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Why atheists and theists differ morally

Justice in GoldMany religious people in the West believe that a person cannot have a good moral compass without belief in God. In the US, 53% said that theism (belief in God) is a requirement for being a morally good person. As for the other side, many atheists argue that nothing good, nevermind morality itself, comes from religion. Rather than settling the debate, Azim Shariff, Stephanie Kramer (both University of Oregon), and Jared Piazza (University of Pennsylvania) looked for why exactly atheists and theists disagree when it comes to morality. They found that this disagreement may stem from different attitudes towards sociality and from cognitive style.

First, in terms of sociality, theists in general tend to have more social relationships than atheists, in large part due to their religious community. While this seems to be a straightforward positive, it actually is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, more social relationships means overall greater happiness for theists when compared to atheists. On the other hand, it also means more outgroup prejudice and a greater need for social desirability. As such, theists, when it comes to their charitable actions, tend to favor members of their own community over those outside it (the outsiders). Compared to atheists, theists display greater prejudice towards to outsiders, including atheists, ethnic minorities, and homosexuals. As the researchers point out, atheists inherently have the same tendencies to favor their own ingroup, but these tendencies do not actualize due to the weaker social bonds atheists form.

Additional research has shown that both theists and atheists can be primed to exhibit more upright moral behavior. For theists, a “God” prime triggers supernatural monitoring that discourages selfish behavior and encourages greater group cohesion. For atheists, priming with a secular institution, such as “courts” or “police,” has a similar effect (assuming the atheists being primed live in a country with a stable and not very corrupt government). In fact, the researchers suggest that, “perhaps not coincidentally,” distrust of atheists is lower in countries precisely where the government is strong and corruption is low. Functional courts and police may sway theists into trusting atheists because, from the theists’ perspective, some higher power exists to hold atheists accountable.

Second, regarding cognitive style, theists tend to see morality as objective (that is, there really is a true right or wrong, good or evil) whereas atheists tend to see morality as subjective. This difference, the researchers argue, makes a difference on issues where atheists and theists tend to disagree. For instance, theists treat obedience, disloyalty, and sexual impurity as moral issues and therefore as objective issues. Atheists lean more in the direction of not viewing these as moral issues, and, even if they did, they would not say that objectively one stance is correct. That said, theists and atheists alike agree that situations involving harm and injustice are indeed moral issues, and so, while disagreeing over the objectivity of morality, would at least agree that something moral is at stake here.

Interestingly, atheists and theists exhibit another difference in cognitive style: how they resolve moral problems. When subscribing to quandary ethics, theists usually fall into the deontological camp (that is, morality is about the duty to follow moral rules), and atheists usually fall into the utilitarian camp (that is, the morally right thing to do is what results in the greatest good for the greatest number of people).

Perhaps this research can lead to a better understanding as to why theists distrust atheists. As inhabitants of a tight-knit ingroup, theists naturally distrust outsiders (including atheists). More to the point, theists have a wide range of issues they consider moral and consider morality itself objective. From this perspective, it may be possible to understand why they see those with a narrower range of moral issues and who treat morality as subjective as being morally suspect. Even if not, a moral goal for theists and atheists alike should be mutual understanding.

For more, see “Morality and the religious mind: why theists and nontheists differ” in the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences.

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