Atheism Doesn't Lead to Immoral Behavior - Or Does It?
by Rich Deem

Morality Among Atheists

"I can be a good person and not believe in God" is the mantra of online atheists. Accordingly, disbelief in God doesn't mean that a person automatically leads a less morally upright life. However, a recent Barna survey casts doubt upon the claim that atheists' ethics are equivalent or superior to those of theists.

Rich Deem


Atheism does not lead to increased immoral behavior according to the writing of many atheists. In theory, one can be be morally responsible atheist. However, in practice, does atheism/agnosticism encourage or discourage a higher level of moral and ethical behavior?

Principles of Christian morality

Christians are far more likely than atheists to be part of groups that work hard to instill values about being good to other people, and having good relationships. The teachings of the Bible emphasize values such as honesty, love, forgiveness, sexual fidelity, patience,1 and generosity.2 In addition, all Christian denominations strongly discourage negative behaviors, such as fornication, profanity,3 gambling,4 gossiping, retaliation,5 drunkenness, and lying. Many of these values are not emphasized in social circles dominated by atheists. Do these teachings influence moral behavior?

Evangelicals vs. atheists

A a random sample of 1003 adults were surveyed in May, 2008 by The Barna Group for their participation in a number of negative behaviors within the previous week. The results showed that there were vast differences in the behaviors of evangelicals compared to agnostics/atheists.

Moral Behaviors of Evangelicals vs. Atheists6
Sin Evangelicals Atheists
Viewing pornography 12% 50%
Profanity in public 16 60
Gambling 2 ?7
Gossiping 4 34
Sex with non-spouse 3 ?7
Retaliation ?7 11
Drunkenness 0.5 33
Lying 1 ?7
Average 6 29

These results show that atheists/agnostics participate in morally questionable behaviors to a much greater degree than evangelical Christians - an average of nearly five times the frequency! The data calls into question the atheists' claim that moral choices are deterministic and the people do not have the ability to exercise free will. If human behavior were merely a combination of genes and biochemistry, then beliefs would have no effect on moral choices. Obviously, this is a failed hypothesis, since beliefs do influence behavior. Another study, published in 2008, showed that increasing belief in determinism negatively impacted moral behavior (cheating).8

Liberal/Conservative morality

The fact that liberals and conservatives see morality from a different perspective is not difficult to discern. However, recent studies demonstrate exactly how differently these groups interpret what is moral/immoral. The graph at right shows how liberals put a high moral value on fairness and lack of harm, but do not value loyalty to their ingroup, importance of authority, or personal purity as being important (left side of graph).9 However, conservatives value all five categories of morality about the same (right side of graph). Since most atheists tend to more politically liberal, it is likely that their political perspective explains their lack of emphasis on personal purity found in the Barna study. However, whether the political beliefs cause the moral viewpoint or the moral viewpoint causes the political beliefs is difficult to determine from this kind of study.

My experience

I grew up as an agnostic atheist, the son of a mother who was a deist (daughter of a Christian mother and atheist father) and a father who was an agnostic ex-Mormon. So, although God was almost never mentioned, and we never went to church, both my parents came from homes where they received a religious upbringing. So, moral principles were stressed in our home, and I grew up as a very moral atheist. If I had taken the Barna survey at that time, I would have received a perfect score - as an atheist. However, now, as atheists are being raised by atheists, the strong moral emphasis from theistic parents is going to be lacking, resulting in the current survey results. In writing to atheists who have written on ethics, the only sin from Barna's survey appearing on their list of immoral behaviors they reported to me was lying. Apparently, the other sins are not considered important by many of today's atheists. Even so, the atheists who write us tend to lie on a regular basis. They tell me they have read x number of pages on the website and go on some kind of rant. However, when I check the log for what they actually did, usually they glance at one or two pages for less than a minute before going off to write their email. When I point out their lies, they never write back. Apparently, lying by others is not moral, but the rule does not apply to atheists themselves.

Doing good

The Barna study is not the only one reporting difference between theists and atheists. The Hoover Institution (part of Stanford University) has studied philanthropic giving and volunteerism among populations.10 Making 30,000 observations over 50 different communities, they found that religious people are much more likely to donate money to charities (91 percent to 66 percent) more likely to volunteer time (67 percent to 44 percent). The amount they give is also quite different with religious people averaging $2,210, compared to only $642 among the secular, even though incomes and education levels are virtually the same. Religious people's giving is not just to religious causes either, since they also out give secular people when donating to secular causes.

Conclusion Top of page

Although, in theory, atheists can lead moral lives, the absence of an absolute moral foundation probably leads to moral drifting over time. This phenomenon also occurs in Christians who abandon church and Christian fellowship. As a result, the differences in morality between atheists and evangelicals is striking, with atheists being much more prone to viewing pornography, using profanity in public, gossiping, and drunkenness. For the 8 sins surveyed in the Barna study, atheists were nearly 5 times more likely to commit those sins than evangelical Christians. In addition, atheists are much less likely to donate to charities (even secular ones) and perform volunteer services in their communities compared with religious people. So, even though atheists can lead a moral life, on average, they don't measure up. Although it is possible that atheism is not the cause of moral failure, it seems unlikely that there are genetic or other demographic factors that account for the differences in behavior.

