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?

Leave a comment ?


  1. Jeremy:
    The difference is that Christianity places charity front and central. It is the 3rd. pillar of Islam and an exact figure of 2.5% of wealth and assets is mentioned as mandated for all financially stable Muslims. Other world religions enjoin charity also. The atheists at the moment seem to be busy with lift etiquette and to hug or not to hug and wondering how deep Singer’s pond is. These are very important questions that you can decide almost without leaving your bedroom.

  2. InvincibleIronyMan

    I note that the exercise uses the words “moral obligation”. Let’s not forget that people don’t always act out of obligation. I have always felt that there is more merit in helping someone when I am not obliged to do so.

  3. Surely it’s not whether you feel morally obliges its whether you do help someone that is important . You can feel morally obliged and do nothing and visa versa.

  4. I would like to know what the figures will be hundred years from now. Atheism is still a relatively new “ism” and has therefore too close links to the religions it emerged from (islam – judaism – christianity). The moral obligation of atheists will thus link quite strongly to the moral obligation religious people feel.
    So my question is: Does atheism imply moral deterioration?

  5. MUrrav has the right idea. Amongst confounding issues could be that (say) atheists and christians each feel a similar ‘pull’ to help in the scenario you gave. But perhaps a different proportion will confirm – or honestly report – that they would act on that ‘pull’.

    An additional question to ask – as alluded to by MUrrav – is, even if one feels the ethical/moral ‘pull’ (as the scenario asks) does one reliably act upon it? Could the atheists simply be being more honest about their ‘hypocrisy’ in failing to act upon a self-identified ethical/moral imperative?!

  6. There’s a measurement issue here. If I remember my psychology of religion correctly, Christians tend to take more principled stances when asked about moral issues in polls, but that doesn’t necessarily mean there is a similar difference in observed behavior. A different interpretation would be that some people agree with such questions because they are under social pressure to act morally. They may, when asked, accept obligations not because they would be able to explain why they have such obligations, but because they know such answers are expected of them.

    There have been studies that have come up with similar differences between religious and nonreligious people, so I’m fairly certain there is a real difference, but that difference may be in ways of thinking about morality rather than actual behavior. If this is correct, it also leads to a different interpretation of the reasons for the difference. For instance, if respondents are motivated by a wish to appear like a moral person, or to conform to norms, it is not very important to think about means and ends: all you need is a public display of altruistic behavior, and donating to charity is an ideal way to do that. On the other hand, people who have actual moral commitments and are not simply conforming to external pressures have to think about means and ends. If you do that, it is not at all obvious that donating to Oxfam if the right thing to do: many might think that something like supporting trade policies that would be more favorable to poor countries would be better. So it’s not necessarily the case that nonreligious respondents would be more egoistic, although that is likely a partial explanation.

  7. From the perspective of an atheist asked similar questions, I must agree with others here. The question itself is going to skew the data collected for any significant argument. Atheists (I believe) tend to think more logically and analytically, and parse out words in statements like those two questions. Behavior, in the case of charity, should be measured, and not whether or not you’ve been taught by religion to answer such questions affirmatively.

  8. Guys

    Although it’s true that people might well believe that they’re morally obliged to do some act x, and yet not do x, the question here doesn’t ask about what people think they would actually do, merely about what they think they’re obliged to do.

    Of course, it is entirely possible that some people will respond as though they’re being asked about their behavior, and it’s also possible that atheists would be more likely to respond that way than Christians. However, there isn’t any evidence that this is what’s going on here (i.e., there isn’t any evidence that there is this particular systematic difference between atheists and Christians).

    Having said that, skepticism about the link between moral beliefs – or rather, claims about moral beliefs – and behaviour is absolutely right. There is no doubt that all sorts of factors are part of the story of people’s responses here. Nevertheless, it would be a stretch, I think, to argue that there is no relationship between what people claim to believe about the moral world and their actual behaviour.

  9. Dennis Sceviour

    InvincibleIronyMan has an interesting point. There is a known difference in opinion of the definitions of “moral obligation” and “legal obligation”. I prefer to use the terms “moral inspiration” or “moral intuition” to separate from obligation. However, after re-taking the Morality Play by assuming obligation=intuition, I get a lower parsimony score.

  10. The results have been surprising to me – I would have thought that a lot of atheists would be utilitarians, and therefore likely to accept fairly burdensome moral demands. But maybe not. I wonder whether metaethical issues are clouding things. I must say that I am pretty happy talking about actions being (morally) good or bad, but I’m not so happy with the language of moral obligation.

  11. re Jeremy S’s remark at 8.07am “Nevertheless, it would be a stretch, I think, to argue that there is no relationship between what people claim to believe about the moral world and their actual behaviour.”

    Several of us now have argued that there is a relationship – but it’s not necessarily the same relationship (between ethical/moral thought and action for atheists vs e.g. christians) to explain the 32% vs 22% ratio.

    You need to ask how readily the atheist and theist groups recognise and acknowledge in themselves a habitual disparity between their ethical/moral aspirations and their actions. I rather suspect that some have elided the subtle distinction and described what they deep-down know they would actually do rather than what they deep-down believe would be ‘right’.

  12. I think too many variables to draw any conclusions. I would prefer to conclude that Christians lie on surveys.

  13. I’m an atheist and I simply do not believe that I have any moral obligations at all.

    I wonder if other atheists share that point of view and how that would affect the statistics.

  14. Annoyed Atheist

    I am an atheist who took the quiz in question, and I answered that I had no moral obligation because I do not believe there are a set of mystical, etched in stone from the beginning of time rules that define how I should live my life.

    I base my actions on what my conscience, principles, and personal beliefs tell me what is right, and what is wrong, not because a guy in a suit tells me every Sunday that an all-powerful, all-seeing father figure will condemn me to an eternity of torture if I don’t follow his magic rules that say I should.

    Seriously, over 62% of people who believe in rules that demand that they help others don’t get called out when they don’t obey those rules, but 69% of people who don’t believe in those rules do get called out?

  15. I think we all have moral obligations. We are morally obliged to help someone who faces a human rights issue for example. Alex Aan is one. So when 8,000 sign a petition on his behalf, a more accurate indicator of who has, “a strong moral obligation towards relatively anonymous or distant others” would be to see what percentage of those 8,000 signatures were Christian, and how many were atheist? If the majority were atheist signatures, could it be concluded that in fact atheists feel more “morally obliged” than Christians?

  16. @DrCaffeine – Yes, I’m aware that the claim is that atheists and Christians might differ in whether they respond to the question as though it is asking about their (likely) behaviour rather than their moral beliefs (see my 2nd para, first sentence).

