In my last blog post, I noted the high level of prejudice against atheists and its basis in the assumption that atheists are more likely to behave immorally because they do not fear God. I did not believe that assumption to be correct, and I have discovered a little more evidence against it since them.
First, the small groups of hunter-gatherers that I wrote about seldom worshiped gods or other divine beings that they saw as concerned about morality. Religious reinforcement of proper behavior was not needed because everybody knew what everybody else was doing in those small groups, and the members’ interest in protecting their reputation among their fellows was enough to motivate them to restrain their impulses to violate the group’s expectations most of the time. It was only when populations grew and larger-scale societies were formed, as people became farmers of domesticated plants and herders of domesticated livestock, that their gods started to be seen as punishing immoral behavior. People could no longer watch each other constantly, so they told each other that the gods were watching them.
That strategy just never seemed to work, however, as the frequent scandals exposing the hypocrisy of religious leaders in our own society show. Research shows that, too. Laboratory experiments by psychologists have found that highly religious people will consistently behave ethically only when they are interacting with other members of their own religious community. They are just trying to preserve their reputations for moral rectitude in their own in-groups, as the hunter-gatherers of the past were. Religious people do not act any better that other people do when no one from their own little sect is watching.
The first field study of the issue found the same thing. In it, over 1200 people were recruited on social media to receive periodic prompts on their smart phones to write short accounts of the moral or immoral actions they had performed, seen, or heard about in the last hour and send them in confidentially. The researchers were inundated with replies and carefully read through all of them. The result they found was that religious people behaved no better than non-religious people.
Another study I have read about was carried out some time earlier on the issue of belief in free will. Philosophers and theologians have always been worried that if people believed that they had no free will and that they were therefore not responsible for their actions, they would behave immorally. I have always thought that if their worries were correct, it would prove that people do have free will, since their conscious thoughts would be affecting their behavior. Philosophers do not seem to have the same standards of logic that I do, however, and they do not seem to have noticed that problem.
In the research, the participants were each given a report of one of two different fictitious studies about free will. One study claimed to have proven that people have free will and the other claimed to have proven that they do not. The participants were then put in situations where it appeared to them that they could gain by cheating without being detected. Of course, the researchers could actually detect any cheating, and they found that the participants who had read the fictitious evidence against free will were much more likely to cheat. My interpretation is that, since they believed that they did not have the power to resist the temptation to cheat, they just did not bother to try to resist it, whereas the people who believed that they did have free will—and free won’t—did successfully make the effort resist the temptation.
My conclusion is that atheists who believe that they have free will are most likely trustworthy, whereas the ones who do not believe they have free will probably are not. So far, no one on Atheist Nexus has disagreed with my previous arguments for free will, so I hope I have converted all of you to being good, responsible atheists!