Atheists, Morality and Distant Others

In this post, I noted some rather curious data thrown up by Morality Play, an interactive activity I developed for Philosophy Experiments. It shows that 32% of atheists respond that they are not morally obliged to help somebody in severe need in India, even though to do so wouldn’t cost them much, compared to only 22% of Christians who respond the same way (a difference that is easily statistically significant). In other words, the data shows that people who self-identify as Christians are considerably more likely to think there is a moral obligation to help somebody in severe need (in India) than people who self-identify as atheists.

I got to thinking about this again partly because of the surprising and disappointing failure of the petition in support of Indonesian (ex-?)atheist, Alexander Aan, which only attracted 8,000 signatures, well short of the 25,000 required to secure a government response. (To put this number into some sort of context, consider that Richard Dawkins alone has more than 430,000 followers on Twitter.) A possible (partial) explanation for this failure, supported by the data noted above, is that many (online) atheists don’t believe they have a strong moral obligation towards relatively anonymous or distant others, or don’t feel the pull of such an obligation even if they believe they have it (or think they believe they have it).

There is some further evidence to support this explanation in the early results from another interactive activity at Philosophy Experiments – Peter Singer and the Drowning Child. This features the following question (amongst others):

Are you morally obliged to make a relatively small donation, perhaps to the value of a new shirt or a night out at a restaurant, to an overseas aid agency such as Oxfam within the next few days (and even if you have previously made such a donation, perhaps even recently)?

To date, a few more than 3500 people have completed the activity. The data shows that only 31% of people who self-identify as atheists respond that they are morally obliged to make such a donation, compared to 36% of people who self-identify as Christian, a difference that is statistically significant at p <.05. Moreover, if we also look at people who also self-identify as Muslim and Jewish (i.e., as adherents of Judaism), then the gap between how atheists and people who self-identify as religious respond widens (31% to  38%).

A few points here.

First, yes, I know, the sample is self-selecting (albeit in a more complex way than with your usual internet poll, because the data collection aspect of these activities is not what motivates people to complete them and is largely hidden), and, therefore, one cannot reliably generalize to any particular population.

Second, it’s entirely possible there are confounding variables at work here. For example, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the people who self-identify as atheist are on average younger than those people who self-identify as religious.

Third, notwithstanding these two points , this general result has now been found across two independent activities, with the question being asked in two different contexts and in two different ways. Amongst those who have completed these activities, people who self-identify as atheists seem less likely to believe they have a moral obligation to distant others than people who self-identify as religious.

Three questions are pertinent here:

a) Does this represent a real difference between atheists and religious people?

b) If so, what is its explanation (for what it’s worth, I wouldn’t be surprised if (online) atheists were disproportionately attracted to ethical egoism, moral individualism, and that like)?

c) Does it matter?

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