    If it were the case, then it would explain the difference. But I don’t find it a particularly plausible explanation of the difference, not least because one might also think that this factor could play out in the other direction (because of the point made by “dubious” above – online atheists might be disproportionately practiced at parsing the words in questions such as the one featured here, etc).

    Maybe I’ll test the proposition by making the distinction clear.

    @JohnPearce – Hmmm. I think “lying” is putting it too strongly, but it’s possible that there are cognitive factors in play that might make it more likely that Christians will claim to hold the belief that some moral obligation exists, where in fact their behaviour, etc., suggests they don’t actually hold the belief.

  17. “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?”


    I value the article and the point you are trying to make, but I do not believe that a single observation can help you answer these questions.

    I believe it is not possible to make any relevant conclusion with just one observation; there are too many confounding variables or parameters, and for any conclusion you need corroborating evidence.
    First, in my opinion, the observation- “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.”- is not firmly establish. Does the population in your study reflect the atheist population in general or is a particular subset? Have you clearly defined atheist? Do you understand the impact of the words “moral obligation” on the reader? Is he more or less inclined to accept the word “obligation”?, etc

    My question to you is what is the actual difference between atheist and religious (christians) that you are trying to define.

    But, if we look at the data, the sad part is that only 1/3 of us was willing to help another human being in a very difficult situation. I did not signed the petition; my terrible excuse none. Why is it so difficult for us all to help each other is a mystery for me. Perhaps we are too involved with ourselves? our thoughts? our opinions? I do not know.

    Thank you for the post and the reminder to be a good human being.

  18. to Juan J Miret’s points: “the sad part is that only 1/3 of us was willing to help another human being in a very difficult situation. I did not signed the petition; my terrible excuse none. Why is it so difficult for us all to help each other is a mystery for me.”

    First, to cheer you up Juan, it was just 1/3rd of atheists who did not feel “morally obliged” to help and 1/5th of Christians, so most of both groups are on the ‘good’ side. Your second point, ‘why is it so difficult’ perhaps unpicks part of why the atheists – even those with a ‘good’ conscience and ‘heart’ – might feel no “moral obligation” to help. They might recognise that they can’t help everybody – and the scenario describes a human situation shared by multi-millions of people; for one individual benefactor, that is little different everybody on the planet.

    Others have remarked, in various ways, that atheists (or up to 32% of them) might just be more calculated, or thorough in their analysis of the scenario and thus not identify this as a moral imperative for their personal action. For christians, their 22% figure is more damning (literally). They all – as declared christians – acknowledge their moral obligation to all their neighbours – so carefully defined by Jesus (qua the Good Samaritan as interpreted by most theologians) to including everyone.

    And finally, I hinted at this before in reiterating the question about what the atheist does rather than s/he sees as an imperative. Perhaps we (atheists) might prefer to believe that atheists perceive themselves to act positively and generously out of motives other than the perceived moral imperative. And one further complication that others have hinted at (and in line with e.g. Sam Harris’ take on Free Will) is that we might acknowledge that we act for reasons deeply uncomprehended by us .. .and not necessarily through intellectually perceived moral imperatives at all. It could be the fairy story our conscious brains weave to keep us content.

  19. I receive literally scores of petitions daily from distinct worthy causes, in several languages.

    I sign some and don’t sign others. It all depends on how pressed for time I am that morning.

    I hardly noticed the petition on Mr. Aan the first time and I suppose that Russell reminding us to sign it irritated me, assuring that I would not sign it, since I do not like to be badgered or to be sermonized.

  20. I agree with what Swallerstein has written so far. I do not do morals and do not feel the pressure of obligations. That said I tend to deal in practicalities and will give money to a charity if I am convinced it will make a significant difference for the better, which will last, Sadly this seems so often not to be the case. I think giving money to charity is rather like making financial investments you want to see something back from it, not to oneself I hasten to add, but as I say some real lasting difference somewhere.
    For instance if I were convinced that the sum of say £500.00 would set a young poor person on the road to success I would give it. I would not miss it, and it could mean so much to that poor person. Unfortunately multiple sums of £500.00 would eventually find me financially embarrassed and that I would not like. So there is a kind of practicality to my own idea of charity. I do not part with money easily and when I do, I do not feel good, or holy, or self righteous it just seems in the circumstances the best thing to do. Again like Swallerstein I do not like to be badgered or sermonised over things I prefer to consider the matter again on its practicalities that is, what is best to do?
    The case of Mr. Aan left me not un-sympathetic with his plight but somewhat mystified I read “Indonesian civil servant Alexander Aan posted on Facebook that he doubted the existence of God. He was then attacked and beaten by an angry mob, and arrested for blasphemy.” my first thoughts were that surely an educated man like Mr Aan knew he was putting his head into the noose when he wrote what he did. He surely anticipated the reaction So what is going on here? I need to know more. Signing the petition which was already dead in the water, would be no more that an empty gesture. Additionally revealing my existence to a foreign power with my having so little background knowledge of all that was entailed, was for me unwise.

  21. DrCaffeine: My apologies, I read the numbers incorrectly; you are right and that changes my view and evaluation.

    swallerstein and Don Bird; I share your views; I have gone through similar things.

    I misread the numbers, I though that only 20-30% of responders were willing or “morally obliged” to help, whereas the truth is that 70-80% are.

    This changes my perspective. I apologize.

    However, it makes more difficult for me to understand Jeremy’s point. Up to now the %difference seems to me irrelevant or inapropiate to make any conclusion.

  22. @Juan – The number of responders indicating they believe there is a moral obligation to help is different for the two activities.

    For Morality Play, 68% of people self-identifying as atheists, believe there is some level of obligation to help the person in severe need in India. But note, only 27% believe this is a strong obligation (even though helping will cost them very little).

    The Peter Singer & the Drowning Child question is tougher, because it requires people to endorse the view that they are morally obliged to contribute to a charity more or less right now (whereas this aspect is left vague in Morality Play). In this case, 69% of people self-identifying as atheists do not believe they have an moral obligation to make a small donation to an overseas charity.

    The percentage difference between atheists and Christians is significant in that if you run a stats test (a chi-squared test, for example) it shows that the difference is very unlikely to be a function of chance factors. In other words, it’s a real difference. The question is, though, whether this difference is a function of sampling bias and/or confounding variables, for example, or whether it is telling us something real about the populations of (online) atheists and Christians.

  23. One index of comparison would be the actual present number of Christian organisations that are involved in charitable work in India as against the non-denominational. The number of new adherents they get as a result is limited so that supposed payoff is not an explanation.

