What does Indian society think of atheists?

It is popularly rumored that atheists have no morality: morality needs religion. Now, at the beginning of August 2017, a study haunted the media that even atheists were of this opinion - even if it was just a prejudice: "Even atheists tend to think of serial killers as atheists". In the media “summer slump”, more than questionable things also get a place methodically.

Comments by Carsten Frerk and Elke Schäfer.

As examples from German-speaking countries: Das Spectrum of science reports, "Even atheists think serial killers are more likely to be atheists" (and decorates the message with a photo of a bride with an ice hockey mask and a bloody cleaver in her hand), including the Deutschlandfunk reports: "Even atheists distrust atheists". Likewise writes that pro media magazine "Atheists think believers are more moral" and the default (Austria) headlines: "The immoral image of the atheists"

The source for these reports is an article in the journal “nature”, one of the most respected science magazines: “Global evidence of extreme intuitive moral prejudice against atheists” by the psychologist Will Gervais and colleagues.

The authors start with the description of the result: “In this study we quantify the moral distrust of atheists by applying proven measures in a large global sample (N = 13 different countries). Consistent with the cultural evolutionary theories of religion and morality, people in most - but not all of these countries - saw extreme moral injuries by representatives of the atheists. It was remarkable that the anti-atheist prejudice was also evident among the atheist participants around the world. "

The claim is therefore a representative, worldwide study in 13 selected countries. However, this study is by no means representative. As a social scientist, one can only shake one's head at such research. A few remarks may clarify this.

With regard to the number of participants, for which 3,256 are mentioned in the article itself, a supplement to be called up (Table 2) shows that of the 3,256 evaluated surveys, 993 took place in Finland. That leaves 2,263 in 12 countries. For example, there are 148 respondents for the UK and 198 for the US.

Regarding the selection of the US Americans surveyed for the preliminary studies, the methodological explanations say that 394 people were selected on an online marketplace for casual work (“Amazon Mechanical Turk”) (for the preliminary study S 2). For a further preliminary study (S 3), 265 students from the University of Kentucky were selected for the USA. Representative is different.

In the overview of the composition of the respondents by participating countries, the respondents are between 16 and 70 years old, whereby (according to Table 3) the average age is 25.2 years. Which is not surprising, since most of them - in all countries - are students. The average proportion of women is 69 percent. There is also no representativeness here.


In the religious demographics (Table 4), on the one hand, the proportions of Christians, Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims are named individually, on the other hand, “Nones”, atheists and agnostics and others who are then summarized in the other tables as “atheists” or “religious” become.

Even if it is correctly noted that in China, Hong Kong, Singapore and the United Arab Emirates the religious demographics do not work at all, the primary classifications are already questionable, since, for example, the 31 percent shown in the table for the Czech Republic are “atheists “Have nothing to do with reality. According to the 2011 census, this is simply the size of the people without a religious belief. Likewise, 10 percent are named "nones", 4 percent atheists and 5 percent agnostics for the USA, which roughly corresponds to empirical evidence.

But these three groups of "nones", atheists as well as agnostics - in which the atheists have the smallest share - to be summarized as "atheists", produced by themselves the result that these large parts of these alleged "atheists" have a negative opinion about " Atheists ”.

Doubtful question

There is no evidence that atheists in particular tend to act in a negative way. It is even clear that in the states of the USA with an above-average number of influential, conservative Christians, the crime rate is higher (e.g. in Texas). There is also a study by the French-American psychologist Jean Decety that shows that children raised by religion are less generous than children from 'unbelieving' families.

In the reported experiments of the psychologist Will Gervais (University of Kentucky) the direct questions were dispensed with. The given answers are quite illogical combinations of unlikely coinciding characteristics of people. And that is probably precisely why the participants decide in general for the answer in which “non-believing” occurs - which then corresponds to the widespread idea: Atheists are less moral than believers in God.

Especially in Christian countries like the USA and Great Britain, as well as in the Muslim Arab Emirates or the strongly Hindu countries India and Mauritius, people believe that morality is based on belief in God. Another study, which looked at a priest who sexually molested children, shows how strongly this attitude is anchored in the people: the majority of the test subjects thought the priest was rather unbelieving.


The Christian alone pro media magazine names the commissioner of the study: The American evangelical, d. H. fundamentalist Protestant Templeton Foundation.

Not only are around 70 million US dollars in grants distributed each year, but the Templeton Prize endowed with 1.5 million dollars is also awarded: “[...] to a 'living person who makes an extraordinary contribution to the affirmation of the spiritual dimension of life, be it through insight, discovery or practical work '. "