Does Religion Make You Nice?/Does atheism make you mean?

Does Religion Make You Nice?
Does atheism make you mean?
By Paul Bloom
Posted Friday, Nov. 7, 2008, at 7:05 AM ET

Many Americans doubt the morality of atheists. According to a 2007 Gallup poll, a majority of Americans say that they would not vote for an otherwise qualified atheist as president, meaning a nonbeliever would have a harder time getting elected than a Muslim, a homosexual, or a Jew. Many would go further and agree with conservative commentator Laura Schlessinger that morality requires a belief in God—otherwise, all we have is our selfish desires. In The Ten Commandments, she approvingly quotes Dostoyevsky: “Where there is no God, all is permitted.” The opposing view, held by a small minority of secularists, such as Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens, is that belief in God makes us worse. As Hitchens puts it, “Religion poisons everything.”

Arguments about the merits of religions are often battled out with reference to history, by comparing the sins of theists and atheists. (I see your Crusades and raise you Stalin!) But a more promising approach is to look at empirical research that directly addresses the effects of religion on how people behave.

In a review published in Science last month, psychologists Ara Norenzayan and Azim Shariff discuss several experiments that lean pro-Schlessinger. In one of their own studies, they primed half the participants with a spirituality-themed word jumble (including the words divine and God) and gave the other half the same task with nonspiritual words. Then, they gave all the participants $10 each and told them that they could either keep it or share their cash reward with another (anonymous) subject. Ultimately, the spiritual-jumble group parted with more than twice as much money as the control. Norenzayan and Shariff suggest that this lopsided outcome is the result of an evolutionary imperative to care about one’s reputation. If you think about God, you believe someone is watching. This argument is bolstered by other research that they review showing that people are more generous and less likely to cheat when others are around. More surprisingly, people also behave better when exposed to posters with eyes on them.

Maybe, then, religious people are nicer because they believe that they are never alone. If so, you would expect to find the positive influence of religion outside the laboratory. And, indeed, there is evidence within the United States for a correlation between religion and what might broadly be called “niceness.” In Gross National Happiness, Arthur Brooks notes that atheists are less charitable than their God-fearing counterparts: They donate less blood, for example, and are less likely to offer change to homeless people on the street. Since giving to charity makes one happy, Brooks speculates that this could be one reason why atheists are so miserable. In a 2004 study, twice as many religious people say that they are very happy with their lives, while the secular are twice as likely to say that they feel like failures.

Since the United States is more religious than other Western countries, this research suggests that Fox talk-show host Sean Hannity was on to something when he asserted that the United States is “the greatest, best country God has ever given man on the face of the Earth.” In general, you might expect people in less God-fearing countries to be a lot less kind to one another than Americans are.

It is at this point that the “We need God to be good” case falls apart. Countries worthy of consideration aren’t those like North Korea and China, where religion is savagely repressed, but those in which people freely choose atheism. In his new book, Society Without God, Phil Zuckerman looks at the Danes and the Swedes—probably the most godless people on Earth. They don’t go to church or pray in the privacy of their own homes; they don’t believe in God or heaven or hell. But, by any reasonable standard, they’re nice to one another. They have a famously expansive welfare and health care service. They have a strong commitment to social equality. And—even without belief in a God looming over them—they murder and rape one another significantly less frequently than Americans do.

Denmark and Sweden aren’t exceptions. A 2005 study by Gregory Paul looking at 18 democracies found that the more atheist societies tended to have relatively low murder and suicide rates and relatively low incidence of abortion and teen pregnancy.

So, this is a puzzle. If you look within the United States, religion seems to make you a better person. Yet atheist societies do very well—better, in many ways, than devout ones.

The first step to solving this conundrum is to unpack the different components of religion. In my own work, I have argued that all humans, even young children, tacitly hold some supernatural beliefs, most notably the dualistic view that bodies and minds are distinct. (Most Americans who describe themselves as atheists, for instance, nonetheless believe that their souls will survive the death of their bodies.) Other aspects of religion vary across cultures and across individuals within cultures. There are factual beliefs, such as the idea that there exists a single god that performs miracles, and moral beliefs, like the conviction that abortion is murder. There are religious practices, such as the sacrament or the lighting of Sabbath candles. And there is the community that a religion brings with it—the people who are part of your church, synagogue, or mosque.

