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New Research Looks At The Difference In Morals Between Theists & Atheists

March 2, 2021

Religion serves different purposes for different people, including, in some cases, helping to guide their moral compass. A new study published in PLOS ONE set out to determine how these personal values might differ between atheists and theists1. Here's what researchers found while digging into this interesting question.

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Studying the values of theists & atheists.

In an effort to understand how moral values differ between those who believe in a god or gods and those who don't, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Illinois at Chicago Tomas Stahl, Ph.D., sent out online surveys that questioned the values of over 4,500 Americans and Swedes across four separate studies.

The first two studies involved 429 American atheists and theists, and the second batch involved 4,193 atheists and theists from America and Sweden. Stahl notes in his research that being religious in the U.S. is more common than it is in Sweden, one of the most secular countries in the world.

The similarities—and key differences—between the two groups.

The theists and atheists sampled in these surveys did share morals in common: On average, they valued protecting the vulnerable, individual liberties, and rationality, for example.

However, based on this research, it seems that the major difference is that theists are more apt to value "group cohesion," or "binding moral foundations," as Stahl calls it. Meanwhile, atheists are more likely to judge the morality of an action based on its consequences, as opposed to what the group thinks.

He offers a potential explanation for this: Nonbelievers may not be as exposed to the same group dynamics as believers are, and so they might not feel the same "existential threats" that can come with potentially disagreeing with the group.

"This data suggests that the cross-cultural stereotype of atheists as lacking a moral compass is inaccurate," Stahl writes in his research. He adds that disbelievers are just "less inclined to endorse the binding moral foundations and more inclined to judge the morality of actions that inflict harm on a consequentialist, case-by-case basis."

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The bottom line.

If this study is any indication, atheists certainly do have strong values. They just may not look the same as believers'—and that's a-OK. At the end of the day, morals are subjective. Across different countries, cultures, and, yes, religions, people all have their own way of considering morality. And even when we approach questions from right and wrong from different starting points, that doesn't mean we can't reach the same conclusions in the end.

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