Monday, November 17, 2008

Can atheists be nice?

Here is an excellent article by Paul Bloom on what makes us behave nicely to others. No - its not religion - and atheists can be nice too:
Arguments about the merits of religions are often battled out with reference to history, by comparing the sins of theists and atheists. (I see your Crusades and raise you Stalin!) But a more promising approach is to look at empirical research that directly addresses the effects of religion on how people behave.

In a review published in Science last month, psychologists Ara Norenzayan and Azim Shariff discuss several experiments that lean pro-Schlessinger. In one of their own studies, they primed half the participants with a spirituality-themed word jumble (including the words divine and God) and gave the other half the same task with nonspiritual words. Then, they gave all the participants $10 each and told them that they could either keep it or share their cash reward with another (anonymous) subject. Ultimately, the spiritual-jumble group parted with more than twice as much money as the control. Norenzayan and Shariff suggest that this lopsided outcome is the result of an evolutionary imperative to care about one's reputation. If you think about God, you believe someone is watching. This argument is bolstered by other research that they review showing that people are more generous and less likely to cheat when others are around. More surprisingly, people also behave better when exposed to posters with eyes on them.

Maybe, then, religious people are nicer because they believe that they are never alone. If so, you would expect to find the positive influence of religion outside the laboratory. And, indeed, there is evidence within the United States for a correlation between religion and what might broadly be called "niceness."

Ah...but the US is the odd ball:

It is at this point that the "We need God to be good" case falls apart. Countries worthy of consideration aren't those like North Korea and China, where religion is savagely repressed, but those in which people freely choose atheism. In his new book, Society Without God, Phil Zuckerman looks at the Danes and the Swedes—probably the most godless people on Earth. They don't go to church or pray in the privacy of their own homes; they don't believe in God or heaven or hell. But, by any reasonable standard, they're nice to one another. They have a famously expansive welfare and health care service. They have a strong commitment to social equality. And—even without belief in a God looming over them—they murder and rape one another significantly less frequently than Americans do.

Denmark and Sweden aren't exceptions. A 2005 study by Gregory Paul looking at 18 democracies found that the more atheist societies tended to have relatively low murder and suicide rates and relatively low incidence of abortion and teen pregnancy.

Here is the resolution:

The first step to solving this conundrum is to unpack the different components of religion. In my own work, I have argued that all humans, even young children, tacitly hold some supernatural beliefs, most notably the dualistic view that bodies and minds are distinct. (Most Americans who describe themselves as atheists, for instance, nonetheless believe that their souls will survive the death of their bodies.) Other aspects of religion vary across cultures and across individuals within cultures. There are factual beliefs, such as the idea that there exists a single god that performs miracles, and moral beliefs, like the conviction that abortion is murder. There are religious practices, such as the sacrament or the lighting of Sabbath candles. And there is the community that a religion brings with it—the people who are part of your church, synagogue, or mosque.

The positive effect of religion in the real world, to my mind, is tied to this last, community component—rather than a belief in constant surveillance by a higher power. Humans are social beings, and we are happier, and better, when connected to others. This is the moral of sociologist Robert Putnam's work on American life. In Bowling Alone, he argues that voluntary association with other people is integral to a fulfilled and productive existence—it makes us "smarter, healthier, safer, richer, and better able to govern a just and stable democracy."

The Danes and the Swedes, despite being godless, have strong communities. In fact, Zuckerman points out that most Danes and Swedes identify themselves as Christian. They get married in church, have their babies baptized, give some of their income to the church, and feel attached to their religious community—they just don't believe in God. Zuckerman suggests that Scandinavian Christians are a lot like American Jews, who are also highly secularized in belief and practice, have strong communal feelings, and tend to be well-behaved.

I think this is an excellent point. I've had many (ok - may be several) conversations with Muslims, both in Pakistan and in the US, who are very happy to be identified as cultural Muslims - but feel that they get pushed out of the community for the lack of overt piety. Perhaps Paul Bloom can be invited to give some public lectures.

Read the full article here.


Sky said...

I'm an atheist. I don't believe my soul will survive in any capacity after my death; I'll be worm food, nourishing the earth - a different form of energy. ;)

And I would like to understand how a self-described atheist reconciles the position that there is no evidence of a god and therefore why they don't believe one exists but can manage to believe their soul lives on without any evidence of that either.

Sky said...

Oops, published comment too quickly. Wanted to add this:

I'm always puzzled as to why people have no trouble accepting that they didn't exist for the 13 billion-plus years this universe existed before they were born, but now that they have been born, they'll "live on" in some form forever. It's just odd.

Salman Hameed said...

I'm an atheist. I don't believe my soul will survive in any capacity after my death; I'll be worm food, nourishing the earth - a different form of energy. ;)

I guess its more of a wishful thinking than any thing else. But it is curious that a majority of American atheists believe in the survival of soul after death .. huh!?

Unknown said...

But it is curious that a majority of American atheists believe in the survival of soul after death .. huh!?

Are they American Buddhists perhaps?

Salman Hameed said...

Are they American Buddhists perhaps?

Quite possible. But still that is no excuse... :)

Anonymous said...

I like what you write, just found your site. As a Swedish Atheist I dont believe in any god or spiritual being. I dont believe in anything supernatural or that we have souls. I think that when we die our electrical impulses in our brain stops and we then start to decompose =) Its true that most people in Sweden dont believe in any god but some believe in "something". They dont belong to any religion but feel that they are not sure about the big question. But like I said most people are atheists.
Its a cultural tradition to be baptised in church as babies, by doing that we "belong" to the church and have to pay church taxes until we are over 18 and can leave church if we want to. I left church and so did my mom and the rest of my family. But she baptised us because she wanted us to decide for ourselves if we believed or not. And if you are not a member of the church you cant get married in there or have your funeral in there. Both things people do for the pretty and special "atmosphere". You can still be buried on church ground though.
I have only in my fairly long life ever met one person who truly believed in god. That was an old classmate of mine who were mormon. Even the priests here say that the creation story is not to take literally.
But anyway, I´m a vegetarian for ethical reasons and would never hurt a soul (lol) and it kind of bugs me when people from religious places such as US assume that atheists such as myself are immoral or even evil. I dont understand why that is. But of course there are cultural differenses but still.. Like religion is the only thing stopping people from running around committing rapes and murders. Thank you for your interesting articles! I´m adding you to my favourites ;-)

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