Very quickly, one of the questions asks whether there is a moral obligation to help a person who is in severe need.
You see a charity advertisement in a newspaper about a person in severe need in India/Australia. There is no state welfare available to this person, but you can help them at little cost to yourself. You have good reason to believe that any help you offer will make a difference. Are you morally obliged to help the person?
Half the people undertaking the activity are told that the person lives in India; the other half that the person lives in Australia. They are then asked to state whether they think we are “Strongly Obliged”, “Weakly Obliged” or “Not Obliged” to help the person.
The thing that has really caught my attention is the results for people who self-identify as Christians and atheists, respectively (more precisely, the atheist group self-identify as having “No Religion”, so they could be agnostics, or perhaps even deists of some sort, but for the sake of convenience, I’m going to call them atheists).
The headline news is that atheists are twice as likely as Christians to think we’re “Not Obliged” to help the person in need in India (currently, 43% as opposed to 21%).
I actually find that quite shocking. But perhaps even more shocking is the fact the atheist group are much less likely to respond that way when asked about the person in Australia. Here (only) 35% think we’re not morally obliged to help. There are two further points here: (1) this gap is four times as large as the average gap across all respondents (and it’s easily statistically significant – I checked!); and (2) if you look at the Christian group, in complete contrast to the atheist group, you find that they are more likely to think we’re not obliged to help the person in Australia.
My first reaction to these figures was to think I had messed up the programming somewhere. But I have double and triple-checked, and I’m almost certain that I haven’t. Plus, I’ve checked the numbers manually (so to speak); and the figures in the charts correctly add up to 100, so I think this really is what the numbers are saying.
My second reaction, of course, was to think about confounding variables and systematic biases. (Note to any stray new atheists reading this: I am fully aware of the dangers of a non-randomised, self-selecting sample, and that it is not possible to generalize these results, but the fact remains that these results are curious, and rather shocking, in and of themselves – we’re not talking about tiny numbers of people here).
So what’s going on? I don’t really know, but if I had to guess, I’d say it’s possible there is some correlation between youth and irreligiosity specific to these activities (because they tend to get picked up by European schools and colleges), and that it might be that young people are less likely to think in terms of moral obligation than older people; it also seems possible that various stripes of moral nihilism might result in non-religious people denying that one is morally obliged to help others (even if they would in fact help others).
But the difference between the atheist response to the India and Australia conditions is… well, harder to explain (and, as I said, it’s a little disturbing). Anybody got any ideas?