Study to examine moral values among atheists in U.S., Sweden

Linda Skitka, professor of psychology. Photo: Mark Schacht

Linda Skitka, professor of psychology. Photo: Mark Schacht

Two UIC social psychologists have received a grant for cross-cultural research examining moral values among the nonreligious in the U.S. and Sweden.

The study by Tomas Ståhl, visiting assistant professor of psychology, and Linda Skitka, professor of psychology, is supported by a $85,000 grant by “Understanding Unbelief,” a major research program and grant competition administered by the University of Kent and funded by the John Templeton Foundation.

Their 15-month project, “The Amoral Atheist? A Cross-cultural Examination of Cognitive, Motivational and Cultural Contributions to Unbelief and Moral Considerations,” will explore whether the nonreligious actually do have a different view of morality than religious people.

“We are going to measure various cognitive, motivational, and cultural factors that may contribute to atheism, examine to what extent they explain unbelief in each country, as well as what moral values each of these factors are associated with,” said Ståhl, who studies morality, justice and self-regulation.

The UIC researchers suggest that the moral values endorsed by the nonreligious will most likely depend on how they became nonreligious in the first place.

“In a country like the U.S., where religiosity is the norm, we suspect that most atheists got there through a deliberate and analytical process,” he said. “In a highly secular culture like Sweden, however, most nonbelievers were simply not exposed to religious beliefs and practices growing up.

The rise of the nonreligious in the U.S. and elsewhere has been accompanied by a notable increase in scholarly attention to the psychology of unbelief, as well as to attitudes toward the nonreligious, Ståhl said.

A common negative stereotype of atheists as amoral is part of the reason why the UIC investigators want to conduct the study.

“Many people are concerned that atheists may not have a strong sense of right and wrong,” he said. “Ultimately, we hope that this project will increase our understanding of unbelief, and provide a more accurate and nuanced picture of how atheists think about morality.”

The grant was awarded during the first stage of “Understanding Unbelief,” the University of Kent’s three-year initiative that will provide approximately $1.3 million (U.S.) for international research in anthropology, cognitive science, psychology, political science, history and sociology to advance empirical understanding of nonreligion, commonly labelled as “unbelief.”