Study: Atheists Are Equally Ethical

February 15, 2010

cognitive-sciencesA new study published in the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences has found that Atheists and other non-religious individuals are “just as ethical as churchgoers.” “The research suggests that intuitive judgments of right and wrong seem to operate independently of explicit religious commitments,” said Dr. Marc Hauser of Harvard University, who headed up the study. While I’m sure this will do little to convince those who believe otherwise, it is good to see that a peer-reviewed study backs up our assertion. One step forward, friends. (source)


9 Responses to “Study: Atheists Are Equally Ethical”

  1. jonolan said

    This study doesn’t say what you’re claiming that that it does. It’s results – and, indeed, its focus – was on the similarities of beliefs among theists. The whole of it is predicated on Mankind’s belief in the soul and the effects that has had on human development.

    Since atheists do not believe in the soul they are actually outside the model presented used in Pyysiainen and Hauser.

    Whether it’s theological or psychological, the Godless still exist as other than the body of humanity.

  2. Linda Thomson said

    We know that people are, for a variety of reasons, capable of doing good and sadly of doing otherwise. Thankfully serious study, capable of supporting this awareness, is being done. The godless are not without belief and value systems!

  3. Jena said

    Glad to hear that the research is finally backing up the fact that there are good ethical people other than those that are simply ethical because they fear that god might be watching…

  4. Peter said

    Anyone who believes religion is required to lead a “moral” life has some incredibly deep misconceptions of what religion is, why religion is, and what religion is for. I find it unfortunate that a study even had to be done. Still, at least someone is looking into the issue, because this is an important reality that us religious folks need to explore more deeply, not just for the sake of public dialogue, but out of a genuine need to expand and deepen the faith experience.

  5. Bill said

    This bothers the hell of “people of faith” They seem to think that if religions ( in particular theirs, as it is naturally the true religion) disappeared everyone’s moral compass would immediately cease to function. Religions are one of many paths to moral and ethical behavior. Though they like to claim exclusivity…which is simply ignorance and arrogance on their part.

  6. Jena said

    I also wanted to comment that much of the research done on morality in the area of developmental psychology theorizes that being ethical/moral because of an “authority” (which could be anyone from a parent to a god) is actually one of the lowest stages of moral development. Those in the higher stages are moral to maintain fulfilling interpersonal relationships, to aid the functioning of society as a whole, and/or because they have reached a complete understanding of universal ethical principles. None of these last three higher levels of morality include god. This supports the idea that athiests/agnostics/humanists have the opportunity to attain just as high of a level of morality as religious people do.

    To ‘jonolan’: Your last statement caught me off guard. In my mind, most athiests are complete humanists! They are invested in society and our role within it, instead of what might happen in the next world…

  7. jonolan said


    That is because it was a poorly worded statement on part, at least when speaking to those outside of theist circles.

    A better way of putting it might have been that atheists were non-normative or statistical outliers – people living in the outer “Faufreluches” of the society of Man.

    Also the theories of developmental psychology involving morality were posited by atheists. Of course they didn’t include Gods in anything bu the lower levels of development. 😉

    A useful argument among your own, but far less among the bulk of us.

  8. Hauser’s research is extremely limited and does not prove that atheists are as moral as religionists. While I will not say that individual believers are more moral than individual non-believers, I do think that religion overall fosters a culture that is more moral than it would be without religion.

    Hauser’s work only shows that on the level of our innate moral sense or grammar that we are equivalent. But what Hauser neglects is that there is a huge gap between our innate moral sense and our actual behavior. We do not measure people’s morality by what their believe about their own morality, but by their actual behavior. And none of Hauser’s research speaks to people’s actual moral behavior.

    Indeed, if we are all wired to be moral, then how is it that we can be in our actions so immoral? If we all know the difference between right and wrong, then why are so many people doing the wrong thing thinking it is the right thing to do?

    My premise is the between that innate moral sense and actual behavior is a huge gap, and that gap is filled in by CULTURE, which ultimately affects whether the behavioral outcome is indeed moral or immoral. These cultural influences include: social norms, laws of the land, parenting, education, and peer groups. All these are arbitrary and relativistic. Another factor that bridges the gap between moral intentions and actual behavior is RELIGION. And I make the claim in my book (“An Atheist Defends Religion”) that religion has a net-positive impact on the outcome — i.e., that religion adds one universal dimension of cultural influence that further points more people in the direction of pro-social behavior. If you do not believe this, then ask whether our educational system plus parenting plus social norms plus peer group norms can possible lead most people to do the right thing in accordance with their innate nature?

    All the other influences are arbitrary, relative, and differ from culture to culture, especially the strongest influence of them all: peer-groups.

    So religion is indeed necessary for a truly moral civilization.


    I have a critique of Hauser’s work in my blog: “”

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