A growing share of Americans say it’s not necessary to believe in God to be moral

By Gregory A. Smith

Most U.S. adults now say it is not necessary to believe in God to be moral and have good values (56%), up from about half (49%) who expressed this view in 2011. This increase reflects the continued growth in the share of the population that has no religious affiliation, but it also is the result of changing attitudes among those who doidentify with a religion, including white evangelical Protestants.

Surveys have long shown that religious “nones” – those who describe themselves religiously as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular” – are more likely than those who identify with a religion to say that belief in God is not a prerequisite for good values and morality. So the public’s increased rejection of the idea that belief in God is necessary for morality is due, in large part, to the spike in the share of Americans who are religious “nones.”

Indeed, the growth in the share of Americans who say belief in God is unnecessary for morality tracks closely with the growth in the share of the population that is religiously unaffiliated. In the 2011 Pew Research Center survey that included the question about God and morality, religious “nones” constituted 18% of the sample. By 2017, the share of “nones” stood at 25%.

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16 COMMENTS

  1. Most U.S. adults now say it is not necessary to believe in God to be
    moral and have good values (56%), up from about half (49%) who
    expressed this view in 2011

    .
    Considering the view of many Christian leaders have about evolution and human sexuality, I think that it is religion that is the source of many evils and distortions. I would go so far as to say that a person must become an atheist to have “good values and high morality.”

  2. Exactly so, cb. The time must come when we assert, every single day, that morality, to be done to the best of our ability, requires an unbiased platform to work from.

  3. I would go so far as to say that a person must become an atheist to have “good values and high morality.”

    Not exactly so: one can have – and this has been demonstrated – good values and high morality (whatever that means) in spite of being religious. Let’s not get carried away. (Not that simple.)

    Perceived arrogance, and unfairness, on the part of atheists only gives our adversaries on the right / religious right more ammunition.

    That being said, I know what you’re trying to say. One, ideally, should not get one’s values from religion.

    (Where do we get them? Beats me. Parents? Our “environment”? From deep within our own individual selves? Not so easy, is it?)

  4. But if

    “A religion to be such, must contain at least one nominally immutable, superempirical hypothesis about the nature of existence, where a choice of such hypotheses are known (at least one being empirical), the which becomes reflected in personal and cultural values and behaviours.”

    then some that declare themselves religious are not actually religious in their moral deliberations.

    Moral exemplars for me are the UK Quakers. But religion of the poisonous Hitchen’s sort is quite distinct from their commendably evidenced and rational thinking. Quakers might not like being defined as irreligious in their moral assessments (though they magnificently are), but they may assert they are driven to this by a super-rational sentiment.

  5. One can be a good person in spite of being, or claiming to be, religious. You take their religion away and you find that they were good all along, or you find someone who no longer has any idea what is right or wrong and has to start all over, or you find that religion was restraining them from committing acts of egoism (stealing, lying, etc.). One may discover that he never know what it really is to be good, as one was only doing what one felt one ought to do – and with fear of punishment or desire for reward. But sometimes, I am sure, the sense of obligation (the ought), derived from some religious text somewhere, and the true good wishes and corresponding acts of a given person coincide.

    Take God away from those fine Quakers and you still have fine people. Give those fine people a God and they will remain fine, in spite of that.

    Better to be without God, as no morality should be based on a Thou Shalt. It isn’t reliable and has no real worth. Some minimal degree of pragmatic ethical worth, however. It has been a way of reigning in the wild and uncontrollable impulses of the hopelessly selfish – and that leads to the problem of how best to treat psychopathy. Religion both fosters and curbs psychopathy. Good men might be induced to kill doctors who perform abortions, for example. But religion has probably prevented many a murder too.

    No one problem. No one simple solution.

  6. Dan #5
    Oct 30, 2017 at 5:17 pm

    you find that religion was restraining them from committing acts of egoism (stealing, lying, etc.).

    The problem with people being “good” by following religious dogma, is that it is purely coincidental according to whether the religious dogma was “good” or not according to empiricle objective criterial.
    The core criteria of most religions is the meme of supporting and propagating that religion! Any “good” acts benefiting people, are merely sweeteners or means to this end of increasing the size of the meme infested tribe! Any “bad” acts will be labelled “good”, if they promote the religion or favour its members over “outsiders”!

  7. Exactly, Alan.

    Like a stopped clock, moral dogma may be correct on occasions, but it is always inferior in effect to an operational and lived moral process, whether owned by people identifying as religious or not.

    Further, a morality achieved by effort and experience strikes us inevitably as more innate and reliable than one got through obedience. Our judgement of the two exemplars of each on other matters will rightly be different.

    Dan,

    How does religion foster psychopathy? I can see religion as a draw for parasites among whom psychopaths are numerous. Do you mean by the cruel treatment of its young children?

