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Reflections on Ethics 64
Belief and Social Virtues

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I think we've all encountered the claim from some believers that belief in God makes them moral. Without belief, supposedly we non-believers cannot be moral. I have always consider this position to be entirely unfounded. However, a news report[1] published on 11 October 2007 based on a survey of 1600 Canadians by University of Lethbridge sociologist Reginald Bibby suggests a link may exist between belief and certain social virtues. Given that the study does superficially support[2] what some believers claim, it is quite possible it will be used to advance that position.

What Dr. Bibby did was compare which specified social virtues atheists and theists considered to be very important.

  Theists Atheists
Honesty 94% 89%
Kindness 88 75
Family Life 88 65
Being Loved 86 70
Friendship 85 74
Courtesy 81 71
Concern for others 82 63
Forgiveness 84 52
Politeness 77 65
Friendliness 79 66
Patience 72 39
Generosity 67 37

In every category, those who believed in God rated the selected social virtues higher than atheists, in some cases by a considerable margin.

Does this change my mind? No. I see several problems with the statistics as reported.

First of all, the comparison is between those who are certain there is a God (49% of respondents) and those who are certain there is not. (7%) Left out are the 33% of believers who are intelligent enough about belief to admit they are not certain and the 11% who don't believe, but who also are not certain. I would question why the responses from these were omitted. Perhaps their inclusion would shrink the differences between those who believe and those who don't.

Secondly, why do the statistics only cover "very important"? I don't know the range of possible answers, but surely if "very important" was available, then "important" was also. If that was included, would it have significantly reduced the difference between theists and atheists?

Thirdly, there is the issue of survey bias. Was the question of belief addressed before or after the questions about the virtues? Human nature suggests that once a person has stated a belief in a deity, answers to follow-on questions would tend to reflect what the person thought he should say to be consistent with that belief.[3]

Fourthly, the selection of social virtues could be questioned. For example where is tolerance? Where is compassion? Where is acceptance of differences? Where is respect for privacy?

Fifthly, this is a survey of what people say. It does not necessarily reflect how they actually act.

So, I'm far from convinced.

Footnotes:

  1. Social virtues linked to faith, Charles Lewis, National Post, Thursday, October 11 2007
  2. Belief in God producing morality is not what Dr. Bibby claims. Rather it is the religious institutions instilling values that is important, something which we non-believers apparently do not benefit from. And he is suggesting that other institutions such as schools and family should take up the slack in an increasingly secular society.
  3. The numbers suggest that the majority of believers identified the majority of the virtues as "very important." I find this suggestive of responding to expectation rather than actually thinking of where their actual feelings fitted on a scale.