the least favorable points of comparison for atheist and agnostic adults – is the paltry amount of money they donate to charitable causes. The typical no-faith American donated just $200 in 2006, which is more than seven times less than the amount contributed by the prototypical active-faith adult ($1500). Even when church-based giving is subtracted from the equation, active-faith adults donated twice as many dollars last year as did atheists and agnostics. In fact, while just 7% of active-faith adults failed to contribute any personal funds in 2006, that compares with 22% among the no-faith adults.”

  • Bill Pratt

    With regard to the adult material, there are a couple things to say.

    First, I am not referring to conservatives or people who claim to be “religious.” When I compare Christians to atheists, I am always talking about serious, committed Christians, not nominal Christians who never read the Bible, attend church occasionally, never attend a Bible study, etc.

    When you look at this distinct population, there are always massive differences in their moral behavior from the rest of the population.

    Second, I believe that sexual sin (in all of its forms) is an epidemic like it’s never been before, largely due to the graphic sexual content easily available on the internet, movies, and TV. It makes me so sad that a Christian, committed or not, would be consuming online adult material. I am not totally surprised to see the results in the article you linked to. Sad, but not surprised.

  • Bill Pratt

    I will try to give these podcasts a listen, but again, I am not that interested in “religious” people, per se. It really depends on what your religion is teaching. I can guarantee that based on what is taught at my church there is less aggression and less racial bigotry.

    Religion, in and of itself, is neither good nor bad. You have to narrow in on specific religions and their core beliefs before comparisons of religious and non-religious make any sense.

  • Andrew Ryan

    Ok Bill, but your article above was principally discussing how religious priming affects ALL people, so the responses I gave were relevant to that research. We can both vouch for the pro-social behaviour of our own peer groups. My secular friends and relatives aren’t getting divorced and they’re very involved with helping others.

  • Bill Pratt

    True. I was making a broader point about the moral practices of religious people and the narrower point about how Christian who are attending church every week and are reading their Bible have an advantage over secularists.

  • Matt “Brisancian”


    With reference to your first two paragraphs, how will you tabulate the charitable impact? It must be adjusted, downward, for the moral negatives that result from such instruction. I take here the various issues of religious harm that result from purportedly “moral” instruction. Religious oppression born of such moral frameworks must be considered… you mentioned yourself that these people are being reminded “by an authority”, and such authorities are frequently mistaken and misled.

    Contraceptives, abortion, societal shunnings, persecution, etc., are all side effects of “moral” instruction by religious institutions.

    Charitable giving that leads to the proliferation of such actions must be entered on the liability column, but you seem to count everything in the asset column. Giving must also subtract out institutional losses in terms of stateside pastoral salaries, and so on. For myself, I gave a flat tithe for a very long time, and precious little of that ever went to actual good “out there” in the world.

    If you have data – actual data – that includes the various points I’ve raised above in its tabulation of “moral” impact, I’d very much like to see it…

  • sean

    Doesn’t Dr. Ariely point out secular tools that help in this regard? As I recall he does studies with the IRS and with honor codes at colleges that demonstrate these secular reminders of morality are also sufficient. (That might be in a different book of his) I hear what you are saying about how some religious people think, but it seems to me that their thinking is off. After all, mindfulness of morality has nothing to do with fervidness of belief. We see lots of immoral oppression from the most zealous of theists. It seems to me like theists are mistakenly assuming a correlation of religious belief and regular moral reinforcement.

  • Bill Pratt

    Never judge a movement by the most extreme elements. There is just no question that being exposed to teachings like “love your neighbor,” “pray for those who hate you,” “feed the poor,” week after week, and seeing these behaviors lived out in front of your eyes is going to impact people for the positive.

    The concern still stands: when and where are atheists getting this exposure? Certainly not at church, so where?

  • sean

    On the contrary, I personally know plenty of atheists who get it by going to church. I myself used to be one of them. ( I do mean that I went to church as a atheist. I still do sometimes, though not as often anymore.) I also know plenty of people who claim religious affiliation and do not frequent church regularly to gain this exposure you cite. You correctly point out that church is a good place to get a moral reminder, but I see people act morally all day long and no correlation to religiosity. The data I see doesn’t support your hypothesis. You are asking the question and I don’t think it has the weight you think it does because the effects that would follow from this question/hypothesis don’t appear.

  • Andrew Ryan

    The tests – the same ones you cite – showed that plenty of secular reminders had the same effect – the mere presence of CCTV cameras or even just a mirror or a picture of a pair of eyes. Any reminders of the existence of a secular legal system did the job – police or law courts. Atheists get these reminders all the time.

  • ricky clark

    We also get all those secular reminders as well in addition to knowing that even when we are alone and knowing we’ll never get caught by human eyes we still are accountable to God for all our sins, this may not stop every sin but for a true believer I can tell you first hand it makes a difference. You’ll think twice when you accept that you are accountable to Him. There is no higher standard than Gods standard and He never accepts excuses.

  • Gabi

    Many atheists read philosophy and come to our their conclusions based on reasoning. Many have read the Euthyphro dilemma and have decided that there must be a route to morality outside of a God.

    Most atheists who have read philosophy are either deontological or utilitarian. They then try to stick to those ethics. Some don’t care and don’t read – there are also many Christians who believe and do a terrible job in sticking to their system and don’t read.

    In a secular state where church and the legal system are separated one must rely on something other than a holy book as a guidance of good moral practise so atheists choose to practise their morality in the same way.

    Harvard have an excellent video series on the philosophy or morality which is free to watch on youtube:

    Philosophy Tube also have some excellent videos when it comes to different moral philosophers:

  • schlaflosig

    What would be the cause for you to act morally even when you are 100% positive that you won’t ever be caught / punished?

    Another question is: what would motivate you to leave a tip in the restaurant you will never visit again?

    Obviously, in these two cases if you would act morally, it would be irrational and not helpful to your interests. So we have a choice: either there is some kind of Objective Morality that we want to follow even in the absence of punishment. Or we are just being stupid and weak, and we should probably stop acting altruistically when it’s not required by the law.

  • Donny

    My question…just who is the “we” in “Why Don’t We trust Atheists?”

  • AvgAmerican

    Stupid and weak are not the best way to put it from an atheist
    perspective, don’t take survival of the fittest the wrong way and
    definitely don’t apply it the way you would suspect to, with humans. We
    evolved empathy which is what makes us the advanced social creatures we
    are. One could argue it is the intellectual thing to give more money in
    that tip, since emphasizing is really what has been the key to getting
    us to our current species so to speak, I know many people that get a
    good feeling from leaving a fair or great tip behind, and as an atheist I
    see no reason why I personally would want to not live a big tip behind,
    unless of course they were outright rude. Please take note, our brain
    has a built in reward system for helping others, which you could say was
    put there by God and I’ll go with was put there to help us as a species
    survive by evolution. So while I see your point, believe me that is
    definitely not the only way to look at it.
    Good day sir :)

  • Andrew R

    Hi Bill. I’d just like to say that upon re-reading my comments below I regret my confrontational tone, and re-reading your article above I actually agree with all of it.

    You make a valid point that doesn’t really warrant my argumentative replies. In fact I agree fully that it is important for non-Church goers to get what the church-goers get – reminders of their moral values, reminders of how their actions affect others etc.

    All the best to you.

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