  24. Atheism is morally bankrupt and evil. The sooner people realise this the better.

  25. @Jeremy;

    I do not question that you observe a real difference in your thought experiments. But what I do question is the interpretation, significance and evaluation of this difference.

    First, is there a generalization that you are trying to make in the comparison of atheists vs christians? If that is so, which is this conclusion? The difference of opinion I have is that a single observation can not allow us to make any conclusion. In my opinion, only a collection of well designed studies/observations can allow us to make such conclusions. One observation is not sufficient.

    Even though it is true you found an statistical significant difference in a small sample of the population, this difference is, up to my understanding, very or at least small. Therefore, it is unclear how it will translate to bigger populations. And even if it translates does such a difference allow us to say anything about the two populations.
    Lastly, it is important to rule out confounding factors. For example: do christians are more prone to feel moral obligations in general than atheist’s. Finally, my question are our responsabilities to our society and fellow human beings only expressed by the term moral obligation.

  26. @ John Skelton

    The only evil I see is to call people with a different point of view, a different perpective of life, evil. And that evil has hurt a lot of people in the past and will do so in the future

  27. Juan:

    The willingness is donate money to a charity is just that.

    Even if atheists are less likely to give money to a charity which aids people in faroff lands, they may be more likely to give their seats to elderly women in the subway or to give first aid to accident victims or to stand up for a victim of racial discrimination or carry out thousands of actions which we consider to be within the realm of ethical behavior.

    I have no idea and to find out we’d have to follow atheists and Christians around for years to observe their day to day ethical behavior, which is what counts, not what they claim.

    The experiment is almost impossible to carry out and it is just as difficult to agree on what constitutes ethical behavior in order to carry out such a difficult experiment.

    As to what may motivate an atheist to ethical deeds besides moral obligation: how about compassion, a sense of solidarity, a desire to be helpful, a desire to be recognized by others as ethically motivated, a sense of shame, a commitment to political change, belief in a tradition of rules and behaviors, etc. etc.?

  28. It seems the simple question becomes do you think you have moral obligations, full stop. I am surprised to hear that some feel they do not have any moral obligations – with respect.

    Your opinions or views on compassion, solidarity, helpfulness, shame, belief in rules and behaviours etc, all shape your morals and how obliged you feel to act on them, or in other words your “moral obligations”. You can make a promise to someone, and you would have a moral obligation to keep it. If you make a promise without having this obligation, it is an empty promise. Whether you feel morally obliged or not to keep this promise depends on your own level of morality.

    Morals change daily so I wouldn’t be looking at any of the gods instructions for help. We see Christian morality at work with the no condom policy, and it kills five million Africans.

  29. a) Does this represent a real difference?

    Jury is out. Ask the social sciences to reach a nuanced expert consensus.

    b) If so, what is its explanation?

    See above. No philosophical speculation necessary.

    c) Does it matter?

    Only to the extent that one gender donates more than another. The starving don’t care. Why should the philosopher care to explain “giving” as a phenomenon that’s more manly/feminine or more godless/monotheistic? It sounds most uncharitable and counter-productive to highlight that one camp looks ethically superior in this area.

  30. Anonymous Coward – Just FYI, I am a sociologist by training, not a philosopher. I have a PhD in Sociology.

  31. I may have mentioned this before, but I think there may be an issue with the concept of moral obligation. It may be a matter of semantics – the meaning of “obligated”, but I’m not sure.

    As a psychologist, I’m more interested in willingness to act and this is, of course, not the same as either the belief that one is morally obligated or the attitude that one would be willing to act given a scenario.

    For example, I am unsure that we have moral obligations to help people. In fact, I have more respect for, and see more humanity in, pro-social acts if I look at them this way; we’re not obligated, but we do it anyway. And I’m not sure that I want to look at it the other way, which is quite negative.

    I do wonder what you would find if you asked people if they felt that helping was “the moral thing to do” or even just “the right thing to do”.

  32. This doesn’t surprise me in the least, especially given what I’ve seen of the online atheist community. I don’t know how that transfers into real life or if it does at all, but people who are capable of behaving as they do online are not likely to be able to empathize with those who are distant or different.

  33. When you are very strong on rationality (rational beliefs/reasonably held) you tend to have little patience with the fate of others that have only themselves to blame because they are under the sway of irrational behaviour and beliefs. This is not a good basis for empathy added to the assumption that one occupies the rational high ground. “I must live” said the beggar. “I don’t see the necessity of that” said the philosopher in reply. In a similar way you can’t prove the necessity of obligation or altruism and that may be a factor in the coolness towards the distant and feckless.

  34. @michael reidy

    I wondered where your evidence (or logical reasoning) came for asserting that ‘rationalists tend to have little patience with the fate of others … etc etc’.

    It then amused me simply to invert your entire statement – is it any more convincing like this?:

    When you are very strong on irrationality (irrational beliefs/unreasonably held) you tend to have more patience with the fate of others that have only themselves to blame because they are under the sway of rational behaviour and beliefs. This is a good basis for empathy added to the assumption that one occupies the irrational high ground. “I must die” said the beggar. “I see the necessity of that” said the philosopher in reply. In a similar way you can prove the necessity of obligation or altruism and that may be a factor in the warmth towards the distant and feckless.

    It is an easy trick. But doing it often helps to reveal whether a statement is likely to contain persuasive points.

  35. The results don’t tell us logically anything about atheism nor Christianity. To think it does would be propagating the Cum Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc fallacy. In other words, it does not follow that atheists feel less obligated to donate to India is because of some atheist philosophy.

    This goes both ways of course. There may be relatively more Christians in US prisons, but this does not mean that Christianity draws you toward crime.

    I see very little in this blog post that compels me to draw conclusions about the altruism in atheism or Christianity.

  36. Re John Skelton Aug 20 “Atheism is morally bankrupt and evil. The sooner people realise this the better.”
    That is surely merely a statement not an explanation or argument. As an Atheist I am left wondering maybe I have missed something.

  37. @Jonathan – I think everybody here is aware that the results don’t logically tell us anything about atheism or Christianity. That’s what a large chunk of this conversation is about!

  38. SWallerstein;

    I agree with your points, in fact you expressed much better what I was trying to say. we can not make any conclusions regarding the altruism/willingness to help/etc in atheists and christians based on a single observation.

    Even though, an experiement as you describe is impossible to carry out; I am confident that there could be better ways to have a better answer, more reflective of the beliefs and actions of the two groups.

