Sun | Apr 23, 2017

Are atheists more immoral?

Published:Sunday | February 22, 2015 | 2:00 AM

'Jamaicans still religious,' blared the front-page Gleaner headline last Tuesday, reporting on its latest Bill Johnson opinion poll. 'No surprise there, says cleric' was the natural subhead. You could say that should really be a back-page story, for that is anything but news.

The poll found that 45% of Jamaicans described themselves as "deeply religious", while another 38% say they are somewhat religious, making it a total of 83% of Jamaicans who would describe themselves as religious. In the rich developed countries, religiosity has declined everywhere except in the United States. But even there, there has been a significant jump in what is called the 'nones' - people who describe themselves as belonging to no religious faith.

Of course, in places like Scandinavia, most people are secular and Japan is the most secularised country in the world. Britain and Canada have also been increasingly secular, but even in the US, that last holdout of religion among developed countries, religiosity has declined significantly from the 1950s, when less than five per cent of Americans described themselves as non-religious. In the 1990s, that figure went up to 8%; in 2001, 14%; and in 2010, 16%. But in current opinion polls, that figure has shot up to an astonishing 30%. And this is the most religious industrialised country still! Yet more than a third of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 are non-religious. In America today, as many as 25% of persons said they have never attended a religious service. All this must be shocking to religious Jamaicans. But just as America's sneezing and Jamaica's catching cold is true in cultural and economic matters, so I predict Jamaica will become increasingly secular and rising numbers of Jamaicans will be abandoning the Church. This Wednesday, the Jamaica Theological Seminary has invited me to give a public lecture titled 'Can the Church be Saved?'.

In that lecture, I will analyse the prospects of the Church here - and I can say they don't look bright. What worries Jamaicans about increasing secularisation and the declining influence of the Church in Jamaica is their morbid fear that morality will suffer as a result.

There are many Jamaicans who can't see how an atheist could be a moral person. After all, they reason, if a person does not believe in God, what reason does he have to be moral and to avoid doing wrong? The society would be out of control if people don't believe in God, many say, for society needs God as a stabilising force. Why would anyone want to lead a moral life if there is no punishment in the afterlife and if there is no God to be accountable to?


startling opposite


But what is counter-intuitive is that the hard, cold empirical facts show the startling opposite: Secular, non-believing societies actually do better morally than religious ones. They are morally healthier and their citizens exhibit less dysfunction than those in highly religious societies. There is a Global Peace Index published by Vision of Humanity. It calculates matters such as safety and security, levels of violent crime, warfare, etc. According to their most recent findings, the top 10 most peaceful nations on earth are among the least religious and God-fearing.

The United Nations Global Study on Homicide (2011) lists the most secular countries - Sweden, Japan, Norway, The Netherlands - as having the

lowest murder rates. Atheistic sociology professor Phil Zuckerman, in his recent book (2014) Living the Secular Life: New Answers to Old Questions, says: "The best countries in which to be a mother, the most peaceful countries, those with the lowest murder rates ... their populations generally tend to be quite secular. And this correlation is true for almost every measure of societal well-being imaginable, such as levels of corruption in business and government, sexually transmitted diseases, teen pregnancy rates, quality of hospital care, rates of aggravated assault, freedom of speech ... ."

But some will say what Zuckerman and other atheists are pointing to are societies that are more economically advanced and, therefore, it is their degree of wealth that translates into less crime and better social outcomes. That might be true, but it still shows that, as sociologist Peter Berger made famous in his Secularization Thesis decades ago, societies tend to become more secular as they become richer. And they don't fall apart then. So some would infer that wealth is a better contributor to societal and moral health than belief in God!

Only in the area of suicide are secular societies doing worse than religious ones. What is interesting is that, even in the most religious society in the Western world, America, those states that are least religious do far better in morality and social health than the more religious states. Zuckerman reports: "When it comes to nearly all standard measures of societal health, such as homicide rates, violent crime rates, domestic abuse rates, obesity rates, educational attainment, teen pregnancy rates, rates of sexually transmitted diseases ... domestic violence: the least theistic states in America tend to fare much better than the theistic ones."


Racism and religion


When it comes to broader moral issues like racism, a study published by Duke University Professor Deborah Hall and her associates carefully analysed 55 studies to reveal their relationship between religion, irreligion and racism. What emerged from this survey is that strongly religious Americans tend to be the most racist; moderately religious Americans less racist and the least religious, the least racist. Comments Zuckerman: "As psychologists Ralph Wood, Peter Hill and Bernard Spilka note, basing their assessment upon decades of research, 'as a broad generalisation, the more religious the individual, the more prejudiced that person is."

Zuckerman adds: "Perhaps this helps explain why secular white people were more likely than religious white people to support the civil-rights movement and why secular white South Africans were more likely to be against apartheid than religious white South Africans." When George Bush decided to make torture legal, more religious Americans saw nothing wrong with it and, in fact, required to protect 'God's country', while secular and atheistic Americans opposed it. "The same holds true of the death penalty," says Zuckerman: "The more religious tend to be the most supportive of it, favouring vengeance over forgiveness, while the more secular tend to be against it, manifesting a more merciful orientation."

Zuckerman has more comparisons to make: "How about the hitting of children? Religious people are, on average, much more supportive of corporal punishment ... . In sum, when it comes to a host of issues and positions - from torture to war, from global warming to the welfare of animals - secular people clearly feel it is good to do good in this known lifetime." In a well-known (and controversial) study by Gregory Paul in a 2005 issue of the Journal of Religion and Society (Vol. 7) he compares the developed countries' societal health and their religiosity. He concludes: "The United States is almost always the most dysfunctional of the democracies, sometimes spectacularly so ... . The view that the United States is a shining city on a hill to the rest of the world is falsified when it comes to basic measures of societal health ... . No democracy is known to have combined strong religiosity and popular denial of evolution with high rates of societal health ... ."

You can explain the empirical facts in a number of ways, but you are not entitled to your own facts. Atheists and secularists can be moral. And we know that Christians can be very immoral. We have too many examples of that around us! Religiosity does not necessarily keep people from raping, fornicating, committing adultery, incest, paedophilia or a host of other things. Of course, as to whether atheists have epistemologically firm foundations for their morality and whether they can ground it philosophically is another matter (I actually think secular humanism is parasitic on religious values and religious presuppositions.)

But you have to reconsider your view that Jamaica would necessarily be worse off if it became more secular.

Ian Boyne is a veteran journalist working with the Jamaica Information Service. Email feedback to and