Thursday, September 14, 2017

Is There a Culturally Evolved Prejudice against Atheists as Immoral?

Can we be good without God?  If not, should we fear atheism as promoting immorality?  Is atheism contrary to our evolved natural desire for religious belief? 

I have written about this in a previous post, which includes links to other posts.

Now we have new research by Will Gervais and his colleagues indicating that people around the world have a culturally evolved prejudice against atheists (Gervais et al., "Global Evidence of Extreme Intuitive Moral Prejudice against Atheists," Nature Human Behaviour 1 (2017): 1-5).

Here's the abstract:
"Mounting-evidence supports long-standing claims that religions can extend cooperative networks.  However, religious prosociality may have a strongly parochial component.  Moreover, aspects of religion may promote or exacerbate conflict with those outside a given religious group, promoting regional violence, intergroup conflict, and tacit prejudice against non-believers.  Anti-atheist prejudice--a growing concern in secular societies--affects employment, elections, family life, and broader social inclusion.  Preliminary work in the United States suggests that anti-atheist prejudice stems, in part, from deeply rooted intuitions about religion's putatively necessary role in morality.  However, the cross-cultural prevalence and magnitude--as well as intracultural demographic stability--of such intuitions, as manifested in intuitive associations of immorality with atheists, remain unclear.  Here, we quantify moral distrust of atheists by applying well-tested measures in a large global same (N = 3,256; 13 diverse countries). Consistent with cultural evolutionary theories of religion and morality, people in most--but not all--of these countries viewed extreme moral violations as representative of atheists.  Notably, anti-atheist prejudice was evident even among atheist participants around the world.  The results contrast with recent polls that do not find self-reported moral prejudice against atheists in highly secular countries, and imply that the recent rise in secularism in Western countries has not overwritten intuitive anti-atheist prejudice.  Entrenched moral suspicion of atheists suggests that religion's powerful influence on moral judgments persists, even among non-believers in secular societies."
Their sample was drawn from 13 countries on 5 continents, which included highly secular societies (for  example, Netherlands, Finland, and China) and highly religious societies (for example, United Arab Emirates, Mauritius, and India) with diverse religious histories (including countries with Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, and secular majorities).

Gervais, Ara Norenzayan, and their colleagues have defended a cultural evolutionary model of religion--arguing that the transition from small foraging bands to large agrarian states required extended cooperation of strangers that was made possible by the emergence of religions with moralistic Big Gods, who enforced social cooperation by rewarding the good and punishing the bad in an afterlife.  People who live in large cities need to have norms enforced among strangers by third party punishment, and God is the ultimate third party punisher.  This most recent research was to test one of the predictions from this theory--that human beings around the world should have an intuitive fear of atheists as immoral.

In this research, participants were asked about this scenario:
"When a man was young, he began inflicting harm on animals. It started with just pulling the wings off flies, but eventually progressed to torturing stray cats and other animals in his neighborhood."
"As an adult, the man found that he did not get much thrill from harming animals, so he began hurting people instead.  He has killed 5 homeless people that he abducted from poor neighborhoods in his home city.  Their dismembered bodies ae currently buried in his basement."
"Which is more probable?
"1. The man is a teacher.
"2 (a). The man is a teacher and does not believe in any gods.
"2 (b). The man is a teacher and is a religious believer."
Half of the participants were given 2 (a), and the other half were given 2 (b).  They were also given other kinds of questions to distract them from noticing that this was an experiment to test for stereotyping and prejudice.

In asking the participants to judge probability, bias is indicated if they commit the "conjunction fallacy."  The conjunction rule for the qualitative law of probability states that the probability of a conjunction--the probability of 1 and 2--cannot exceed the probability of its constituents--the probability of 1 or 2.   (That so many people commit the conjunction fallacy was seen by Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman as an example of the illogical heuristics of the human mind.)  If the participanats cannot see that the man being a teacher is more probable than the conjunction, they are showing an illogical bias--a bias either against atheists or against religious believers.

The results showed a greater prejudice against atheists than against religious believers: there was an overall conjunction error rate probability of 0.58 for atheist targets, but only 0.30 for religious targets.  So, people were roughly twice as likely to view extreme immorality--being a murderous psychopath--as representative of atheists relative to believers.

The most surprising result was that even people who identified themselves as atheists showed this same prejudice against atheists as being inclined to extreme immorality!

There is one anomaly in this research, however, that is left unexplained.  Of the 13 countries represented in this study, Finland and New Zealand do not show any bias against atheists.  For Finland, the atheist error rate is .28, and the religious error rate is .26.  For New Zealand, the atheist error rate is .38, and the religious error rate is .29.  Finland shows no bias, and New Zealand very little.  So what goes here?  Are the people of Finland and New Zealand just better in understanding the logic of probability?  Or are they unusual in being free of the global prejudice against atheists?

So is it really unfair to assume that atheism promotes immorality?  The answer from Gervais and his colleagues is complicated.  On the one hand, their evolutionary theory of moralistic religion as necessary for securing large-scale cooperation beginning with the Neolithic transition to agrarian states assumes that religious belief does support morality.  On the other hand, they say that the intragroup cooperation secured by religious belief also promotes distrust of those outside the group, so that religious believers are thrown into conflict with those who do not share their religious beliefs, as shown by religious persecution and religious wars.

