Moral compass - atheists vs theists

Discussion in 'Comparative Religion' started by James R, Feb 26, 2021.

  1. James R Just this guy, you know? Staff Member

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    A 2019 Pew Research Center poll found that 44% of Americans (compared with 26% of Canadians) think that a belief in God is needed to be moral. Other polls have found that distrust of atheists is common among theists who belief that a belief in God is needed to be moral.

    A new study by Tomas Staahl and associates at the University of Illinois at Chicago has examined the moral compasses of theists and atheists. The study is published online (Feb 24, 2021) in the journal PLOS One.

    The study shows that there are many similarities between the moral compasses of theists and atheists, but also some key differences.

    Both groups highly endorsed moral goals like fairness and protecting the well-being of vulnerable people, for instance, and both highly endorsed liberty but not oppression.

    However, the study found that, in making moral judgments, atheists tend to place less emphasis than theists on matters of group cohesion, such as valuing loyalty and respecting authority.

    The study refers to the theory that morals are largely founded on five central values: caring, fairness, authority, loyalty and sanctity.
    • Caring involves a desire to protect vulnerable individuals from harm.
    • Fairness involves concepts such as justice.
    • Authority involves acting in accordance with the law and directions of authority figures such as police, parents, teachers, officials, etc.
    • Loyalty involves not acting in way that would go against principles or values of one's own groups (social, community, country, etc.)
    • Sanctity involves not doing anything perceived as degrading or "unclean".
    The study found very little difference between atheists and believers on the values of caring and fairness. However, atheists placed much less emphasis on the other three values than theists. All three of those values can be seen as involving group cohesion - maintaining harmony in a social/cultural group. In making moral decisions, atheists typically did not regard those three values are being of high importance.

    These findings still held when the survey results were controlled from political orientation, making it more likely that the differences are actually due to religious orientation rather than to political orientation.

    Both groups (atheists and theists) scored low on questions meant to detect amoral attitudes (i.e. a lack of concern about whether a choice or a course of action is moral). For instance, both groups strongly disagreed with statements like "I am willing to be unethical if I believe it will help me succeed."

    The study did not investigate whether the groups differed in actual behaviours, as opposed to their expressed opinions.

    Both groups highly endorsed statements like "Society works best when it lets individuals take responsibility for their own lives without telling them what to do.", which is a statement about liberty and oppression.

    Both groups said they saw rational thinking — believing in evidence-based claims and being skeptical of claims lacking evidence — as a moral issue, which is interesting because it is a reasonably commonly-expressed opinion that religious belief and rational, scientific thought are incompatible.

    The study found that atheists are more likely than believers to base their moral judgments on the consequences of actions, rather than on a more fixed set of principles ("It is just wrong to do X, and if I did this thing I would be doing X, so that would be wrong.")

    When it comes to reasons or explanations for the differences in the moral compasses of atheists and theists, the study found some correlations which, it should be noted, are not necessarily causes.

    For example, participants who were raised religiously, or in strongly religious environments, and observed important people in their communities engaging in religious activities, were more likely to share the "typical" theist moral compass described above. The authors speculate that this is because, in such an environment, it can be costly for a person to decide or express the opinion that the religious beliefs and moral "rules" might be false.

    Whether a person viewed the world as a dangerous place was also correlated, with those who saw the world as being more dangerous being more likely to have the theist moral compass than the atheist one. The authors speculate that this might be because the believers surveyed thought that God would help protect them from harm.

    More analytical thinkers were more likely to have the typical atheist moral compass, and more self-identifying atheists were found to be "analytical thinkers" than self-identifying theists, in the study.

    The study was based on 4 surveys, conducted in the US (a highly religious country) and Sweden (a highly secular country), with atheists and theists in both countries. The findings were replicated across both countries. The authors express interest in seeing whether the findings are duplicated in non-Western countries. For example, China is a largely irreligious but very group-oriented country. They are also interested in examining countries in which atheism is officially forbidden, such as in some predominantly Muslim countries (e.g. the United Arab Emirates).
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    Do these findings fit your own ideas about your own moral compass? Do you fit the "typical" theist or atheist mould, as described here?
     
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  3. Seattle Valued Senior Member

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    What you are really describing is just that religion is tradition and religious people tend to be more traditional and more conservative.

    That would fit my outlook but we already know that the more education you have (in general) the more open you are in your thinking and therefore you tend to be less traditional and less conservative.

