Atheism snookered by moral snap-judgements

When Jack was young, he began inflicting harm on animals. It started with just pulling the wings off flies, but eventually progressed to torturing squirrels and stray cats in his neighbourhood.

As an adult, Jack found that he did not get much thrill from harming animals, so he began hurting people instead. He has killed 5 homeless people that he abducted from poor neighbourhoods in his home city. Their dismembered bodies are currently buried in his basement.

Now, knowing what I have just told you about Jack, is it more probable that Jack is: A) A teacher. Or B) A teacher who does not believe in God?

Domenico Ghirlandaio, Commissioning of the Twelve Apostles (1481), from the Sistine Chapel.
Domenico Ghirlandaio, Commissioning of the Twelve Apostles (1481), from the Sistine Chapel.

If you answered “B”, you would not be alone. An average of 50 percent of people in a recent suite of experiments gave the same answer. The wrong answer.

Wrong not because Jack believes in God – we have no way of knowing what Jack believes. B is necessarily incorrect because the entirety of group “B” the teachers who don’t believe in God, are also members of group “A”, the teachers. It is impossible for B to be more likely than A, but it is likely that a great many people in group A do not belong to B.

The question about Jack exploits the conjunction fallacy by which additional detail makes a scenario seem intuitively more likely. Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman showed that people make this mistake by applying a simple rule called the “representativeness heuristic”; additional detail that seems to match the description biases people toward believing that the detailed option is more likely.

Which makes exercises like the question about Jack an interesting tool with which to study the intuitions people harbour about certain groups.

That’s exactly what the University of Kentucky’s Will M. Gervais did in a recent paper in PLoSONE. He presented subjects with stories of heinous moral transgressions: the one above, one involving incestuous relations between adult siblings, and one particularly imaginative scenario involving a man “making love” to a chicken carcass before roasting it. (Don’t worry, the man used a condom and fully sterilized the carcass before roasting it).

Subjects, after reading one of these scenarios, were then asked to make a choice in a conjunction fallacy exercise. Some subjects, under option B, were given the conjunction “… does not believe in God” that I presented in the example above. Others, however, were presented with conjunctions specifying that the morally suspect protagonist was Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist.

The experiment amounts to a comparison of how many subjects made the conjunction fallacy with each group. People make the conjunction fallacy more readily when the additional detail confirms their prior biases about the group involved.

Only 5-20 percent of subjects made the conjunction fallacy with any of the religious groups. Not many people felt a religious descriptor matched neatly with the description of the moral transgression being presented.

But fully half of all subjects fell for the fallacy when the morally suspect person was described as not believing in God. Clearly there is a near-unshakable intuition among much of the public that atheists are morally bereft.

That’s no surprise. The outwardly devout often express disbelief that without a celestial policeman or the threat of eternal damnation or some such, there can be any morality. Gervais opens his paper with a pithy quote to this effects from Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov:

Without God and the future life? It means everything is permitted now, one can do anything?

Of course that isn’t true: a lack of belief does not necessarily mean that anything goes. But the relative morality of atheists and believers is a subject for another day. What matters here – particularly for atheists – is the overwhelming tendency for people to associate amorality with atheism. A fascinating Pew Centre report showed that world-wide, people tend to hold the opinion that belief is essential to morality.

Believers mistrust atheists and their unconcern for the afterlife. I’ve written before about Will Gervais’ research with Ara Norenzayan showing that this distrust can be ameliorated by gently reminding believers of the existence of secular authorities like the police. The rise in effective secular institutions of justice may well be part of slow dwindling of religious devotion in much of the world.

But the conviction that faith is not only a virtue itself but the source of virtue is a gift that keeps on giving for religions, their leaders, and the politicians who wear their faith on their sleeves. Misconstruing secularists and atheists has long been political sport in the U.S.A. George H.W. Bush, for example, wore his irrational contempt for atheism as a badge of honour:

I support the separation of church and state. I’m just not very high on atheists.

Pre-formed ideas about the morality of those who don’t profess belief are also likely to be important in Australia’s ostensibly secular society. Last week’s budget pain for school and university education was accompanied, to much outrage, by a $245 million splurge on the school chaplaincy program. That decision, and the ongoing battles over Religious Instruction, Special Religious Education and ethics classes, represent part of an ongoing challenge to secularism in Australian public schools and institutions.

Atheists and humanists and various others trying to convince the world that one can be good without God and that societies benefit from secularization face the considerable obstacle of representative heuristics about atheist amorality. Unfortunately for them it isn’t just believers who hold these heuristics. Gervais took a more detailed look at the actual beliefs of his subjects, and found that even the atheists among them tended to make the conjunction fallacy more often regarding non-believers than any of the other groups.

If non-believers themselves jump to the conclusion that immoral deeds are more representative of the godless, then religion has an even bigger advantage in the turf-war over morality than previously thought.

The ConversationTim Minchin reckons we should judge people not by their group membership but by their deeds. How, though, does one overcome representativeness heuristics?


Rob Brooks does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

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Religiosity more about reproduction than cooperation

The Bahubali monolith of Shravanabelagola in Karnataka, India. A holy site of Jainism. Probably the most impressive religious monument I have ever seen. Wikimedia commons.
The Bahubali monolith of Shravanabelagola in Karnataka, India. A holy site of Jainism. Probably the most impressive religious monument I have ever seen. Wikimedia commons.

Why do religious beliefs vary so broadly? I’m not talking here about the near-cosmic diversity in the content of religious belief, number and identity of deities, or types of practice. Rather, I’d like to consider why some individuals seem fervently devout while others seem devoid of any superstition.