    But first, we need to define what is the question, what is the difference we are trying to understand.
    Is the question or questions, is there a difference in the willingness to help? How much of that difference is due to religious vs non-religious beliefs? How is the concept moral obligation received/understood in the 2 groups? etc. Or the question is completely different something like, are religious/atheist beliefs better for society/human beings?

    Perhaps what I am trying to say is that groups divided by the label religious vs atheits are very complex and diverse, and I do not believe we will find the roots of social and/or antisocial behaviour in that distinction.

  39. @Barbara

    I do wonder what you would find if you asked people if they felt that helping was “the moral thing to do” or even just “the right thing to do”.

    I think this is a tricky issue. Supposing someone doesn’t do what you believe is “the right thing to do”?

    Are they culpable – i.e., are they blameworthy?

    If they are blameworthy, then it’s not entirely clear there’s a difference between the idea that some things are “the right thing to do” and the idea that we’re “morally obligated” to do those things.

    If they are not blameworthy, then it’s not clear there’s a difference between asserting that something is the “right thing to do” and that it is permissible to do that thing; or between asserting that something is the “right thing to do” and that it is admirable (and permissible) to do that thing.

    It would have been possible to ask people whether donating money to an overseas charity was admirable or good, but that’s really setting the bar very low. I was interested in whether it would be wrong not to donate, etc.

  40. Regarding the question of whether it matters or not, I don’t think you can answer that question properly without considering whether you think it’s ok to lie and threaten people to make them perform specific types of actions, because that’s what’s happening in the theist scenario.

    I’ll bet you’d get lots more donations and signatures if you constructed some scenario where the atheist not donating would result in him being tortured for years on end, but would that be the right thing to do? I just can’t see how it would be.

    That said, psychologists have motivating people into action down to a science, and simply asking people if they think X a moral duty without playing on the proper emotional strings and making it personal seems a bit unrealistic.

  41. @Illusio – I’m not sure that lying and threatening is the crux of the matter when it comes to theism. For two reasons:

    1. It’s not clear theists are (always or even often) lying. I’d think most would pass lie detector tests if asked about their beliefs. They’re mistaken, yes, but not deliberately misleading people, etc – at least, not normally.

    2. It’s not clear that threats are at the heart of the matter when it comes to people adopting particular moral codes. There can be an element of that, of course, but nevertheless it’s not implausible to think that theists believe it is wrong to kill (for example), not because they think the consequence of killing a person is eternal damnation, but just because killing is immoral (I realize that all the issues raised by the Euthyphro dilemma come into play here, and also the role of “threats”, etc., in the process of socialization).

  42. FYI. ‘Five Ways You Can Help Alex Aan..’

    Mentions also the recent US petition, and a link to another petition.

  43. As an atheist (67 yo) who took the test, this is what I thought:

    A. The wider you spread your charity the less it can accomplish.
    B. The more organizations there are between you and the recipient, the less likely they are to receive anything at all.

    And I signed the petition.

  44. The conclusion of Singer’s Drowning Child example uses an argument from analogy: This is what you said you would do in situaton A, which has some, and arguably superficial, similarities to situation B, therefore you must say you will do the same in B.

    I refused to accept the final claim because argument-by-analogy is a fallacious form of argument (both in general and here). My religious beliefs, if any, had nothing to do with this refusal.

  45. @Peterv – Hmmm. Two points:

    1. It’s only indirectly an argument by analogy. It’s an argument to a principle, and then the claim is that the principle is universalizable (though it is true that my activity depends upon a number of analogies).

    2. The activity has 4 pages analysing the ways the argument might go wrong. You’ll appreciate, then, that I’m not going to be entirely convinced by your sweeping claim that arguments by analogy are fallacious. You need to show (a) that it’s true that arguments by analogy are (necessarily) flawed; and b) that Singer’s argument is an argument by analogy in the relevant respect.

  46. Re:-peterv August 21

    Arguments from analogy are not fallacious they are at worst inconclusive. The degree of inconclusiveness varies form one argument to another. Some will border on certainly others less so and we usually speak of good or bad analogies. Consider a dog and a man; we know that both have hearts, both consume and digest food, and so on. It may be therefore reasonable to infer with some confidence that a dog also has a liver. Compare this with the inductive process. This does not generate certainty and yet the bulk of our scientific knowledge is based on it.
    Logic usually reserves the term Fallacy as a form of argument that seems to be correct but which proves on examination not to be so. Certainly some arguments from analogy will fall into this category, but it is surely incorrect to condemn as fallacious, all such arguments.

  47. Ideally an atheist rationally chooses their obligations and battles. Is a moral obligation the same as a rational obligation? The question/choice about moral obligation seems vague; the word moral reeks of theocratic blackmail. Does the question have the same meaning for both groups? Does an obligation equal taking action? For instance if the donation were to help promote birth control/abortion in India the Christian verses Atheist percentages might take a nose dive.

    I empathize with the unfortunate A. An for his precarious position. But if one resides in a known Theocratic state is it rational to take such an open stance? I would venture that an alive prudent atheist has much more chance of facilitating change, than one hanging from a hook in the village square.

  48. I also refused to accept the final claim, and answered “no” to it. Would I donate to “an overseas aid agency such as Oxfam?” The answer must be no. I personally know too much of the waste and corrupt actions of some of these overseas aid organisations, and also the affiliation some have with religion. So this is not how I make charitable donations and many atheists I know are the same. I noticed in the analysis the wording changed to “charitable donation”, in which case I would have answered yes. Flawed questioning that would have a great impact on the answering in my opinion.

  49. @John – It’s not flawed questioning. The final question is exactly as intended – Are you morally obliged to make a small donation to an overseas aid agency such as Oxfam? (That has to be the question, because it’s precisely Singer’s claim that this is what is morally required.)

    If anything is flawed, then it’s the analysis that follows (but I’m guessing in context it’s clear that I’m talking about the donation referenced in the question – which, after all, is a charitable donation, just of a particular kind).

  50. Jeremy. If singers objective was to find out if I would make a charitable donation, he will not get the correct answer by asking that question. He specifically stated an overseas aid organisation, which I could not answer yes to. If he wantd to know if I would make a charitable donation, he has asked the wrong question.

  51. @John – Well, it’s not Singer’s fault, because the design of the activity is mine (though it follows the structure of his argument very closely)!

    But it is specifically about whether or not people are morally obliged to make a donation to an overseas aid agency. If you’re interested, Singer outlined a short version of his argument in this paper:–.htm

    (He deals with the argument about waste in that article).

