The social science is in: Atheists get an A in morality

Last year when a study from the University of Chicago revealed that children raised in religious families showed demonstrably less altruism and empathy than their non-religious family counterparts, an age-old trope was turned on its head: if it weren’t for religion, where would we get our morals? Those in the humanist community and beyond have known for some time that morals supersede religion, and therefore one need not have any religion to be an ethical person. But I dare say that there was no shortage of people shocked to see this study show that not only does religion not give you your morals, but it can actually decrease your morality.

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In a nutshell, nearly 1,200 children from six countries were given a few tests to demonstrate their tendency to share and their inclination to punish others for “bad behavior.” The parents of these children also filled out a questionnaire, indicating the level of altruism and empathy that they felt their child had. The results were that religious parents (both Christian and Muslim) noted that their children were extremely ethical, but the study itself showed the inverse, that the children demonstrated less willingness to share and were more likely to insist on harsher punishments for anti-social behavior. And the longer the child was exposed to their religion, the less they shared and the harsher they punished.

I’m not surprised. Well, in fairness, I was surprised to see it demonstrated so pronounced in the study, but I’m not surprised to see that religionists have more difficulty with empathy and altruism than non-believers. In short, a religion is like a tribe, one that seeks to separate you from others in the world (and what’s more, one that seeks to elevate you to a higher pedestal of existence by being favored by the gods, or God). Empathy works by having a connection with people, and that’s much more difficult to exercise if you’re building supernatural walls between one another. And even a brief reading of the Bible or Koran gives a litany of brutal punishments for basic crimes; a jurisprudence not uncommon during the bronze age, but highly out of place in the 21st century.

The question was recently posed to me (and a few others) regarding whether I found it easier now to extend grace to people in the world now that I’ve left the religion with which I grew up. Despite the fact that I don’t prefer using the term “grace,” I didn’t hesitate for a second to answer that I was by far more, ahem, graceful toward my fellow man in my post-Christian years. And I don’t think that’s a fluke. I felt a flush of memories of my old church and all that was said by the ministers during sermons and by so many amongst the congregation about “the unbeliever.” Mind you, this is a very exclusive church, so the term “unbeliever” included everyone who wasn’t part of this specific church. Other Christians were just as lost as Jews, Muslims, and atheists. But beyond the simple separation, I recall the pronounced disdain, if not downright hatred, for the people who existed beyond the hallowed walls of this little church. Whereas it’s important to recognize the differences between different religious traditions, I know that such preachments did not make my family’s church unique, even if they happened to do it better than most.

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This study, though, didn’t seem to make the huge social ripples that it probably should have. To be fair, the study didn’t come to the conclusion that children from Christian or Islamic homes were immoral; just that the children from non-religious homes tested higher in empathy and altrusim. But from the point of view of an atheist, it would’ve been nice to see the major news networks pick up this story. If they did, maybe we could put this whole chestnut of atheists having no moral base behind us a little sooner.

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