This question informs the bigger issues of how religions arise and spread, wax and wane, and what effects they have on contemporary society. One popular idea holds that religious belief enhances trust and cooperation within societies. Congregations often take an interest in the welfare of their members, and of others outside the flock. And religious texts contain injunctions in favour of neighbourly love and against homicide, theft and greed.

For many, belief in an all-seeing deity acts to deter bad behaviour. Many genuinely struggle to understand how atheists might be “good without gods”. I wrote last year about a study showing that being reminded of secular police presence can erode much of the mistrust the devoutly religious feel against atheists. When the cops are on the job, believers lighten up.

If the chief function of religion is to establish and enforce cooperative behaviour, then perhaps religions flourished by building healthy, cooperative and fair societies? These societies, in turn, succeeded commercially and in competition with their neighbours. Leaving those neighbouring societies to adopt the successful religion or something similar, or to wither and succumb.

As prominent Evolutionary Psychologist and co-author of a new study (more on that later), Robert Kurzban writes:

Of course a link exists between religion and cooperation, if only insofar as members of organized Western religions really do tend to cooperate with their co-religionists. Members of religious organization cooperate in any number of ways, of course, from bake sales to fund renovations of the nave to cooperative child care to going on Crusades.

But scholars differ on the importance of cooperation. Where some studies support a link between religiosity and cooperative morality, many others fail to find such links. Perhaps other functions of religion act in equally, or more important ways?

Perhaps religion flourishes by influencing reproduction? Religious teachings often concern themselves – sometimes creepily so – with matters of sex, reproduction, parenting and family life. One need only keep half an eye on the U.S. Republican Party to see what I mean by ‘creepy’. But were aren’t immune to reproduction-fixated politicians here, are we Reverend Nile?

Perhaps religion functions to enhance reproductive success? The Abrahamic religions and some animistic African practises, for example, obsess about the certainty with which a father can know that the children his wives bear also inherit his DNA.

Religious doctrine about marriage, contraception, fertility and gender roles might serve to support parents, or at least to enhance fertility. Since the dawn of agriculture, which also spurred the rise of major religions, families and societies that have grown fast have tended to supplant their slower-growing neighbours. Religious practices that supported their flock to ‘go forth and multiply’ would have outpaced their less reproductively-obsessed competitors.

In 2008, Jason Weeden, Adam B. Cohen and Douglas Kenrick suggested that religious attendance in the U.S.A. is a form of reproductive support. In a sample of over 20,000 people, religious attendance trumped other moral issues, as well as well-known demographic correlates such as age and gender, as predictors of religiosity. They suggested that individual commitment to investing in having and raising children (as opposed to enjoying a freer and more varied sex life and family arrangements) spurs greater in religious attendance. And attendance promotes marriage, monogamy and high investment in child rearing on believers.

The U.S.A. is only one country, however, and a rather odd one at that. Two recent international studies have extended tests of the links between religion, cooperative morality and reproductive morality to much larger and more diverse samples of people.

First, in 2011, Quentin Atkinson and Pierrick Bourrat showed that00089-9/abstract) cooperative morals such as ‘Avoiding a fare on public transport’, ‘Cheating on taxes if you have a chance’ or ‘Married men/women having an affair’ correlated with religious devotion in a sample of over 200,000 adults from 87 countries (from the immense ‘World Values Survey’ database).

They found that:

  • Those who believed in deities were less likely to rate moral transgressions as justifiable than non-believers.
  • Those who believed in heaven / hell also held stronger beliefs about the unjustifiability of moral transgressions.
  • Believers in a personal God rated moral transgressions as less justifiable than those whose belief centred on a deity as a Spirit or Life Force.

They interpreted this finding as support for the idea that religions enhance cooperation by imposing an idea of ‘supernatural monitoring’ and ‘fear of supernatural punishment’.

Christianity, like many religions, has long had an intimate relationship with sex, virginity, conception and family life. Paolo de Matteis – The Annunciation (1712)
Christianity, like many religions, has long had an intimate relationship with sex, virginity, conception and family life. Paolo de Matteis – The Annunciation (1712)

The brand-new paper, by Jason Weeden (again) and Kurzban used the same World Values Survey data, but split the moral transgressions into those that concerned cooperation (e.g., fare evasion, tax evasion, receiving stolen goods) and those that concerned sex and reproduction (e.g. affairs, abortion, contraception, premarital sex).

How subjects answered questions about transgressing cooperative morals still correlated with religiosity, but the correlation between religiosity and ‘reproductive morals’ was about four times as strong and far more consistent across countries. But tellingly, when both cooperative and reproductive attitudes were put into the same statistical model, the effect of the cooperative attitudes disappeared while the effect of reproductive attitudes remained intact. It seems that the forms of morality most directly related to religiosity concern reproduction rather than cooperation.

So, belief in all-knowing deities with the power to condemn you to hell seems to shape people’s attitudes to abortion and extra-marital activity. But it doesn’t make you less likely to fiddle your taxes or drive when you’ve had a drink too many.

This study adds to the emerging picture that religious institutions, practices and doctrines take their shape from human nature. That makes it no concidence that young people often stray from the flock during periods of sexual experimentation and promiscuity, and that many return when they start families. Savvy pastoralists know this, providing creches, mothers’ groups and Sunday schools, making it easy for young families to attend services.

And so perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that theocrats so often bang a ‘Family First’ drum.

Rob Brooks does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

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