Does Atheism (Determinism) Negatively Impact Morality?
by Rich Deem

Morality Among Atheists

The rise of the "New Atheism" has led to the claim by its major proponents that atheism is morally superior to theism and that the world would be better off if the entire population were composed only of atheists. A new study raises doubts about that claim since the atheistic belief in determinism is shown to negatively impact moral behavior.

Rich Deem


Atheists claim that atheism does not negatively impact moral behavior (or even that atheism promotes superior morality). One of the core beliefs of most atheists is determinism - the idea that every prior action affects human actions and choices. This means that human behavior is ultimately controlled by genes that control personality, by brain neurochemistry, and interactions with the environment. In its most ardent form, determinism completely denies the existence of human free will. In a recently published study, scientists manipulated the belief in determinism among college students and measured their moral choices (specifically regarding cheating).1 Contrary to atheists claims of fostering moral superiority, the data suggests that the common atheistic belief in determinism undermines moral behavior.

Determinism and neuroscience

A belief in determinism arises from the scientific evidence showing that the universe is governed by physical laws. For a purely naturalistic worldview, there are no external forces or deities that influence anything that happens within the universe. By extension, all moral behaviors and choices are subservient to chemical reactions of the functioning brain. Beginning in 1983,2 scientists have noted that subject awareness of mental choices seem to follow brain waves instituting those choices. A subsequent study showed that neural stimulation influenced a subjects left-right motor choice, even though the subject reported being in complete control of the choice,3 although other studies have disputed those results.4 Some scientists have interpreted the results of the brain studies to show that the brain makes subconscious choices that we later interpret as free will choices. accordingly, we possess no free will, but only feel that we have choices based upon the way our brains function.

However, in terms of genetics, studies do not show that we lack free will choices. When questioned about whether we are at the mercy of our genes, Francis Collins (former head of the Human Genome Project) had this to say:

"You're talking about genetic determinism, which implies that we are helpless marionettes being controlled by strings made of double helices. That is so far away from what we know scientifically! Heredity does have an influence not only over medical risks but also over certain behaviors and personality traits. But look at identical twins, who have exactly the same DNA but often don't behave alike or think alike. They show the importance of learning and experience - and free will. I think we all, whether we are religious or not, recognize that free will is a reality."5

If determinism were true and behavior were solely determined by genes, it would be expected that genetically identical twins would think and behave identically, which they don't.

Predetermined moral behavior?

In a recent study, scientists designed two experiments to manipulate beliefs related to free will and measured their influence on morality as manifested in cheating behavior.1 The scientists hypothesized that participants induced to believe that human behavior is under the control of predetermined forces would cheat more than would participants not led to believe that behavior is predetermined.

Passive cheating

In the first experiment, randomly assigned subjects were told to read either an anti-free will passage from Francis Crick's The Astonishing Hypothesis, or a passage from a chapter on consciousness that did not discuss free will. Upon completion, subject's beliefs were examined using the Free Will and Determinism scale.6 As expected, participants subject to the anti-freewill condition reported significantly weaker free-will beliefs than participants in the control condition. Following the test, subjects were given a computer-based mental-arithmetic task in which they were to solve 20 problems. They were told that the computer had a programming glitch that caused the correct answer to appear on the screen while they were attempting to solve each problem, but that they should stop the answer from being displayed by pressing the space bar after the problem appeared. In reality, the computer kept track of the number of times the space bar was pressed as a negative correlation with cheating. As predicted, those who read the anti-free-will essay cheated significantly more than those who read the control essay. For all subjects, there was a strong negative correlation between cheating and belief in the existence of free will. In other words, those who believed more in determinism cheated more.

Active cheating

In the second experiment, subjects were assigned to one of five groups. Subjects were given free will promoting reading, neutral reading or anti-free will reading (determinism) material and paid $1.00 for correct answers in reading comprehension, mathematical, and logic and reasoning problems. Participants were told that the experimenter was investigating people’s enjoyment of tasks when they receive feedback and rewards for performance, and hence that they would receive $1 for each problem they solved correctly. In two groups (baseline and determinism) results were scored by the experimenter. In three other groups (free will, neutral, and determinism) the experimenter checked her cell phone and told the subjects she had to attend a meeting and that they were to score the results themselves. They were to shred their answer sheets and take the money they earned. The results are shown in the table below:

Active Cheating Results
Experimental Group $ Paid S.E.
Experimenter Scored
    Baseline 7.4 0.7
    Determinism 6.5 0.7
Self scored
    Free Will 6.8 0.7
    Neutral 7.2 0.7
    Determinism 10.6 0.7

Those participants who were given neutral or free will promoting reading material paid themselves the same (or less) than the baseline group, which was paid by the experimenter. However, those who were given the determinism promoting reading material paid themselves $3 more than the baseline group and over $4 more than the experimenter scored determinism group. In addition, as in the first experiment, there was a strong negative correlation between cheating and belief in the existence of free will. These results showed belief in determinism promoted both passive and active cheating.

Conclusion Top of page

Contrary to the claim of adherents of the "New Atheism" that atheism promotes moral behavior, certain atheistic doctrines, specifically determinism, leads to a significant degradation of moral behavior. This is one of the first studies designed to test how worldview beliefs influence moral behavior. So far, the claims of the new atheists are not holding up to scientific scrutiny.

Physicist Michio Kaku says quantum physics ends the determinism debate. Free will wins:

References Top of page

  1. Vohs, K. D., and J. W. Schooler. 2008. The Value of Believing in Free Will: Encouraging a Belief in Determinism Increases Cheating. Psychological Science 19: 49-54.
  2. Libet, B., C. A. Gleason, E. W. Wright, and D. K. Pearl. 1983. Time of conscious intention to act in relation to onset of cerebral activity (readiness-potential): The unconscious initiation of a freely voluntary act. Brain 106: 623-642.
  3. Brasil-Neto JP, Pascual-Leone A, Valls-Sole J, et al. Focal transcranial magnetic stimulation and response bias in a forced-choice task. J Neurol Neurosurg Psychiatry 1992;55:964–6.
  4. Sohn, Y. H., A. Kaelin-Lang and M. Hallett. 2003 The effect of transcranial magnetic stimulation on movement selection. J. Neurol. Neurosurg. Psychiatry. 74: 985-987.
  5. Horgan, J. 2007. Francis Collins: The Scientist As Believer. National Geographic 211: 36.
  6. Paulhus, D.L., and Margesson, A. 1994. Free Will and Determinism (FAD) scale. Unpublished manuscript University of British Columbia, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.
Last Modified July 22, 2013


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