  52. Jeremy. The objective of Singer it seems is to find out if people feel morally obliged to make a charitable donation to those that are a distance to them. He gives overseas aid agencies such as Oxfam as examples of charities that can overcome this problem of distance. I think the questioning to find this out is wrong. Do I feel a moral obligation to make a charitable donation to those at a distance? Hell yes. Do I feel a moral obligation to make a donation to an overseas agency such as Oxfam? Hell no. As I stated earlier there are many I know that also feel this way about overseas organisations. Perhaps a religious person doesn’t have these concerns and answers yes?

  53. Do I feel a moral obligation to make a donation to an overseas agency such as Oxfam? Hell no.

    Yes, I realize that’s your position. I think Singer would argue that you’re overestimating the inefficiency, etc., of organizations such as Oxfam.

    But you’re right, if Christians, for example, were less likely than atheists to be suspicious of overseas aid organizations, then this could explain the discrepancy between Christians and atheists in terms of how they respond to the question I set, and it wouldn’t necessarily mean atheists believed they were any less obligated towards distant people (it would mean rather only that they were not going to fulfill their obligations via a donation to an overseas aid agency).

    So yes, in that sense, people’s attitudes towards overseas aid agencies could be a confounding variable (although, you’ll appreciate, we don’t actually know whether this is the case – there’s no particular reason to think that atheists would be more suspicious of organizations such as Oxfam than Christians).

  54. The inefficiencies of these organisations are reasonably well known, and many steer clear because of it. But also because of any affiliations with religion that these organisations might have. The fear of donating to a Christian organisation and your money going to defence lawyers etc. All issues for many. Thanks for the link.

  55. 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)?

    There’s surely no doubt that atheists are more likely than theists to be moral anti-realists. And various varieties of moral anti-realism might make a respondent reluctant to assent to bald assertions of moral obligation.

    I only looked at the first two questions, and both of those were framed in those terms. As a moral error theorist my intellectual judgement is that there are no moral obligations, so my answer to all questions (if I’d proceeded) would have been “Not obligated”. In other (non-philosophical) contexts I might have been inclined to express my intuition, and not my most intellectual judgement, so might have answered differently. And even in this context I would have answered differently if you’d asked whether I felt obliged.

    It might be interesting to know whether there were any respondents who individually answered “Not obliged” to every question. Or perhaps, like me, those who take such a meta-ethical position chose not to participate.

  56. @Richard – To date, 3% of people have responded that there is no moral obligation to rescue the drowning child (in Singer’s “baseline” scenario).

    Of those, 25% are willing to endorse a statement to the effect that even though they’re not obligated to save the child, they would be blameworthy if they didn’t. (People who respond that they’re not morally obligated get an extra question, precisely because I wanted to see what would happen if the language of strict moral obligation was toned down a notch).

    I think you’re right about moral anti-realism and atheism. I suspect that is part of the story here. Also, it seems likely that at least some percentage of people (atheists) would respond that they are obligated to save the child, etc., because they felt the obligation, rather than because they believed that there really was such an obligation (I think I would fall into that category).

    Also, your point about the meta-ethical position is valid. The Peter Singer activity explicitly discourages people from participating if they don’t accept even the minimal “blameworthy” criterion of moral obligation. However, it does actually record the results of the people who opt out (so long as they opt out in the “appropriate” manner – i.e., by indicating that they want their moral anti-realism (or whatever) to be recorded across all the activity’s questions).

  57. That’s interesting, Jeremy. Thanks. It’s probably just as well I didn’t participate.

  58. @Jeremy: I disagree with your analysis of the form of Singer’s argument. But suppose for the sake of argument that his argument is indeed 1. The derivation of a general principle of behavior from situation A, followed by 2. The application of that principle of behavior to another situation B.

    One could still object to the conclusion of the argument on two grounds unrelated to religion: (a) that the alleged principle is not in fact derivable from A, and/or (b) that the specific principle does not apply to situation B.

    My argument here is that you are inferring a role for religion in explaining the survey results when there are other reasonable explanations for the conclusions respondents reach. As I said, my objection to the conclusion arose from an analysis of the logical form of the argument, not any prior religious beliefs or practices.

  59. But Peterv, I’m not doing anything of the kind (i.e., inferring a role for religion, etc). I explicitly state that it isn’t possible to infer such a role.

    it’s entirely possible there are confounding variables at work here

    The only strong claim I’ve made is that there is a statistically significant difference in the way that Christians and atheists respond to these questions. That is true. I have not claimed that this difference is a function of religiosity or the lack thereof (though certainly that’s one – not implausible – explanation). I have merely raised that possibility as a topic for discussion, etc.

  60. Jeremy:

    I think that the difference between feeling obliged and being obliged that you point out is more or less what I “felt” when taking the quiz too.

    However, I felt obliged by myself to save the child, by my sense of who I am, rather than by moral rules or principles.

    So I’m not so sure that it was felt as a “moral” obligation per se.

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  62. I’m an atheist, and know little of the discipline of philosophy. Perhaps I don’t understand the academic use of the word “moral,” but it threw my mind’s consideration of the question into spasms of confusion. Like swallerstein (comment #81343, below), I perceive no “moral” component in a material, mechanistic universe (my final resolution will parallel swallerstein’s comment #82060). Yet, my personal values move me to consider the well-being of other humans to be equally as important as my own. I finally resolved my internal conflict over the answer to this question by removing the word “moral” from its text. Am I obligated to make a donation, to ensure the welfare of others? My answer is an immediate and unqualified “yes.”

    Some unscrupulous atheists use their worldview to justify a lack of obligation to help their fellows. Some religious folks are more inclined to contribute their resources to others, due to the rules of their doctrines. Yet I think that the measure of one’s faith in the supernatural, and the measure of one’s altruism are two separate axes, with no significant correlation, in the overall human population.

  63. Yet, my personal values move me to consider the well-being of other humans to be equally as important as my own.

    If somebody saw things differently to you, and didn’t save the child, even though it would have been very easy for them to do so (maybe, for example, they wanted to have a cigarette instead), would you think they were blameworthy? In other words, would you think it right to think badly of them as a result of their choice not to save the child?

  64. Perhaps the relative numbers of religious people vs. atheists in prison along with this ‘moral obligation’ show that a lack of reason makes people act out more at the extreme ends of the moral scale whereas atheists will tend to congregate around the middle.

  65. Re: jberry August 25

    “Yet, my personal values move me to consider the well-being of other humans to be equally as important as my own.”

    Are you absolutely sure of that? What about burning buildings, Sinking ships, would you really be the last one into the life-boat? The intrusion into your property by people who threaten the well being of your family. Self preservation and that of one’s offspring, is a powerful innate propensity. I think your well being could in certain circumstances, take precedence.

