I stumbled on this today:
It’s the results of a study done by Reginald W. Bibby, a sociologist at the University of Lethbridge. (He also seems to be a Christian.) Based on these results, Bibby suggests that atheists are often moral, but are (on average) less moral than theists – and that has an effect on society. He concludes: “To the extent that Canadians say good-bye to God, we may find that we pay a significant social price.” (Source) As you would expect, the results are being spread by Christian Apologists. For example, a Baptist Press article about the study begins with this dishonest paragraph, which contradicts Bibby’s own commentary about the study:
Is it necessary to believe in God in order to have solid personal values? A new survey seems to answer that question with a “yes.”
Unfortunately, I couldn’t track down the full results – only a short commentary and the chart shown above, which appears on Reginald Bibby’s website. I also sent an email to Bibby, hoping to get the full results of the study, but he never responded.
Potential Problems with the Study:
1. Sample size for the “Atheist” group
The poll was conducted with 1,600 Canadians. They were divided into four groups based on the question “Do you believe God or a higher power exists?”
– 49% “Yes, I definitely do”
– 33% “Yes, I think so”
– 11% “No, I don’t think so”
– 7% “No, I definitely do not”
Bibby narrowly defines the “Values of Theists and Atheists” groups. He ignores the 44% of people who “think” there is or isn’t a God, and focuses on the 56% who “definitely” do or don’t believe in God and using them as the “Theist” and “Atheist” groups. This means that the “Atheists” group is the responses of around 112 people. Each atheist represents nearly 1% of the atheist result.
2. Bibby Narrowly defines the results to people who answered “Very Important” to each value.
I would expect that the questions offered a variety of choices: “not important”, “somewhat important”, “important”, or “very important”. By only revealing the “very important” results, he could be playing with the data. Apologists have used this to claim that atheists are, on average, less moral. In fact, it might simply be that atheists are more thoughtful and cautious about using the highest category (“very important”) to describe their beliefs, and choose to simply use the “important” category.
I would also expect that some values, such as “forgiveness” and “patience”, would be judged much more contextually by atheists than by believers. Believers might accept the idea that forgiveness and patience are “very important”, regardless of the context, because of religious teachings, but atheists might judge the value of these virtues much more contextually: such as “am I being a sucker by offering forgiveness and being patient with this person?” In actual practice, I think believers to act much more contextually than they realize. They judge who deserves a second chance and they judge whether or not they should be patient. (And, in confirmation of this, religious people tend to be harder on crime and are more likely to be advocates of the death penalty. This is because they have decided that criminals do not deserve forgiveness because it would allow them to get away with their crime without punishment.) So, in reality, there might be no behavioral difference between the two groups.
3. Bias in Reported Answers
On a similar note, religious people might be feel biased towards giving the “correct” answers, even if they don’t reflect actual practice. This might be especially true if people were asked about their belief in God first. (For reasons of consistency, some people would feel more compelled to give the “right answers” after claiming that they “definitely believe in God”. Also, the very mention of God in the survey might remind them about the fact that they are supposed to give a particular answer.)
4. Theists/Atheists are Groups which vary in a number of attributes, not simply Belief in God. Suggesting that “Belief in God” is the sole independent variable is to fall into a “correlation = causation” fallacy.
Also, I would think most atheists are, on average, more introverted than the average population. If that were true, then it wouldn’t be surprising if various social values were perceived as less important. In that case, “belief in God” wouldn’t be the determiner of people’s moral values, but merely correlated, and a decline in theistic beliefs would have no effect on morality in general society (contrary to Bibby’s claim that declining belief will result in declining morality). Additionally, atheists skew towards the younger end of the population. The results could indicate an age-correlation.
Also, there are a variety of reasons people come to atheism. There may be a sub-group of atheists who are simply amoral and use atheism as a convenient justification of their behavior. (Although, with only a 5% “Honesty is very important” gap between theists and atheists, it’s hard to think this group is very large.) A thinking atheist, however, is different and has come to the conclusion that there is no God based on reason. When you lump them together into one monolithic group, you can see the effects of amoral-atheism on the larger whole, and erroneously conclude that atheism is the problem. Bibby seems to take this step when he concludes that increased atheism = increased amorality.
5. Cherry Picking the Values
I had to wonder, “Were these the only 12 values on the survey?” If not, then Bibby could be cherry-picking the results for a good soundbite. I remember reading some time ago about a “Values” poll conducted around the world. The interesting thing about it was that most people valued the same things – but prioritized them differently. For example, people in the US tended to value “freedom” much higher than people in the Middle East did. There may be something similar going on with this poll. Values like “equality” and “fairness” (in terms of racial equality, gender equality, international fairness and justice) would probably rate higher in the secular worldview than in the theist/Christian worldview. Those values are not shown in the results above – probably because Bibby didn’t include them in the survey.
On the other hand, if we take these correlations to be a result of religious belief, then here are some inconvenient poll results for theists:
What really concerns me is that only half of atheists think that forgiveness is very important. Either these people have not been married or maybe married multiple times, since a lack of forgiveness in a marriage is a sure recipe for disaster. Couple that moral belief with a perception that neither patience nor generosity are very important, and it seems that the divorce rates are likely to go up significantly in the near future.
The data showed that the highest divorce rates were found in the Bible Belt. “Tennessee, Arkansas, Alabama and Oklahoma round out the Top Five in frequency of divorce…the divorce rates in these conservative states are roughly 50 percent above the national average” of 4.2/1000 people.
To be fair, there may be other factors at play. Such as the tendency for religious people to get married younger, and ‘marrying young’ is correlated with divorce. In other words, religious correlation is not religious causation (just like I pointed out earlier), and we shouldn’t conclude from these statistics that increased religiosity will result in an increased divorce rate (even though Bibby takes that step using his theism/values results).
There is also the Pew Research Center’s poll on torture – which shows religious people being more likely to support torture than atheists and agnostics:
There’s also the science statistics that came out recently. Evangelical Christians make up 33% of the American Public, but only 11% of the US’ college faculty. Non-evangelical Christians do a little better: making up 48% of the US’ population, and 35% of the college faculty. On the other hand, Atheists are overrepresented in the sciences:
The same study shows atheists (or atheist college faculty, anyway) being more likely to support international bodies of justice (which falls in line with my earlier comment that secularists are stronger on fairness and justice):
A shallow reading of all of this suggests that a rise in atheism will lead to a society which is less generous and less forgiving, but scientifically knowledgeable, in favor equality and fairness, international justice, are anti-torture and anti-death penalty, and have low divorce rates.
Of course, maybe theists are – on average – more moral. One could argue that the belief that God wants them to act benevolently and morally could affect their behavior. The other explanation – the threat of punishment for sins – probably isn’t a big factor since Christians believe they will be forgiven and go to heaven. Even if it were true that theists are more moral, it’s an argument that things would be better if people believed, rather than an argument that God exists. One could also argue that evil leprechauns will torture you if you tell a lie. That belief might affect behavior, and it might even be beneficial to society if you can convince everyone that it’s true. But the trick is getting people to believe it when it isn’t true.