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                                        An Ethical and Intellectual Profile of Atheists


There is a long standing misunderstanding, promoted by the Christian religious establishment, that atheists are somehow likely to be immoral or dishonest.  This is sometime referred to as the “evil atheist conspiracy” and despite widespread belief it has been continually disproven by systematic studies since the early Twentieth Century. In studies that looked at readiness to help or honesty, it was atheists that distinguished themselves, not the religious.

Early in the twentieth century, a survey of 2,000 associates of the YMCA found that those identifying themselves as atheists or agnostics were more willing to help the poor than those  who called themselves religious (Ross 1950). There is no evidence that theists are better behaved or more ethical than non-believers. Not only have psychological studies failed to find a significant correlation between frequency of religious worship and moral conduct, but convicted criminals, when compared with the general population, are much more likely to be theists than atheists. Six of the seven states in the USA with the highest crime rates are in the Bible Belt and there are surprisingly few non-believers in prison. In a recent study of 85,000 convicts, only 150 were avowed atheists – less than .2%. That's one-fifth of one percent compared with 10% in the general population. In the same study it was found that 50% of those in prison are Catholics compared with 25% in the general population. In many European countries religion plays a much smaller role in people's lives than it does in countries like the United States where levels of violence and social dysfunction are significantly higher. Were a lack of religion any sort of cause of violence, then we would find higher amounts of violence in countries like Sweden and Denmark rather than Ireland and the United States, where both religion and violence are ubiquitous in daily life.

As mentioned earlier, misconceptions and stereotypes plague atheism. Atheists are often associated with dishonesty, cruelty, pessimism, communism, and a variety of other perceived unfavorable characteristics that have absolutely no relevance to being an atheist. Most of the myths and transparent fallacies leveled against atheists are extremely negative in nature and have been created and perpetuated by Christian theologians, zealots and apologists. Many atheists even whimsically refer to themselves as “godless heathens” or “pagans”. Although Jesus is often portrayed as the ultimate example of love and tolerance, his ostensible compassion for the human race seems to mysteriously vanish when atheists are concerned. In the Gospels Jesus threatened that nonbelievers will be thrown "into the furnace of fire" where "men will weep," (Mathew 13, 40-42), and Paul informs us that Jesus shall be

Revealed from heaven…in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance upon those who do not know…the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They shall suffer punishment of eternal destruction…. -  (II Thessalonians 1. 7-10)

When it comes to the more serious matter of violence and crime, ever since the field of criminology got started and data were collected of the religious affiliation of criminal offenders, the fact that the unaffiliated and the non-religious had the lowest crime rates has been noted (Lombroso 1911; Bonger 1943, von Hentig 1948). According to Von Hentig, being unaffiliated with religion is the best predictor of law abiding behavior There is no reason to doubt the validity of this generalization today.

Upon surveying the literature on religion and psychological problems, Ventis (1995) concludes that the non-religious are psychologically healthier than religious individuals and hypothesizes that this may be related to "a sense of personal competence and control, self-acceptance and self-actualization, and perhaps open-mindedness and flexibility." At the same time, such individuals may suffer from "existential anxiety and guilt" (p. 43). Feigelman et al (1992), using a representative sample of the U.S. population, noted disaffiliation from religion does not necessarily contribute to happiness. Ross (1950) reported individuals with no religious affiliation in the United States enjoy low levels of psychological distress, just like highly religious individuals, despite their marginal status in society. Maslow (1970) report' that of the fifty-seven individuals he judged to be self-actualized, that having achieved the highest level of personality development, very few  were religious.

While some studies have not found a connection between religious orthodoxy and political attitudes, no empirical study has ever found a positive relation between doctrinal orthodoxy and political liberalism and radicalism. One general hypothesis assumes that religiosity, because of its intrinsic authoritarian nature and connection to hierarchy and tradition, would be linked to support for non-democratic ideology. Not surprisingly, Nelson (1988) found that in representative surveys of the U.S. population between 1973 and 1985, disaffiliation from religion led to greater political liberalism and tolerance. Hartmann and Peterson (1968) studied 1500 freshmen at 37 American colleges. A liberalism factor was extracted, consisting of support for social programs, organized labor and social change toward greater equality. The non-religious and Jews scored the highest, Protestants lowest.