  66. I’ve followed this thread for some days now, after making an early contribution. I’m more than a little surprised how many turn their remarks on, or about, phrases like “I do it because I ‘felt’ I should, not out of a sense of ‘obligation’ … “. The respondents seem to perceive a difference between what they felt and whatever it was they would ‘feel’ if there was a sense of obligation. But – legal sanctions and outright coercion apart – what else does an obligation bring (to either an atheist or a theist) other than a feeling that one ought to act? Is there some degree of ‘ought-ness’ that is different between what some report as a ‘feeling’ and others as an ‘obligation’.

    For that reason, I suggest that what we need to hear about is whether respondents consider that it is their ‘feelings’ or ‘perceived obligations’ that lead them to act. What one feels is not really of great interest except when one’s actions differ from those encouraged -and perceived – as ‘feelings’.

    The extra mental cycle is one that I went through when completing the questionnaire – i.e. I did feel an obligation but also know that I would not act on it in the Singer-opined good way (for the remote, anonymous recipient). So the disconnect between one sense of obligation and how one acts remains to be explored. (An epicycle involves reflecting on the degree to which respondents report honestly on both aspects of this ethical dilemma – how one ‘feels’ and how one believes s/he would ‘act’.)

    I made the point earlier that the theists clearly do have an obligation as a part of their moral framework, assuming they’ve signed up whole-heartedly to their declared belief. Thus, I could note that the 22% of theists who do not acknowledge their obligation sensu stricto really are damned (they would believe).

  67. So nice to see the religious quote this as being a study that shows the lack of morality in atheists!

  68. @Erin

    1. Chris Stedman is an atheist;

    2. I would have no problem with religious people citing this data so long as they don’t misinterpret it, etc.

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  71. @Jeremy. If they were to misinterpret the data, religious or non-religious, would you feel morally obliged to say something?

  72. @John – If the following conditions were true:

    1. There was good reason to suppose that the misinterpretation of the data would likely cause non-trivial harm;

    2. There was good reason to suppose that my saying something would make things better (rather than worse, for example);

    3. The cost of saying something was not prohibitive (i.e., it would not require an act of heroism to say something);

    then I would be morally obliged to say something.

    Of course, this doesn’t mean that that there would be no merit in saying something if these conditions were not met.

  73. Thanks. Do you think that Chris Stedman’s article where he has quoted you meets any of these conditions that you list?

  74. @John – I don’t think Stedman’s article meets the criterion of having misrepresented the data…

  75. I disagree. As an atheist I am not happy that this “data” is being used as if a conclusion, or any conclusion, has or can be drawn from it. I think to do so is preposterous. Stedman quotes you and uses the results of your data in his argument. He fails to mention, as you even did..

    “ cannot reliably generalize to any particular population.”

    “’s entirely possible there are confounding variables at work here.”

    Several here have mentioned variables and parameters that would stop one from making any conclusions from this data. Stedman makes no mention of it.

    Obligations aside, you are happy to have your name where it is, in it’s context, in this article?

  76. as if a conclusion, or any conclusion, has or can be drawn from it.

    @John – Now you’re misrepresenting what Chris said. He said (my italics):

    A recent study by philosopher Jeremy Stangroom may shed some light on why some atheists’ definitions of social justice don’t seem to include the religious

    And then he said he wondered “if one of the issues at work is that many atheists see Muslims, Sikhs, and other religious individuals as distant others,” which is an entirely reasonable thing to wonder about.

    He just didn’t make a strong claim about what the data shows. And, actually, the data remains suggestive, regardless of the possibility that confounding variables might be in play here (don’t forget, confounding variables are always floating around social scientific research).

    Yes, I’m entirely happy to have my name mentioned in that article – albeit I got called a philosopher, when in fact I’m a sociologist.

  77. Jeremy. How have I misrepresented what Chris said?

    “A recent study by philosopher Jeremy Stangroom MAY shed some light on why some atheists’ definitions of social justice don’t seem to include the religious”

    This MAY is not what I mean by concluded (to me it sheds no light and no conclusions can be drawn). It’s A RECENT STUDY and it’s data, that seems to be the conclusion. No mention of the study, it’s parameters and variables, it’s flaws, and which as you say, has data that remains suggestive. Rather he uses your study to “shed some light”. Such as, “why some atheists’ definitions of social justice don’t seem to include the religious”. I suggest no light shedding can be done from that study.

    When Chris wonders “if one of the issues at work is that many atheists see Muslims, Sikhs, and other religious individuals as distant others,” he wonders this because of the data from the study. I wonder where else this “study” will show up suggesting what it does?

  78. @John – But the fact you think the study sheds no light, etc, is neither here nor there. Chris might think otherwise. It would have been a claim too far had Chris stated that the study definitely sheds some light on the phenomenon under discussion. It’s not a claim too far to state that it may shed some light, etc.

    That’s entirely reasonable. It might well do, etc (which is partly why it is suggestive).

    And I see nothing in what Chris has written to suggest he thinks that any sort of conclusion can be drawn from this study alone (though he may well be aware that there is plenty of other research to back up his thoughts about how we tend to view the moral status of distant others.)

    Anyway, as I say, I’m entirely happy to have my name attached in the matter he attaches it, etc.

    The last word on this is yours (should you want it)! 😎

  79. The last.

    “It’s not a claim too far to state that it may shed some light, etc. That’s entirely reasonable.”

    I think it’s entirely unreasonable. As a result of the data from that study, he asks why some atheists’ definitions of social justice doesn’t seem to include the religious.

    Just one of many questions that could be asked as a result of the “study”.

    All interesting. Thanks for the time and responses.

  80. Re the last few messages around “A recent study by philosopher Jeremy Stangroom may shed some light …”

    It could be helpful to reflect on the way the word ‘may’ was interpreted by Jeremy. Was he being generous (to Chris Stedman) by taking it to flag ‘a possibility’, ‘one possible interpretation’ etc? However, many folk employ such phrases with ‘may’ in its permissive sense (interpretations are allowed or reasonable). I think that second sense is the way John Pearce was reading things.

    I’ve long preferred to deploy ‘might’ when I mean ‘could be’, ‘there is the possibility that ..’ etc. (In those cases, might is right). In speech, where emphasis is deployed, ‘may’ can more reliably convey the intended meaning, unequivocally ranging all the way from ‘highly unlikely’ to ‘a racing certainty’.