    That's why atheists tend to not value authority and "loyalty" as much in the ways as defined here. They may be just as loyal to friends and family but they may not be flag waving "patriots" to the same degree as those who are more religious.

    But again...what's new?

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    People, in their actions, aren't as different, generally speaking, as their politics. Someone may fly a flag on the 4th of July and see a more liberal neighbor is not flying a flag. They may think "Democrats just don't care about our country". The more liberal neighbor who is not flying the flag may "care about our country" but they may just not be the flag waving type as it's just a little too authoritarian for their makeup.
     
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  5. James R Just this guy, you know? Staff Member

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    In the terms of the five central moral values mentioned, I guess a desire to adhere to tradition might fall into the categories of loyalty, and possibly authority as well. Political conservatism, if that's what you mean, was controlled for in the study.

    I think that this shows that the study is consistent with religious people's respect for "tradition".

    I haven't looked at whether the study considered the question of education. My guess would be that education doesn't make much difference when it comes to these "moral compass" matters, but I could be wrong.

    In terms of moral judgments, the questions to ask might include:
    • Is it a moral duty to fly a flag on the 4th of July?
    • Would it be immoral to refuse to fly a flag on the 4th of July?
    • Is the choice to fly a flag evidence of a person's good moral character (all other things being equal)?
    • Is the choice not to fly a flag evidence that the person's moral character is lacking in some way (all other things being equal)?
     
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  7. DaveC426913 Valued Senior Member

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    If the answers to these aren't: no, no, no and no, then I'd be interested to hear the rationale.
     
  8. wegs Matter & Pixie Dust Valued Senior Member

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    ''Flying a flag'' (or not) is morally neutral, imo. Patriotism (flying a flag can be symbolic of that) is morally neutral, imo.

    How about desecrating a flag? I'd say it's one of those uncouth things to do, but imo, it falls under First Amendment rights. (To be clear though, desecrating your own flag not stealing someone else's and desecrating it, or desecrating flags on public property, etc... as that would be a criminal act.)
     
  9. James R Just this guy, you know? Staff Member

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    That's an interesting one. Also interesting is your choice of the word "desecrating", which literally means "disregarding the sacred character of something".

    As far as I'm concerned, people can burn and stomp on any flags they own to their little hearts' content. The act of burning a flag is usually done as a political protest. If nobody is being harmed, I don't have a problem with it.

    On the other hand, I can understand why some people do get upset about flag burning. People who tie their ideas of morality more strongly to matters of loyalty, authority and sanctity than I do would probably argue that:
    • burning a flag shows disloyalty to one's country and leaders.
    • burning a flag shows a disrespect for the leaders of the nation and/or the powerful institutions of the nation.
    • a flag is a "pure" symbol of patriotism, love for one's country etc. To destroy it is to commit an "impure" act, an act of desecration, similar to sullying a holy symbol.
    One other thing to note. An American, say, might be of the view that burning the American flag is immoral, but be perfectly fine with burning the flag of, say, North Korea. That might be because: the American doesn't feel like he or she owes any loyalty to Kim Jong-un or to the nation of North Korea; that Kim Jong-un has no rightful authority over Americans (so his authority doesn't need to be respected); and that the American doesn't regard the North Korean flag as a sacred symbol.

    From my point of view, as an Australian, somebody burning the Australian flag is no different, in terms of moral charge, than somebody burning the North Korean flag. As a result, some might accuse me of a lack of appropriate patriotism, loyalty, or respect for authority. They might also argue that, as an Australian, I should respect the Australian flag as sort of "sacred" symbol of the nation of which I'm a citizen.

    By the way, this is not to say that I wouldn't think poorly of an Australian who chose to burn the flag. I might well do that, but it would depend on their reasons for doing it and the sort of political message or intent they were trying to express in doing it, more than on the mere act of flag burning itself. In some circumstances, I might approve of the burning of the Australian flag.
     
    Last edited: Feb 27, 2021
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  10. wegs Matter & Pixie Dust Valued Senior Member

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    Ah, good catch. I should've used the word destroy, not desecrate. I don't consider the American flag a 'sacred' thing, but it can be seen in poor taste to destroy it in public view...although, that should be protected under First Amendment rights - and allowable in light of making a political statement. Typically, that is why people ''burn flags,'' to make political points. But, if public property is being destroyed to prove political points, that falls under vandalism, a crime. One has a right to destroy his/her own property, so long as he/she doesn't harm anyone else in the process.

    This topic reminds me of a conversation that came up at work recently and the general question was ''can something be both wrong and legal?''
     