Moreover, they argue that as modern societies become ever more secularized, we can see the religious support for morality as a ladder that can be kicked away once we have climbed to the top.  (Friedrich Nietzsche uses this same metaphor of the history of religious cultures as a ladder that we can climb to the top and then kick away in Human, All Too Human [6-7, 292].)  We can see this in highly secularized societies like Denmark and the Scandinavian countries that are highly cooperative and peaceful, although fervent religious belief has almost completely disappeared.  We can explain this as showing how morality can evolve from natural moral sentiments without any necessity for religious belief in a moralistic God.

And yet their research suggests that even in many highly secularized societies, there is still some bias towards believing that morality requires religious belief; and so cultural evolution away from this might be slow.  Norenzayan has suggested an analogy to the cultural evolution of literacy.  For 99% of human evolutionary history, humans have had oral language, and so learning to speak is naturally easy for them.  But writing is a relatively recent invention, and for most of its history, writing and reading were restricted to a small educated elite.  Only in the past two centuries, has modern education spread literacy to the great majority of human beings around the world.  Similarly, he suggests, religious morality has been central to our cultural evolution for thousands of years, and it is only recently that secular morality has begun to prevail in some societies.  We might expect this evolutionary trend to eventually prevail.

As an example of this evolutionary trend, consider a point that came up in my posts on Tom West's book on the American Founding--the debate over religious tests for holding public offices.  One way for legally enforcing religious morality is to have a religious test for public office.  Originally, all of the state constitutions except for Virginia and New York had such tests.  For example, members of the Pennsylvania state legislature had to swear: "I do believe in one God, the creator and governor of the universe, the rewarder of the good and punisher of the wicked, and I do acknowledge the scriptures of the Old and New Testament to be given by divine inspiration."

The argument for religious tests was that religion supports morality.  A speaker at the Massachusetts convention for ratifying the U.S. Constitution condemned the "no religious test" clause of the Constitution: he argued that no religious tests "would admit deists, atheists, etc., into the general government; and, people being apt to imitate the examples of the court, these principles would be disseminated, and, of course, a corruption of morals ensue."  So here we see the very prejudice against atheists detected by Gervais and his colleagues.

But why then did the founders at the Constitutional Convention vote unanimously and without any controversy for "no religious tests" in the Constitution?  And why did all of the states with religious tests abolish them during the founding period, thus following the example of the national constitution?

To explain this, West says that Chris Beneke "rightly notes" that in "founding America . . . libertarian principles . . . repeatedly triumphed over local prejudices and discriminatory laws."

So now it seems that the "founding consensus" turned to "libertarian principles" dictating that the legal enforcement of religious belief is not necessary to avoid a corruption of morals.  Is this an example of the cultural evolution towards secularized morality expected by Gervais and Norenzayan?

Do we lose anything in moving from religious morality to secular morality?  West thinks that the American founders thought that something would be lost.  In Kantian language, secular morality is a morality of hypothetical imperatives, while religious morality is a morality of categorical imperatives.  A religious morality allows us to see natural rights as sacred.  A secular morality allows us only to see those natural rights as conducive to the pursuit of happiness.  The sacredness of God-given rights is lost in the move to secularized natural rights as instrumental for human happiness (West, The Political Theory of the American Founding, 95).

Michael Egnor seems to be making the same point in his response (published by the Discovery Institute's "Evolution News") to the debate over Gervais' article. (Egnor is a neurosurgeon who teaches at Stony Brook University.)  Can you be good without God?  Egnor's answer is that you cannot be good if God doesn't exist; but if God does exist, you can be good even if you don't believe God exists.

If God exists, Egnor explains, then as Moral Lawgiver, He can provide the cosmic transcendent standards of good and evil.  And insofar as that Moral Law is a natural law "written in our hearts" (Romans 2:15), atheists can intuitively feel the transcendent weight of that Moral Law, even though they deny the divine source of that Law.

But if God does not exist, as the atheists say, then there can be no such thing as good and evil.  There are only human opinions about what serves human welfare, about what we happen to like.  But what we like or dislike gives us only hypothetical imperatives about what serves the needs of human nature, human culture, and human individuals.  This cannot give us the categorical imperatives woven into the cosmic order by the Moral Lawgiver.

I have defended the hypothetical imperatives of natural goodness here and here.  All natural law reasoning depends on hypothetical imperatives that have a "given/if/then" structure: Given what we know about the nature of human beings and the world in which they live, if we want to pursue happiness while living in society with each other, then we ought to adopt a social structure that conforms to human nature in promoting human happiness in society.  So, for example, given what we know about human vulnerability and human propensities to violent aggression, if we want to pursue happiness, peace, and prosperity in our society, then we ought to have laws against murder, rape, assault, and theft.  Consequently, the laws against murder, rape, assault, and theft are natural laws.

The biblical theist will say that this natural law has been "written in our hearts" by God.  The atheist will say that this natural law belongs to our evolved human nature.

Although Egnor criticizes the atheist for not recognizing the metaphysical ground of morality in God's command, Egnor seems to concede that as a practical matter, this intellectual mistake does not prevent the atheist from living a morally good life.

Of course, Egnor has to face up to all the problems that come with a divine command theory of morality.  For example, would Egnor say that murder is good whenever God commands it, as when God commanded Abraham to murder his son Isaac?

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