    Try substituting in the original phrase “A recent study by philosopher Jeremy Stangroom may shed some light ..” with ‘might’, ‘could’, ‘probably’, ‘possibly’, never mind ‘quite possibly’, ‘very probably’, and the rest; each offers a different take. Generally, ‘may’ is a word like ‘nice’ – far too imprecise on which to build any reliable sense of the writer’s intentions.

    It’s all about the words, innit?

  81. @DrCaffeine – I think one issue here is that I just take it as a given that no single piece of empirical research in the social sciences ever establishes a conclusion definitively. The sort of data I’ve collected would only have any real force in the context of a whole lot of other data, etc (which is partly why I think it’s interesting that I’ve found the same pattern of responses across two different “activities”).

    Also, I think the words “shed some light” are deflationary anyway. I take it that this sort of expression means something less than that some factor x explains or causes some other y.

    The final point to make is that Chris does link to the my original post. It’s not as if he’s pulling some sort of smoke & mirrors trick here. People only have to click through, and they get to see my caveats, plus the comments of everybody else here.

  82. Dr Caffeine. I don’t think there is a misunderstanding of the word “may”. I will give an example of the point I try to make. A study, that is equally as questionable, shows data that Muslims are more likely to kill than Jews. 32%/22%. Then you see an article where that study is cited, and there is discussion on it, or theories, as to why Muslims might be more likely to kill than Jews. Based on a “study”.

    So when Jeremy says, “But the fact you think the study sheds no light, etc, is neither here nor there”, and “Chris might think otherwise”, in a way makes my point. The fact that I think the study sheds no light means everything, and Chris should not be thinking otherwise. No-one should be thinking otherwise from this study. To do so would be the same as to wonder why Muslims kill more than Jews, and to start discussing and theorising why. Already we see the question being asked by Chris, “why some atheists’ definitions of social justice don’t seem to include the religious”. The snowball starts – from a “study”. Anyways..

  83. @John – I think whether your objection has any force depends on a number of factors:

    1. The extent to which one judges the study to be flawed. I think my data is probably more reliable than you think it is. I think the fact that the pattern is found across two different “studies” is… well suggestive.

    2. The extent to which the data is out of line with what we already know about a given phenomenon (part of the force of your example is that we’re suspicious of the finding before we start). I don’t think there is anything particularly contentious about the claim that we tend to lack moral concern for distant others (and I think it’s possible to explain why atheists, more so than Christians, might deny they have moral obligations in this regard – the point about moral anti-realism, discussed above);

    3. The extent to which the questions are reasonable, etc., in the absence of the data. So, in your example, the data is a prerequisite for the discussion, but that just isn’t true in the case of Chris’s article: it’s entirely possible to wonder whether atheists perceive Muslims to be somehow “other”, and if so, about the moral consequences of this perception, without the data my studies provide. Basically, it’s a fairly obvious thing to wonder about.

    4. The extent to which the subject of the article is the studies/data under discussion. Obviously if Chris had written a whole article about my studies, then it would have been… wise to have mentioned a few caveats. But that’s just not what he did here (see my point 3 above).

    And so on.

    Basically, yes, your objection can have force, but it doesn’t in this case (in my view).

  84. @John – I’ve got a question for you.

    Suppose my studies had shown there was no difference between atheists & Christians in terms of how they view distant others.

    Would you have objected if Chris had referenced it to support, for example, an argument to the effect that if there is a problem within the atheist community, then it is no less a problem within religious communities?

    You see, I rather suspect we wouldn’t be having this conversation if that had been the case… (though maybe I’m doing you a disservice).

  85. Yupp. To the substance, I agree with John’s stance on this point. Perhaps I’m excessively burdened by a lifetime in (relatively) hard science (biomed), but I do look to see something reliable, definitive emerging from a ‘study’. The (to me) fascinating tease with Jeremy’s survey-based study (I’m dropping inverted commas now …) includes working through the more plausible caveats in order to counter the glib interpretations that others have evidently leapt upon (leapt to?).

    Thus, I remain interested in the wording in the question posed to generate the respondences Jeremy has logged. This explains my early post suggesting the difference (if real) could lie in differential atheist/theist interpretations of what a moral/ethical imperative actually amounts to. This interpretation would allow that the data are not reporting real differences in what we might call the moral compass of the two groups, but merely in their introspection about their labelling of their motivations for action.

    Jeremy qualifies his study’s robustness by offering it as (merely?)) Social Science. I’m reminded that Ernest Rutherford (or Lord Kelvin according to some) once remarked to the effect that ‘all science is physics, the rest is stamp collecting’. Well, we all do our best!

    PS Can I assume the comment “to wonder why Muslims kill more than Jews” is taken to be a percentage (i.e. it’s a ‘rate’) rather than (as implied by “more”) a number?

  86. @DrCaffeine – Trouble is, you’re just never going to get the sort of reliability of the hard sciences in the social sciences. It’s too difficult to control all your variables.

    Even where you do so in a fairly robust manner, as, for example, in the case of studies of the heritability of intelligence that compare MZ and DZ twins, you run into difficulties (e.g., the possibility that the parents of identical twins will deliberately treat their offspring differently in order to encourage their individuality, etc).

    Also, there’s a long tradition of qualitative research in the social sciences that has nothing to do with reliability, replicability, etc. I think it would be… unreasonable to think that people couldn’t write about these sorts of studies, and couldn’t attempt to draw tentative conclusions from them, just because they don’t match the rigor of the natural sciences.

  87. @Jeremy Stangroom – No, I’m very content that well-formed studies take place under conditions that physicists would find, shall we say, ‘difficult’. All sciences necessarily go through the philatelic phase; it generates the substrate for the mathematical stuff.

    I’m sure you’ll be able to report that quantitative studies (a necessary precursor to anything mathematical) abound in the Social Sciences. And you’ll also know that tacking down the confounding variables in itself generates new, more incisive research questions. But one plea (that John Pearce might make too) is that to merit a survey being termed ‘a study’, even Social Scientists have to meet explicit, field-policed criteria.

    A mere anecdote is not evidence, but a statistically reliable collection of anecdotes might (?may) provide some.

  88. even Social Scientists have to meet explicit, field-policed criteria.

    Yeah, “study” is the wrong language to describe what I’m doing. Actually, “survey” is also the wrong language.

  89. Jeremy. Firstly, No bias whatsoever but a fair enough question. We would still be having the conversation. I have more of an interest in other areas being discussed here.

    I have issues with a couple of these “factors” and could elaborate, but feel my concerns are now at least understood.

    Dr Caffeine. Yes, I would also make that plea.