Much research was done in the United States during the politically turbulent 1960s. In a 1966 sample of U.S. students at nine Midwestern private colleges, an inverse relationship was found between religiosity and support for the civil rights movement active then. During the Vietnam War, studies in the United States showed that religious orthodoxy was strongly tied to hawkish attitudes and support of U.S. military involvement and imperialism. Support for the Vietnam War correlated positively with the ritual of praying. A survey of 1062 Catholic students showed the strongest acceptance of modern war and students with no religious affiliation were the most strongly opposed to it (Beit-Hallahmi and Argyle 1997). Hamilton (1968) showed that both in 1952 and 1965, when the United States was embroiled in foreign wars, those having no religious affiliation were most opposed to military action.

Smidt and Penning (1982) found that in representative samples of the U.S. population in 1974, 1977 and 1980, religious commitment was inversely related to political tolerance. In a 1994 public opinion survey in the United States, it was found that opposition to the death penalty was highest among those reporting no religious affiliation and lowest among Mormons.

Science and Academia

Every study conducted on the correlation between education and intelligence and a lack of religiosity has been strongly positive, increasing with every increment in the level of education.

Studies on the religiosity of scientists and academics have been carried out since early in the twentieth century. Their findings have been con­sistent, showing them to be quite irreligious (Ament 1927,- Lehman and Witty 1931). Moreover, early on researchers found that the more eminent scientists were less religious than others. In the best-known early surveys, starting in 1914, James L. Leuba mailed a questionnaire to leading scientists asking about their belief in "a God in intellectual and affective communication with humankind" and in "personal immortality." "I do not see any way to avoid the conclusion that disbelief in a personal God and in personal immortality is directly proportional to abilities making for success in the sciences in question" (Leuba 1916: 2,79). Later on, Leuba (1934) found that only 32 percent of "greater" scientists believed in God, compared with 48 percent of "lesser" ones; the figures for belief in immortality were 37 percent and 59 percent, respectively.

Roe (1952) interviewed sixty-four eminent scientists, nearly all members of the prestigious National Academy of Sciences or the American Philosophical Society. She reported that, while nearly all of them had religious parents and had attended Sunday school, only three were seriously active in church. All the others had long since dismissed religion as any guide to them, and the church played no part in their lives. A few were militantly atheistic, but most were just not interested.

Since early in the twentieth century, large differences have been found between the religious and non-religious, and also among religious denominations, in the numbers of scientists they produced. Bello (1954) studied research scientists under the age of forty judged by senior colleagues to be outstanding. Of the eighty-seven respondents, 45 percent claimed to be "agnostic or atheistic," and an additional 22 percent claimed no religious affiliation. For the twenty most eminent, "the proportion who are now a-religious is considerably higher than in the entire survey group." He also found a massive overrepresentation of "nones" and secularized Jews, and under-representation of Roman Catholics among in American scientists. There was a great deal of apostasy, as 45 per­cent of scientists were "nones," but only 8 percent of their parents were.

Vaughan, Smith, and Sjoberg (1966) polled 850 U.S. physicists, zoologists, chemical engineers, and geologists listed in American Men of Sci­ence (1955) on church membership, attendance, and belief in afterlife. Of the 642 replies, 38.5 percent did not believe in an afterlife, whereas 31.8 percent did. Belief in immortality was less common among major university staff than among those employed by business, government, or minor universities. They found that 54 percent of their group had religious affiliations different from those of their parents. Larson and Witham (1997) reported 60 percent believers in a random sample taken from American Men and Women of Science in 1996.

Religiosity among Eminent Scientists

In an unpublished study, I have used the book by Sherby and Odelberg (2000) to determine the religious affiliation and religiosity of Nobel laureates between 1901 and 2001. The book contains the most reliable biographical information on 696 laureates, who in terms of nationality represent mainly the United States (282, or 41%), Britain (77, or 11%), Germany (68, or 9.7%), and France (51, or 7.3%). Behind are Sweden (26 laureales), Switzerland (14), Austria (13), Denmark (13), the Netherlands (13), and Italy (12). Other nations have smaller representations.

The Nobel Memorial Prize is awarded each year in physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, peace, and literature. Since 1968, the Bank of Sweden Award in Economic Science has provided an entree for the social sciences. Sherby and Odelberg (2000) tried to provide a nominal affiliation for each laureate, not looking at the level of individual religiosity, but the attempt to do that showed that the issue was religiosity. As they reported, it was most difficult to locate information regarding affiliation in most cases, and this is for individuals who are public celebrities.