  8. The problem with people being “good” by following religious dogma, is that it is purely coincidental according to whether the religious dogma was “good” or not according to empirical objective criteria.

    Comments 7 and 8 are obvious.

    I am not defending religious morality. I was replying to something that I read above.

    My points were basic.

    Being an atheist is not a prerequisite for having good values. And being religious does not mean that one must have bad values. One can be religious and have good values in spite of that. But a “holy book” can tell someone that it’s okay to, say, kill. It can also prevent one from killing – and this one beneficial function is something that will have to be replaced by some other form of coercion, as some people are rotten to the core and can only refrain from harming others by some form of coercion. I think we would all be better off without religion; but the transition will not be easy and the outcome – and there will be some losses along with the greater gains – is uncertain.

    I don’t know how religion fosters psychopathy, don’t know what I meant. Not even sure if I meant “licensing psychopathic acts”. But the creationists, white supremacists, the Republican kleptocrats and the people on the Religious Right, are all religious; and they are all disturbed, dangerous, dishonest, and sick. So I said it “fosters” psychopathy.

  9. I think psychopaths, who like to engage in dissimulation and manipulation, use religion as a tool and a mask. Very complex. One could approach this in many ways. Not all religious people are psychopaths.

  10. Dan

    Being an atheist is not a prerequisite for having good values. And being religious does not mean that one must have bad values. One can be religious and have good values in spite of that.

    Agreed and frequently the stuff of my own arguments, but none of these are my point here. My point is the sub optimum utility of moral dogma, despite occasionally being reasonable. Nor is this about a belief in objective morality, though that is a worrying start. Objective morality is only dangerous once you think you have it.

    On psychopathy, psychopaths are few and number among the wolves. Most others are sheeple. I think it is important to recognise how much many people are simply not fully formed and present, that act mostly because of wilful others.

  11. Wolves and sheep. I try to be a man. Why should I take someone else’s word for the varieties of human nature?

  12. I don’t even know what objective morality means, although I do judge that some acts to be wrong in themselves. You buy some land and build a house. Someone comes, kills you and your family, and takes your property. That’s wrong. No postmodern ethical relativist (and I don’t mean you, Phil) is going to tell me it isn’t. (“Maybe in his culture it’s not wrong to kill.”) And some acts are good in themselves. What is the opposite of objective morality? is it subjective morality? I don’t know what that means either. Not enough information.

    The words Objective and Subjective are used a lot. You have to explain precisely what you mean.

  13. Considering the origin of a religion, it is the basic reasons for that origin that is problematic. I think that how a religion begins and is based on one person’s desire to control others around him or her, not to be a benefit to others such as going to a delusionary “heaven.” It begins by convincing others in a social complex of the existence of a “God.” When sufficient numbers of people except the existence of “God”, then an entire superstructure of the so-called God’s laws can be built, and the real purpose of these so-called “God’s laws” will be to control other people, not so they live a good life that benefits others.

    So now, any person who disobeys these so-called “God’s laws” will have committed a religious crime which is now called by the euphemism “sin.” Then after creating a fantasized place called “hell” these religious leaders, often older charismatic older men with long beards, can tell everyone what is a “sin” and what is not. I do not need a religious leader to tell me that tailgating, speeding, and rapidly changing lanes are not good forms of driving behavior on a freeway. Somehow those rules of driving were missed by men of antiquity writing a book of rules that we should follow.

    So religious leaders today are telling everyone to accept the Scriptures exactly as they are written!? And who wrote the Scriptures? They were written by those charismatic bearded men thousands of years ago, without any knowledge of such things as the structure of DNA, population genetics, or pleiotropy. Now with sweaty palms and clenched fists, religious leaders today are telling us, essentially, that evolution is a hoax. I have not seen any evidence that these religious leaders today have ever had any training in the science of Evolutionary Biology. Of course not. These religious leaders today have been trained to accept the Scriptures as written and as the absolute truth, so they piously attend Bible study relentlessly. Then they go on to tell everyone else what to believe and never to question authority. To do so will send them directly to hell.

  14. Dan #13

    The words Objective and Subjective are used a lot. You have to explain precisely what you mean.

    No, I really don’t. Like I don’t have to define God for the myriad ways I do not believe in it.

    Like “God”, all the ways I’ve heard “objective morals” used as a concept, I reject it and think it dangerous.

    For every evil scenario seeking to demonstrate an absolute, dogmatic, objective, species, cultural and environment independent morality related to an act I have a psychopath in a position of power promising a thousand fold worse if this original act is not committed.

    For me there are always harms that come from every act. My day job is to seek the least evil.

  15. The above doesn’t mean to say there aren’t often no-brainer situations in casual exchange. But when taking a affecting judgemental role, diligence is always due.

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