  90. @John – Yes, I do understand your concern. Basically, it’s the worry that somebody might find a small, flawed study showing a relationship between MMR and autism, and then run a bloody great story about it in the Daily Mail. 🙂

    I don’t think that’s what Chris has done, but if somebody wrote a bloody great story about the immorality of atheists based solely on the data from my “not-studies”, then yes, I would have a problem with that, and to the extent that it was likely to be damaging, etc., I would be morally obligated to say something.

    I guess where we don’t agree would be to do with to what extent it is reasonable to expect empirical research in the domain of social science to be robust in a way that precludes the possibility that confounding variables are throwing things off. Off the top of my head, I don’t know of any sociological research that would pass that test (so, for example, if you take one of the classics of positivist sociology, Durkheim’s Suicide study, you’ll find that sixty years after the data was collected, sociologists were still figuring out ways that it might be systematically biased). Given that fact, I’d want argue – strongly – that it is entirely permissible to cite data that remains suggestive rather than definitive, so long as you do so responsibly. Obviously, how this cashes out in practice is complicated, and to do with the sorts of factors I talked about above (among others).

  91. Jeremy. My concern is the same that the Muslim would have in the analogy given. Was it his upbringing? His level of morality? These questions being asked as a result of a flawed study. Why would the atheist feel less obliged morally to give to people at a distance? Was it his upbringing? Could it be that he sees Muslims, Sikhs as distant others? Well no, I’m not retarded, and this theorising as to why the reason might be, is wrong. Just as it would be to theorise why Muslims are more likely to kill, based on an unsubstantiated study.

    “Given that fact, I’d want argue – strongly – that it is entirely permissible to cite data that remains suggestive rather than definitive, so long as you do so responsibly.” We will need to agree to disagree. I think discussion around it can only be unhealthy. And if someone were to string three of these “studies” together, they would then have “compelling evidence”. Dawkins forbid.

  92. @John – Yes, I think we are going to have to agree to disagree.

    Partly because you keep saying “flawed study” as if that statement is unproblematic. It is not unproblematic. I now have two separate datasets that suggest there is a systematic difference between how atheists and theists see moral obligation. This difference makes sense in terms of a distinction between various stripes of moral anti-realism & deontological ethics.

    It is true that one would not be justified in drawing a strong conclusion from the two datasets as they stand. It is not true that you would be justified in claiming definitively that they provide no evidence in support of the contention that there is a real difference between how atheists and theists see these things. Certainly, these results are intriguing enough to suggest that further research would be justified. And yes, if another study showed a similar effect, then that too would add to the picture. This is how a lot of social science works. You’re not going to get clear definitive results from any single study. Ever.

    And partly because Chris’s question is entirely justified in terms of what we *already* know about how people – not just atheists, but atheists nonetheless – tend to view distant others, and indeed, anybody who is not part of their in-group. In other words, what Chris is doing is not analogous to your Muslim violence thing, because of what we already know about human behaviour.

    I can cite vast quantities of research if you really want, but I suppose as a starting point you could look at Henri Tajfel’s “minimal group paradigm” research, which frankly is pretty terrifying. (And yes, I understand that this would apply equally to theists, but actually Chris’s general point is not dependent upon there being a difference between atheists and theists.)

    Anyway, it’s been a fun discussion, I think we understand each other, we just don’t agree.

  93. No. You are wrong. I challenge you to a physical duel. It must be sorted.

  94. Can I hold the pistols?

    Seriously, I think a good deal of this discussion still hangs on the point I raised right at the beginning. I (as an atheist) might well report that I do not feel a “moral obligation” to provide help at a distance. However, had you asked, I might well report that I would very probably help (small cash donation scenario). The next question would be ‘ok, so what was my motivation’? Introspection might lead me to assert one of a variety of thoughts, ranging from strict ethical considerations, political, humane sympathy through to the aesthetic. Depending how familiar one is with the terminology and how pedantic one might be about the words, I suspect many declared atheists would not use the term ‘moral obligation’ as readily as those of a religious bent.

    My point is (and was) that the perception of motivation resulting from an explicit moral imperative comes easily to a Christian (for example) since believers are used to interpreting the world and their actions in such terms. Indeed (as I noted earlier) the real surprise (in the scenario response result) is that Christians don’t report closer to 100% since, for them, there is an unequivocal moral imperative to come to the aid of their neighbour.

    For me, this is the issue that undermines the possible value of the ‘study’. There are additional layers due to other confounding factors, but the core interpretation being worked upon here (as to whether atheists or Christians act more morally) is almost certainly flawed: the study didn’t robustly ask about charitable action per se , it asked about the motivation for such action.

  95. Following what one regards as a moral obligation is in my opinion inferior to giving to charity out of the goodness of one’s own heart.

  96. Perhaps atheists who responded to the survey were simply more skeptical about the chance that money donated via those overseas organizations would actually reach the needy.

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


    b) If so, what is its explanation?

    Atheists are NOT part of a group (religious people) instead of being part of a group (atheists). Religious people ARE part of a group. They are also encouraged by their beliefs to be charitable to others. Atheists emulate Americans, and are therefore encouraged to become progressively more greedy and self-centred.

    c) Does it matter?


  98. re: Steve Merrick’s piece: Oct 26 “Atheists emulate Americans” …

    Where did that come from? I thought Romney was a Yank, for example? This side of the pond, many of us do our damnedest not to ’emulate’ Americans.

    It’s my experience that many (self-declared) atheists are strongly humanitarian and show a generosity of spirit and action that many with (self-declared) religious beliefs find hard to match (… or emulate).

  99. Re Steve Merrick 26th Oct.
    I would say that atheists are as much of a group as are religious people. As dedicated to their atheism as as the others are to their religion.
    What evidence do you have that Atheists emulate Americans? Why would they want to do that? In any case many Americans are atheists. Religious people are additionally encouraged by their beliefs to decapitate people, burn them, burn their books, mutilate their genitalia, wage war, sacrifice animals, and spurn and despise others who do not share their beliefs. Not so is I believe, case with the vast majority of atheists.

  100. In the fairly recent past they’ve invented a bunch of new terminology to refer to those biased against certain groups, for example, homophobes biased against gay people or Islamophobes biased against Muslims or ableists biased against people with disabilities.

    Couldn’t we invented atheistophobes to refer to those biased against atheists, who, after all, are a very diverse group of human beings and in some countries or regions, Cuba, the ex-East Germany and Denmark constitute the majority of the population?

    It’s hard to imagine that people in the ex-East Germany are any less virtuous (or more virtuous) than those in any other land, just because, for historical reasons, they are in their majority non-believers.

    Do we really have to argue about this again? I’m so sick of the new atheists and their militant atheism, but some days, I understand them.

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