Only 49 percent of laureates could be classified (as Roman Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Unitarian, or other). For the remaining 51 percent, 20.26 percent were classified as "none," apostates (e.g., "from Christian background"), or "no record." For almost 35 percent of laureates, the classification was speculative, ambiguous, and generic, such as "Protes­tant" (no denomination), "Christian," or "most probably Christian." This was an indication of how reluctant these individuals were to align themselves with any denominations. To appreciate this, it should be noted that five of the economics laureates, who received the award fairly recently and are world famous, are listed as "no record." In addition, the 18 percent of the Nobel laureates who were listed as Jewish do not rep­resent a religious group, but an ethnic label. We know that the vast majority of them are thoroughly secular. As to those openly identifying themselves as "nones," two things should be noted. First, they are the largest group among the literature laureates (31 out of 97). Second, they were found among the laureates as early as the first decade of the twentieth century.

When it comes to Nobel laureates, the "eminence effect" (Leuba 1916), showing a lower level of religiosity among scientists of renown, as compared with lesser ones, has been demonstrated again. What this study of the most eminent scientists of the century has shown is that eminence accentuates differences in both religious affiliation and reli­giosity between scientists and the general population, so that eminence in natural and social sciences (and even in literature) is clearly tied to a personal distance from religion.

If there were any doubts about the irreligiosity of eminent scientists after looking at the biographical, secondary data in the Sherby and Odelberg (2000) book, they were laid to rest thanks to the survey done in 1996 by Larson and Witham. Larson and Witham (1997,1998) performed an exact replication of the 1914 and 1933 surveys by James H. Leuba. Larson and Witham used the same wording and sent questionnaires to 517 members of the United States National Academy of Sciences from the biological and physical sciences (i.e., mathematicians, physicists, and astronomers; many members of the National Academy of Sciences are Nobel laureates). The return rate was slightly over 50 percent. The results showed that the percentage of believers in a personal God among eminent scientists in the United States was 27.7 in 1914,15 in 1933, and 7.0 in 1998. Belief in personal immortality was slightly higher (35.2% in 1914, 18% in 1933, and 7.9% in 1998).

The findings demonstrate, first, that the process of turning away from religion among the most eminent scientists has been continuing over the past century, and, second, that in the United States, eminent scientists, with only 7 percent believing in a personal God, present a mirror image of the general population, where the corresponding percentage hovers around 90 percent in various studies. Larson and Witham state that "disbelief in God and immortality among NAS biological scientists was 65.2% and 69.0%, respectively, and among NAS physical scientists it was 79.0% and 76.3%. Most of the rest were agnostics on both issues, with few believers. We found the highest percentage of belief among NAS mathematicians (14.3% in God, 15.0% in immortality). Biological scientists had the lowest rate of belief (5.5 % in God, 7.1 % in immortality), with physicists and astronomers slightly higher (7.5% in God, 7.5% in immortality)." The article concludes with the following remarks: "As we compiled our findings, the NAS issued a booklet encouraging the teaching of evolution in public schools. The booklet assures readers, 'Whether God exists or not is a question about which science is neutral.' NAS president Bruce Alberts said: 'There are many very outstanding members of this academy who are very religious people, people who believe in evolution, many of them biologists.' Our survey suggests otherwise."

What the findings regarding the Nobel laureates and the U.S. National Academy of Sciences show is that since the nineteenth century an international intellectual elite, made up of creative and highly secular individuals, committed to the life of the mind, has been in existence. (Those studied by Leuba in 1914 and those awarded the Nobel Prize in the early years, between 1901 and 1950, had their formative years in the nine­teenth century. Among those awarded the Nobel Prize before 1920, most were born before 1850.) Academics and scientists are expected to excel in skepticism, critical thinking, free thought, innovation, tolerance of uncertainty and independence. If I may be permitted a psychodynamic interpretation, what these individuals had in addition to their intellect and creativity, was a strong desire to create distance between the world views of their parents and dominant culture.

Concluding remarks

What we are able to conclude about the archetypal atheist in Western society today is that such a person is much more likely to be male, married and with higher education. What about an atheist personality profile? I think a tentative psychological profile can be offered. We can say that atheists show themselves to be less authoritarian and credulous, les dogmatic, less prejudiced, more tolerant to others, more law-abiding, liberal, compassionate, conscientious and well educated. Many are highly intelligent, life-long learners, and committed to the intellectual and scholarly life. In short, they are good to have as your next door neighbor.                                  


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