The positive effect of religion in the real world, to my mind, is tied to this last, community component—rather than a belief in constant surveillance by a higher power. Humans are social beings, and we are happier, and better, when connected to others. This is the moral of sociologist Robert Putnam’s work on American life. In Bowling Alone, he argues that voluntary association with other people is integral to a fulfilled and productive existence—it makes us “smarter, healthier, safer, richer, and better able to govern a just and stable democracy.”

The Danes and the Swedes, despite being godless, have strong communities. In fact, Zuckerman points out that most Danes and Swedes identify themselves as Christian. They get married in church, have their babies baptized, give some of their income to the church, and feel attached to their religious community—they just don’t believe in God. Zuckerman suggests that Scandinavian Christians are a lot like American Jews, who are also highly secularized in belief and practice, have strong communal feelings, and tend to be well-behaved.

American atheists, by contrast, are often left out of community life. The studies that Brooks cites in Gross National Happiness, which find that the religious are happier and more generous then the secular, do not define religious and secular in terms of belief. They define it in terms of religious attendance. It is not hard to see how being left out of one of the dominant modes of American togetherness can have a corrosive effect on morality. As P.Z. Myers, the biologist and prominent atheist, puts it, “[S]cattered individuals who are excluded from communities do not receive the benefits of community, nor do they feel willing to contribute to the communities that exclude them.”

The sorry state of American atheists, then, may have nothing to do with their lack of religious belief. It may instead be the result of their outsider status within a highly religious country where many of their fellow citizens, including very vocal ones like Schlessinger, find them immoral and unpatriotic. Religion may not poison everything, but it deserves part of the blame for this one.

Paul Bloom is a professor of psychology at Yale University, and author of Descartes’ Baby: How the Science of Child Development Explains What Makes Us Human. He is currently writing a book about pleasure.

I really enjoyed this article, thanks Felix!

Excellent read. So it appears that community is the key binding agent, as opposed to religious belief. People are more inclined to give back to a community that they are a part of.

Dorky–That’s what Bloom thinks. But then, he’s an atheist. He does have some statistical support for his view. Since it is sociological, of course, it’s inconclusive. It’s not simple. Bloom knows that. In another article he wrote:
“…the religious divide between Americans and Europeans may be smaller than we think. The sociologists Rodney Stark, of Baylor University, and Roger Finke, of Pennsylvania State University, write that the big difference has to do with church attendance, which really is much lower in Europe. (Building on the work of the Chicago-based sociologist and priest Andrew Greeley, they argue that this is because the United States has a rigorously free religious market, in which churches actively vie for parishioners and constantly improve their product, whereas European churches are often under state control and, like many government monopolies, have become inefficient.) Most polls from European countries show that a majority of their people are believers. Consider Iceland. To judge by rates of churchgoing, Iceland is the most secular country on earth, with a pathetic two percent weekly attendance. But four out of five Icelanders say that they pray, and the same proportion believe in life after death.”

Bloom also had an interesting view of militant atheists like Dawkins, Dennett and Harris. He amintains that, by adopting a strong position, they make compromise possible. Militant atheists are like gay advocates who say “lets have gay marriage”. So then others respond "that’s too extreme that’s bizarre. Lets compromise and allow civil unions.” All of a sudden a position that no one would have accepted is on the table. So Bloom thinks maybe having Dawkins around makes it easier for someone to say “I’m an agnostic.” Or that “maybe we shouldn’t teach creationism in biology class.” He thinks that the extreme position creates a space for middle-of-the-road views. So he argues that the end justifies the means even if the confrontational style of people like Dawkins makes people uncomfortable.

I read that article some time back, and it makes good points. As a young man I was a Catholic and fairly devout, but later became an atheist (or on a very good day, agnostic). I certainly can’t say I was any nicer back then! On the contrary, I think experience and the wisdom of age have mellowed me out, and I feel philosophy has done more to make me kind to others than religion ever did.

In a country where religion isn’t considered very important a nonbeliever can still participate fully in society- that integration is the key. Being atheist doesn’t make you bitter or mean, but being excluded does.

Atheism makes me mean.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T27kB4BjbEg[/youtube]

The guy doesn’t cite sources though

The problem with Atheism in America is that same-sex marriage hasn’t marched to a win yet.

The other problem?
Atheists speak clearly instead of causing riots or picketing in violence.

If ever Martin Luther King Jr. was right, that no violent sides are needed, Atheism stands to prove him in that effort; so far, they have failed Mr. King.

Why is that a problem? (honest question)

How many social changes have occurred quietly, respectfully, and peacefully in America?
(in fact…the world and history would work as well, but I can only directly speak of America first hand)