Tag Archives: belief

Atheists are just as ethical as believers, study shows — they just prioritize different things

Friction between believers and non-believers is present in many parts of the world, but the two groups may not be as different as you’d think. According to new research, both have moral compasses that support protecting the vulnerable, but in different ways: where believers value group cohesion, atheists tend to disregard authority.

Despite rising secularism, the idea of ‘amoral atheists’ seems to have taken roots and is remarkably pervasive with one 2017 study finding widespread “entrenched moral suspicion of atheists”.

“There is plenty of evidence that a lot of people associate atheists with immoral behavior, and that they do not trust them,” says Tomas Staahl, the author of a new study.

To see if atheists truly lack a moral compass, Staahl conducted two surveys examining the moral values of 429 American atheists and theists via Amazon’s Mechanical Turk platform. He also carried two larger surveys involving 4,193 atheists and theists from the U.S. (a predominantly religious country) and Sweden (a predominantly irreligious country).

“First of all, in my studies, I did not see any substantial differences in concerns for vulnerable individuals. Believers and disbelievers scored very similar on this moral value (as well as on concerns about fairness, liberty, and epistemic rationality),” Staahl tells ZME Science.

The major takeaway is that atheists do have strong moral principles and they share many of the concerns that religious people have, especially when it comes to fairness and protecting the vulnerable.

However, the two group think differently when it comes to some aspects. Disbelievers are less inclined than believers to endorse moral values that serve group cohesion, such as having respect for authorities, ingroup loyalty, and sanctity.

“In my research I show that people who do not believe in God do think differently about morality than religious believers do (in the US and in Sweden),” Staahl explains.

“In particular, disbelievers view it as relatively irrelevant for morality to respect authorities, to be loyal to one’s ingroup/community, and to be concerned about sanctity and purity. They are also more inclined than believers to determine whether an action is morally justifiable based on its relative consequences (the relative harm done).”

The idea, Staahl says, is that atheists are most concerned about the consequences of their actions when it comes to harm. Take the classic trolley problem: a runaway trolley is going down the tracks and it’s about to kill five people. You can save them if you use a switch to redirect the trolley, but this would kill one person on another track. Is morally justified to flip the switch?

“Atheists are more inclined than believers to say yes, because they focus more on the relative consequences of the action versus inaction (1 dead rather than 5 dead). They are more “consequentialist”, or “utilitarian” in their moral judgments about harm than religious people are. I hope this clarifies things.”

This can propagate an image of atheists as cold and calculated and less empathic, which can then contribute to the negative stereotypes many have about atheists. This builds on the previously mentioned 2017 study, which found that “religion’s powerful influence on moral judgements persists, even among non-believers in secular societies.”

Another notable find is that at least between the two investigated countries, non-believers in different countries have similar moral beliefs.

“The one other thing I would like to highlight here is how similar disbelievers’ views about morality were in Sweden and in the US. This is noteworthy, especially because the US is a highly religious country, by western standards, whereas Sweden is considered one of the most secular countries in the world. Similarly, religious believers’ views about morality were strikingly similar across these two countries as well,” Staahl noted in an email.

Ultimately, the study shows that regardless of where people stand in regards to religion, they seem to have working moral compasses. However, Staahl notes, there could be more “fine-grained” that were not explored in this study. For instance, it could be that believers and disbelievers tend to have different fairness principle or differ in their beliefs about what constitutes a vulnerable individual.

Ultimately, though the two groups seem to share similar moral principles.

Journal Reference: Ståhl T (2021) The amoral atheist? A cross-national examination of cultural, motivational, and cognitive antecedents of disbelief, and their implications for morality. PLoS ONE 16(2): e0246593.


New research takes a look into how superstitions develop and enshrine themselves

A new study is looking into how superstitions pop up — and why they endure.


Image credits Benjamin Nelan.

If we’re being honest, we’re not always the most logical of species. Roman leaders looked to the patterns of flying birds for guidance on important decisions, and builders today still sometimes omit the thirteenth floor from building plans. Humanity has harbored superstition for a long, long time now, and we’ll probably keep doing it for a while yet.

We know the number 13 doesn’t really invite bad luck, so why do we keep these superstitions going? Well, in a surprising twist of fate, a new paper reports that it is, sometimes, rational, to hold onto irrational behaviors. That is, if most other people hold onto them, too.

We’re wrong, but we’re wrong together!

“What’s interesting here is that we show that, beginning in a system where no one has any particular belief system, a set of beliefs can emerge, and from those, a set of coordinated behaviors,” says Erol Akçay, an assistant professor of biology at Penn, and the paper’s second author.

The researchers analyzed superstitions by applying the principles of game theory. They devised a model that shows how groups of people, each starting with distinct belief systems, can evolve a coordinated set of behaviors. These behaviors, in time, become enforced by consistent social norms.

Game theory is a branch of science that tries to model and predict how people interact and how they make decisions in a group or social setting. Akçay, alongside Bryce Morsky, a postdoctoral researcher, focused specifically on ‘correlated equilibria’ — scenarios in which all actors are given correlated signals that dictate their response to any given situation — to look into the issue.

A classical example of a correlated equilibria scenario, Akçay explains, “is a traffic light.” If two people are approaching an intersection, he goes on to say, one will see a ‘stop’ signal and the other one a ‘go’ signal, and both actors know this is the case. The rational way forward, then, is for both actors to obey the signal they see. In this example, the traffic light acts a ‘correlating device’ or a ‘choreographer’, as it informs the behavior of all actors combined.

