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Saturday, March 20, 2021

The amoral atheist? A cross-national examination of cultural, motivational, and cognitive antecedents of disbelief, and their implications for morality

Ståhl T (2021) 


There is a widespread cross-cultural stereotype suggesting that atheists are untrustworthy and lack a moral compass. Is there any truth to this notion? Building on theory about the cultural, (de)motivational, and cognitive antecedents of disbelief, the present research investigated whether there are reliable similarities as well as differences between believers and disbelievers in the moral values and principles they endorse. Four studies examined how religious disbelief (vs. belief) relates to endorsement of various moral values and principles in a predominately religious (vs. irreligious) country (the U.S. vs. Sweden). Two U.S. M-Turk studies (Studies 1A and 1B, N = 429) and two large cross-national studies (Studies 2–3, N = 4,193), consistently show that disbelievers (vs. believers) are less inclined to endorse moral values that serve group cohesion (the binding moral foundations). By contrast, only minor differences between believers and disbelievers were found in endorsement of other moral values (individualizing moral foundations, epistemic rationality). It is also demonstrated that presumed cultural and demotivational antecedents of disbelief (limited exposure to credibility-enhancing displays, low existential threat) are associated with disbelief. Furthermore, these factors are associated with weaker endorsement of the binding moral foundations in both countries (Study 2). Most of these findings were replicated in Study 3, and results also show that disbelievers (vs. believers) have a more consequentialist view of morality in both countries. A consequentialist view of morality was also associated with another presumed antecedent of disbelief—analytic cognitive style.


The purpose of the present research was to systematically examine how conceptualizations of morality differ between disbelievers and believers, and to explore whether moral psychological differences between these groups could be due to four presumed antecedents of disbelief. The results consistently indicate that disbelievers and believers, in the U.S. as well as in Sweden, are equally inclined to view the individualizing moral foundations, Liberty/oppression, and epistemic rationality as important moral values. However, these studies also point to some consistent cross-national differences in the moral psychology of disbelievers as compared to believers. Specifically, disbelievers are less inclined than believers to endorse the binding moral foundations, and more inclined to engage in consequentialist moral reasoning. The present results further suggest that these differences may stem from disparities in exposure to CREDs, levels of perceived existential threat, and individual differences in cognitive style. It seems plausible that the more constrained and consequentialist view of morality that is associated with disbelief may have contributed to the widespread reputation of atheists as immoral in nature.

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Bottom line: Atheists are just as moral as religious folks, just that atheists don't use morality to promote social identity.  And, CREDS are credibility enhancing displays.