Morality Survey Revisited: How Did Humanists Measure Up?

On August 23 we published the article, “Can Good Be Good if Nobody Knows It?” to address a morality study published by Nature Human Behaviour. The study concludes that the majority of us, regardless of our religious affiliation, ultimately believe that atheists are more immoral than those who believe in a supernatural deity. “Even atheists,” the researchers found, “intuitively associate serial murder more with atheists than with believers.”

Do members of the nontheist community really associate immorality more with themselves than others? We decided to put the survey to an unofficial test. We created our own survey, based on the study’s supplemental documents, and put it out to the readers of Over one thousand of you responded.

In the original formal study led by Wil Gervais of the University of Kentucky, researchers described the measure they developed to “assess extreme anti-atheist prejudice by using a simple experimental design that targets intuitive biases” as follows:

[P]articipants read a description of a man who tortures animals as a child then as an adult exhibits escalating violence culminating with the murder and mutilation of five homeless people. Then, participants are judged whether it is more probable that the villain is (A) a teacher or (B) a teacher who either (manipulated between subjects) is a religious believer or does not believe in god(s). Thus, no individual participant is directly asked whether they think the perpetrator is or is not a believer. Instead, the conjunction fallacy rates (choosing option B—a logically incorrect answer) between conditions can be used to infer indirectly the degree to which a description of a serial murderer is intuitively seen as more representative of religious people or atheists, respectively.[emphasis added.]

In simple terms, the researchers evaluated how many of us would make an illogical choice when confronted with the additional information of an immoral person’s belief conditions. Let’s see how readers responded in our informal version.

1. A forty-two-year-old woman was out of town on vacation. She had dinner at a restaurant, finished her meal, and left without paying the bill. Which is more probable?

a. The woman is a teacher.
b. The woman is a teacher and is a religious believer.
c. The woman is a teacher and does not believe in gods.

In our survey, 600 participants chose the logically correct answer, “the woman is a teacher.” Slightly fewer, 590 participants, chose the incorrect condition of “is a religious believer,” while only seven chose the incorrect condition: “does not believe in gods.”

2. When a man was young, he began inflicting harm on animals. It started with just pulling the wings off flies, but eventually progressed to torturing stray cats and other animals in his neighborhood. As an adult, the man found that he did not get much thrill from harming animals, so he began hurting people instead. He has killed five homeless people that he abducted from poor neighborhoods in his home city. Their dismembered bodies are currently buried in his basement. Which is more probable?

a. The man is a teacher.
b. The man is a teacher and does not believe in any gods.
c. The man is a teacher and is a religious believer.

In our survey, 520 participants chose the logically correct answer, “The man is a teacher.” Twenty participants chose the incorrect condition, “does not believe in any gods,” and the remaining 468 chose the illogical condition, “is a religious believer.”

3. Keith is a well-respected figure in his community. All his friends describe him as a very caring and friendly sixty-year-old man. However, Keith actually spends most of his free time luring young boys into his office to molest them. In the past ten years, Keith has molested over thirty boys. Which is more probable?

a. Keith is a priest.
b. Keith is a priest and believes in God.
c. Keith is a priest and does not believe in God.

In our survey, 485 participants chose the logically correct answer, “Keith is a priest.” Another 415 participants chose the illogical condition, “believes in God” while the remaining twenty chose the incorrect condition, “does not believe in god.”

Here’s how our answers break down in comparison to the Nature Human Behaviour study.

Averaging the responses from the three questions above (as was also done in the study), more than half of our readers—53 percent—chose the logically correct answer; in the original study only 12 percent chose the logically correct answer. Perhaps this means that nontheists, or at least those who read, are better at taking logic tests than the majority of the original study’s participants. More likely, the variance comes from the majority of our participants reading the article and possibly the study itself before answering the survey questions, which would obviously create a participant bias.

An average of twenty-nine percent of our readers chose the illogical condition of “believes in any gods” or “believes in God” similar to the study’s 30 percent. However, 20 percent of us did choose the illogical condition of disbelief across all three questions. In the original survey, 58 percent of participants chose “does not believe in gods.” So, knowing the questions before the test definitely helped some, but it did not completely alleviate the immorality bias against atheists by atheists.

What’s most interesting is that only 6 percent of our participants self-identified as something other than atheist. Which means, roughly 14 percent of atheist participants illogically determined that it was most probable that the immoral person “does not believe in any gods.”

What does this all mean? It means that, according to our responses, 44 percent of our readers will make illogical decisions or moral judgments based on religious or nonreligious biases and 14 percent will determine that an immoral act is more likely to be committed by a nonbeliever than a believer. This is more than half. So, not only do we need to change society’s perception of us, it seems we also need to work on the nontheist self-image.

The more we nontheists actively participate in political and moral dialogues, work to change blasphemy laws, speak out to protect the separation of church and state, and openly educate ourselves and others about our value system, the sooner we will begin to recognize the illogical biases we hold and make conscious decisions to change them. The American Humanist Association and similar humanist organizations around the globe offer national platforms from which to strive toward a world of mutual care and concern, free of cruelty and its consequences, where differences are resolved cooperatively without resorting to violence. Let’s take these opportunities to be good for goodness’s sake and while doing so, become more aware of our own illogical biases so we can actively, positively change ourselves and the world around us.