“Why is it so dark in the atheist closet?” Shannon Q posted a video with this title on YouTube today. Her video can be accessed here: https://youtu.be/EgkXHdp9sKo. She pointed to a Pew Research poll of U.S. respondents that indicated the forty percent held negative views of atheists. Even atheists ranked other atheists as the most “immoral,” “combative,” “criminal,” and dishonest.” Respondents perceived atheists to be different or deviant and to be the least likely to share their views of society.
She and I agree that on the surface, these findings seem odd. So we need to dig beneath the surface to determine the undercurrents driving such responses. Shannon pointed to identity theory, which helps explain the way people have positive perceptions of those within their in-groups and negative perceptions of those considered out-groups. She suggested that for atheists who were once associated with a religion, perhaps in some ways their original group is still a part of their in-group. One could posit that their original group may have offered a sense of comfort and community support – and may still include many of their loved ones.
Does Society Play a Role in Shaping Values, Even Beyond Religion?
In a later conversation, she offered the suggestion that perhaps the society in which a person was born and raised may play a strong role in shaping individual values. This suggestion is accurate, as multiple cross-cultural studies by scholars such as Geert Hofstede, Robert House, Ron Inglehart, and Shalom Schwartz have found that cultures do shape values. These scholars have discovered that values such as individualism/collectivism, power distance, nurturing/assertiveness, uncertainty avoidance, trust preferences, societal collectivism, in-group collectivism, self-transcendence, self-enhancement, openness to change, and conservation vary between societies.
Yet “culture” is a composite variable that is shaped itself by one’s family, education, religion, and the prevalent values in one’s community. So to determine why some atheists consider their peers to have immoral (or even abhorrent) values with which they themselves do not identify fails to distinguish the particular source of the values with which they do identify. Perhaps their religious upbringing has impacted them. Perhaps their families, schools, or communities (or more) have impacted them. See below. To call attention to only one’s religion in making value attributions is therefore perhaps spurious.
Society Shapes Culturally-Contingent Values, but What About Universal Duties?
Most cross-cultural scholars have not distinguished “is” values from “ought” values. A notable exception is the GLOBE study, which was led by Robert House. House analyzed data on cross-cultural values and distinguished the way that what “is” prevalent in a society may not be consistent with what “ought” to be prevalent. The authors of this study also identified characteristics of leaders that were either or both culturally contingent and universal. Some of the universally desirable characteristics that people perceived as contributors to effective leadership included being trustworthy, just and honest. A summary of the GLOBE study can be accessed here: https://www.inspireimagineinnovate.com/pdf/globesummary-by-michael-h-hoppe.pdf
These values are examples of objective moral values that transcend cultures. In other words, the standard against which we assess honesty is truth, and truth does not vary as a function of our opinions on it. What is defined as truth today will be defined as truth three hundred years from now no matter the location of the truth that occurs. The standard against which we judge fairness is justice and justice does not vary as a function of our opinions. The standards are therefore not culturally contingent. And we have a moral duty to be trustworthy, just and honest.
Where Did Our Duties Originate?
Theistic apologists have long drawn the following conclusion based on these premises:
P1: If objective moral values and duties exist, God exists.
P2: Objective moral values and duties exist.
C: God exists.
What Additional Explanations Could Explain Our Moral Compass?
Returning to the original question, I add two reasons why the atheists in the study Shannon mentioned in her video may have self-identified with the more positive behaviors: (1) they have an innate sense of what’s right and wrong and (2) they may be lost sheep (c.f., the Parable of the Lost Sheep).
Romans 2:15 supports my first assertion. “They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them.”
In John 10: 14-16, Jesus offers support for the second: “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me— just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd.
In conclusion, as Shannon so aptly pointed out, we should not draw surface-level conclusions from the Pew Research Study to make assertions about people in various religious groups or atheists. We should dig deeper to determine the truth.
This essay suggests that people have an innate moral compass that guides them on what is right and what is wrong, and our moral compass is best explained by a transcendent cause: God.
But what this essay did not explain is why some atheists align themselves with values with which they do not consider to be consistent with those in their own in-group: the atheists. To ignore such an elephant in the closet is not fair to the audience. One could posit that they have witnessed actions by their peers that they refuse to condone. One could also suggest that those actions were perpetuated by actors who do not value the morals and duties instilled within them. As a Christian, I must admit I have been troubled with people in my own in-group who act in ways which are not consistent with what Jesus would do. If we all acted as He did, out of selflessness, love, gratitude, humility, and obedience to the greater good, this world would be the heaven we are all seeking.
Thank you for your time.
Hofstede, G. (2001). Culture’s Consequences. Las Angeles, CA: Sage.
House, R.J., Hanges, P.J., Javidan, M., Dorfman, P.W. & Gupta, V. (2005). Culture, leadership, and organizations: The GLOBE Study of 62 Societies. Thousand Oaks: Sage.
Inglehart, R. (2004), Human Beliefs and Values: A Cross-Cultural Sourcebook based on the 1999-2002 World Values Surveys. Mexico City: SigloXXI.
Pew Research Center’s U.S. Religious Landscape Study (2014). Religion in everyday life.
Schwartz, S.H. (1992). Universals in the content and structure of values: Theory and empirical tests in 20 countries. In M. Zanna (Ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology (Vol. 25) (pp. 1–65). New York: Academic Press.
Schwartz, S.H. (1994). Are there universal aspects in the content and structure of values? Journal of Social Issues, 50, 19-45.