  11. James R Just this guy, you know? Staff Member

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    Interesting.

    Is that because of any or all of the reasons I gave before? For example, it shows a disrespect to authorities, or a lack of loyalty, and therefore it is "in poor taste"?

    Note: If I'm honest, I think that I probably assign some weight to the loyalty argument, just not very much. Loyalty can be important, but the reason I think it's sometimes important probably comes back to ideas of caring and fairness, for me.

    If we're talking about whether people ought to be allowed to burn flags without fear of punishment, then that brings in a while lot of other moral questions. There might even by some tension or conflict between the relevant moral values, for some people: desecrating important national symbols is bad, free speech is good, so if burning the flag is free speech, which principles win the battle?

    I agree. I'd put vandalism in the moral category of "caring", though, more than in the categories of loyalty or respect for authority. Having said that, if I'm honest, I do assign some weight to respect for authority, in that case. Just not as much as preventing harm (which comes under the "caring" banner).

    Absolutely it can, and there are many examples.

    At one time, I studied taxation law (ugh). The point was repeatedly made that "tax avoidance is legal; tax evasion is illegal". Tax avoidance means arranging your finances in a legal way so as to pay as little tax as possible. There are lots of ways to do that. You could, for example, designate your place of residence or business as a tax-haven country, despite spending most of your time or doing most of your business in other jurisdictions. That might be perfectly legal (it is exactly what a lot of the Big Tech companies do, for instance), but not very moral. Tax evasion, on the other hand, means "cheating" on your taxes - e.g. filing false tax returns, hiding income, or whatever - which is both illegal and immoral.
     
    Last edited: Feb 27, 2021
  12. Seattle Valued Senior Member

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    "Wrong" is a moral judgement so it can be anything or nothing. So of course something can be legal (as a matter of fact/law) and you can consider it to be "wrong". Other's may not however.

    Abortion is legal, some consider it wrong. Charging interest is legal, some consider it wrong. I don't consider either of those wrong.
     
  13. wegs Matter & Pixie Dust Valued Senior Member

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    I'm not a ''conservative.'' I'm moderate in my political views...falling ''in the middle.'' But, I come from a long line of staunch conservatives, who would view flag burning as a sacrilege. They'd view my commentary here as the same. I've been indoctrinated since childhood to view the flag as being a symbol of one's allegiance to their country. I don't think these things need to be said though. I can enjoy living in the US, and not have to fly a flag to prove this to my neighbors and such, you know? Flying the flag seems to be more about wanting other people to see one as patriotic -- wanting that group affirmation, perhaps? But, I've un-indoctrinated myself now, and do as I wish.

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  14. Seattle Valued Senior Member

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    Tradition is not wanting change and not wanting others to change either. It's ultimately repressive except in the most limited, ceremonial circumstances.
     
  15. Vociferous Valued Senior Member

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    This is just verifying Jonathan Haidt's already cross-culturally verified Moral Foundations Theory. Nothing new.
     
  16. James R Just this guy, you know? Staff Member

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    This study is new.

    Did Haidt compare theists and atheists, specifically?
     
  17. Vociferous Valued Senior Member

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    The study is new but the results are not. Haidt started out comparing cultures, but once he found so much cross-cultural similarity, he started comparing political differences. And those political differences are a fair approximation of theist/atheist differences in these same moral foundations. https://www.pewforum.org/religious-landscape-study/religious-family/atheist/party-affiliation/
     
  18. DaveC426913 Valued Senior Member

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  19. James R Just this guy, you know? Staff Member

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  20. Dicart Registered Senior Member

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    There are also many studies that show that people who dont believe in free will have lower moral behaviour.
    https://theconversation.com/the-psychology-of-believing-in-free-will-97193
     
  21. DaveC426913 Valued Senior Member

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    Oh God no. Not another discussion about free will!

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  22. Dicart Registered Senior Member

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    Yes but i am almost certain you dont have heard everything about this subject already.

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    About the morality of atheist and religious people.
    https://www.iflscience.com/brain/ye...GGalmJe26xMsTCrCthEE80ZaknraCR6H0IJHvyI-PTwR4

    It is like the free will affair.
    It depends on what the people really believe.

    You can be atheist and believe in free will and be a religious people who dont even ask himself of this.
    How many poeple are "believer" just because they are part of a group where believing in God is how the group act ?
    The question is more likely : Who believe really in God ?
     
  23. DaveC426913 Valued Senior Member

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    An in-joke. We had a rather animated discussion here a while back.
     

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