What the team wanted to see was how this would go down if the correlating device was taken out of the picture. If people had to pay attention to other signals that could direct their actions, and then shape their beliefs according to the success of their actions, would coordinated behaviors arise? Essentially, this would show the team whether evolution can act as a “blind choreographer” of sorts.

“What if a cyclist is riding toward an intersection, and instead of a traffic light they see a cat,” Akçay says. “The cat is irrelevant to the intersection, but maybe the person decides that if they see a black cat, that means they should stop, or that maybe that means the approaching cyclist is going to stop.”

What color the is cat obviously has no bearing on anything else happening in the intersection. A black cat won’t make it more likely that a cyclist enters the intersection any more than a white cat would make it less likely that he wouldn’t. But, and here’s the crux, different colors of cats would have a consistent effect if enough people believed different-colored cats had an effect. It’s a type of conditional strategy that might result in a higher payoff to the cyclist if it is correlated with superstitions of other cyclists, the team explains.

The team’s model assumes that individuals are rational and don’t blindly follow norms, but will do so when the norms seem to have a beneficial effect. They would thus change their beliefs to more closely resemble those of successful people. In effect, this creates a dynamic similar to natural evolution where norms “compete” against one another inside the group.

This process eventually leads to the formation of new social norms. Whether or not these norms are stable, the team also found, comes down to whether they are consistent — meaning that they successfully coordinate individual behavior even in the absence of an external “choreographer.”

“Slowly, these actors accumulate superstitions,” adds Morsky, the study’s first author. “They may say, ‘Ok, well I believe that when I observe this event I should behave this way because another person will behave that way,’ and over time, if they have success in using that kind of a strategy, the superstitions catch on and can become evolutionarily stable.”

“Sometimes it may be rational to hold these irrational beliefs.”

Norms that are able to prescribe how one actor should behave while also giving them a reliable idea of how others will behave in any given situation give rise to superstitions because they help us coordinate large groups even in the absence of outside choreographers, such as traffic lights. To further explore their findings, the researchers hope to engage in social experiments to see whether individuals might start devising their own superstitions or beliefs when none are provided.

“What I like about this work,” says Morsky, “is that these beliefs are made-up superstitions, but they become real because everybody actually follows them, so you create this social reality. I’m really interested in testing that further.”

The paper “Evolution of social norms and correlated equilibria” has been published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Your brain might have a specific circuit for political arguments

Most people have deeply rooted political beliefs. As anyone who’s gotten in a heated political debate knows, most people are also very resistant to different opinions, becoming wildly defensive when their beliefs are threatened. Now, a new study might have pinpointed just how that happens.

Almost all political arguments are futile, because usually all parties refuse to consider that their beliefs are wrong. Image credits: Chiltepinster.

Researchers have found that when people’s political beliefs are challenged, their brains light up in areas that govern personal identity and emotional responses to threats. When people become defensive about their political opinions, parts of the amygdala light up, parts associated with decision-making and emotional reactions. So in a way, people don’t view politics rationally, but emotionally. In this way, politics is similar to religion.

“Political beliefs are like religious beliefs in the respect that both are part of who you are and important for the social circle to which you belong,” said lead author Jonas Kaplan, an assistant research professor of psychology at the Brain and Creativity Institute at USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. “To consider an alternative view, you would have to consider an alternative version of yourself.”

In order to reach this conclusion, researchers recruited 40 people who were self-declared liberals. They were presented with eight political statements and eight non-political statements, which they said to believe equally strong. They were then showed five counter-claims to each one of the 16 statements.

The amygdala — the two almond-shaped areas hugging the center of the brain near the front — tends to become active when people dig in their heels about a political belief. Credit: Photo/Courtesy of Brain and Creativity Institute at USC

The non-political statements were simple facts, such as “Thomas Edison invented the lightbulb” and “Albert Einstein was a great physicist.” But when presented with counter arguments, the participants’ belief in them waned. Yes, people started to doubt whether Einstein was a great physicist.

“I was surprised that people would doubt that Einstein was a great physicist, but this study showed that there are certain realms where we retain flexibility in our beliefs,” Kaplan said.

However, when it came to political beliefs, participants wouldn’t budge. They didn’t change their beliefs much, or at all, and the people who were the most resistant had the strongest activity in the amygdala. Most interestingly, a circuit of the brain called the Default Mode Network surged in activity when the political beliefs were challenged. The default mode network is most commonly shown to be active when a person is not focused on the outside world and the brain is at wakeful rest, such as during daydreaming and mind-wandering. But it is also active when the individual is thinking about others, thinking about themselves, remembering the past, and planning for the future. The importance of emotions should not be underestimated, even in complex, rational decisions.

“We should acknowledge that emotion plays a role in cognition and in how we decide what is true and what is not true,” Kaplan said. “We should not expect to be dispassionate computers. We are biological organisms.”

Sarah Gimbel of the Brain and Creativity Institute was a co-author of the study. She says that understanding why and how this happens could be key for our progress as a society.

“Understanding when and why people are likely to change their minds is an urgent objective,” said Gimbel, a research scientist at the Brain and Creativity Institute. “Knowing how and which statements may persuade people to change their political beliefs could be key for society’s progress,” she said.

Journal Reference: Jonas T. Kaplan, Sarah I. Gimbel & Sam Harris. Neural correlates of maintaining one’s political beliefs in the face of counterevidence. Scientific Reports, December 2016 DOI: 10.1038/srep39589