References Top of page

  1. Patience:
    • The end of a matter is better than its beginning; Patience of spirit is better than haughtiness of spirit. (Ecclesiastes 7:8)
    • Love is patient, love is kind and is not jealous; love does not brag and is not arrogant, (1 Corinthians 13:4)
    • But if we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; or if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which is effective in the patient enduring of the same sufferings which we also suffer; (2 Corinthians 1:6)
    • but in everything commending ourselves as servants of God, in much endurance, in afflictions, in hardships, in distresses, in beatings, in imprisonments, in tumults, in labors, in sleeplessness, in hunger, in purity, in knowledge, in patience, in kindness, in the Holy Spirit, in genuine love, (2 Corinthians 6:4-6)
    • But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, (Galatians 5:22)
    • Therefore I, the prisoner of the Lord, implore you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, showing tolerance for one another in love, (Ephesians 4:1-2)
    • so that you will walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, to please Him in all respects, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God; strengthened with all power, according to His glorious might, for the attaining of all steadfastness and patience; joyously (Colossians 1:10-11)
    • So, as those who have been chosen of God, holy and beloved, put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience; (Colossians 3:12)
    • We urge you, brethren, admonish the unruly, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with everyone. (1 Thessalonians 5:14)
    • The Lord's bond-servant must not be quarrelsome, but be kind to all, able to teach, patient when wronged, (2 Timothy 2:24)
    • Now you followed my teaching, conduct, purpose, faith, patience, love, perseverance, (2 Timothy 3:10)
    • preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction. (2 Timothy 4:2)
    • so that you will not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises. (Hebrews 6:12)
    • Therefore be patient, brethren, until the coming of the Lord. The farmer waits for the precious produce of the soil, being patient about it, until it gets the early and late rains. (James 5:7)
    • You too be patient; strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near. (James 5:8)
    • As an example, brethren, of suffering and patience, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. (James 5:10)
    • For what credit is there if, when you sin and are harshly treated, you endure it with patience? But if when you do what is right and suffer for it you patiently endure it, this finds favor with God. (1 Peter 2:20)
  2. Generosity:
    • "If there is a poor man with you, one of your brothers, in any of your towns in your land which the LORD your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart, nor close your hand from your poor brother; but you shall freely open your hand to him, and shall generously lend him sufficient for his need in whatever he lacks. (Deuteronomy 15:7-8)
    • "You shall generously give to him, and your heart shall not be grieved when you give to him, because for this thing the LORD your God will bless you in all your work and in all your undertakings. (Deuteronomy 15:10)
    • The generous man will be prosperous, And he who waters will himself be watered. (Proverbs 11:25)
    • Many will seek the favor of a generous man, And every man is a friend to him who gives gifts. (Proverbs 19:6)
    • He who is generous will be blessed, For he gives some of his food to the poor. (Proverbs 22:9)
    • 'Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with what is my own? Or is your eye envious because I am generous?' (Matthew 20:15)
    • taking precaution so that no one will discredit us in our administration of this generous gift; (2 Corinthians 8:20)
    • Instruct them to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, (1 Timothy 6:18)
  3. Profanity:
    • "You shall not profane My holy name, but I will be sanctified among the sons of Israel; I am the LORD who sanctifies you, (Leviticus 22:32)
    • He does not slander with his tongue, Nor does evil to his neighbor, Nor takes up a reproach against his friend; (Psalm 15:3)
    • Keep your tongue from evil And your lips from speaking deceit. (Psalm 34:13)
    • The mouth of the righteous utters wisdom, And his tongue speaks justice. (Psalm 37:30)
    • For the choir director, for Jeduthun. A Psalm of David. I said, "I will guard my ways That I may not sin with my tongue; I will guard my mouth as with a muzzle While the wicked are in my presence." (Psalm 39:1)
    • There is one who speaks rashly like the thrusts of a sword, But the tongue of the wise brings healing. (Proverbs 12:18)
    • A soothing tongue is a tree of life, But perversion in it crushes the spirit. (Proverbs 15:4)
    • He who guards his mouth and his tongue, Guards his soul from troubles. (Proverbs 21:23)
    • The north wind brings forth rain, And a backbiting tongue, an angry countenance. (Proverbs 25:23)
    • If anyone thinks himself to be religious, and yet does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this man's religion is worthless. (James 1:26)
  4. Gambling is dishonest gain:
    • Dishonest money dwindles away, but he who gathers money little by little makes it grow. (Proverbs 13:11)
    • A man with an evil eye hastens after wealth And does not know that want will come upon him. (Proverbs 28:22)
    • "No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money. (Matthew 6:24)
    • But those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a snare and many foolish and harmful desires which plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs. (1 Timothy 6:9-10)
    • But we urge you, brethren, to excel still more, and to make it your ambition to lead a quiet life and attend to your own business and work with your hands, just as we commanded you, (1 Thessalonians 4:10-11)
    • He who steals must steal no longer; but rather he must labor, performing with his own hands what is good, so that he will have something to share with one who has need. (Ephesians 4:28)
    • Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said, "Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you." (Hebrews 13:5)
  5. Retaliation:
    • 'You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the sons of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself; I am the LORD. (Leviticus 19:18)
    • Do not say, "I will repay evil"; Wait for the LORD, and He will save you. (Proverbs 20:22)
    • Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Respect what is right in the sight of all men. (Romans 12:17)
    • Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, "VENGEANCE IS MINE, I WILL REPAY," says the Lord. (Romans 12:19)
  6. Young Adults and Liberals Struggle with Morality, The Barna Group, August 25, 2008.
  7. The missing data could not be obtained, since Barna ignored weeks of attempted contact by telephone and email.
  8. 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.
  9. Haidt, J. 2007. The New Synthesis in Moral Psychology Science 316: 998-1002.
  10. Brooks, A. C. 2003. Religious Faith and Charitable Giving. Hoover Institution.
Last Modified February 13, 2010


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