Can You Trust an Atheist?

The scarlet "A" serves at the sign of the New Atheists public awareness campaign.

Do you trust an atheist?  Would you vote for one if he or she was running for office?  What if their competition were an openly gay individual or a Muslim?  Could you vote for an atheist then?  What if your child wanted to marry an atheist?  Would that concern you?

Fifty years ago, these questions were not at the forefront of American culture because the American population was largely “Christianized.”[1]  But by the dawn of the new millennium, the culture had radically changed as globalization brought about an increased sensitivity to living in a pluralistic world.

In 2004, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) conducted a survey looking into the religious beliefs of the United States population.  According to their findings, 9% of Americans did not believe in either a god or a universal spirit.[2]  But even more surprising than these figures are the figures released by the 2008 ARIS study.  According to those results, released in March of 2009, 15% of Americans now claim to possess no religious beliefs of any kind.[3]  If that is true, than it may be time for the Church to begin to consider how it intends to corporately interact with the more than 34 million Americans who possess a radically different worldview than that which is articulated by Christian scriptures.

So just how do Americans view atheists?   Sam Harris, one of the “Four Horsemen” of the New Atheists puts it this way: “[Being an atheist is] basically the worst thing you can be in terms of having a political life.”  Why?  Because Americans do not trust atheists.  In fact, a recent report from the Pew Research Center suggests that 53% of all Americans believe that it is necessary to believe in God in order to be moral.  Perhaps this is why a separate Gallup poll reveals the following:

  • 9% of Americans would not vote for a Jewish presidential candidate.
  • 22% of Americans would not vote for a Mormon presidential candidate.
  • 32% of Americans would not vote for a gay or lesbian presidential candidate.
  • 49% of Americans would not vote for an atheist presidential candidate.[4]

So what do you make of this?  Do you agree with the 53% of Americans who believe that atheists cannot be moral?  And if so, what is it about an atheist that seems less moral or trustworthy than a homosexual, a Mormon or a Jewish individual?

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For further reading, please see:

[1] The term “Christianized” does not seek to imply that the vast majority of American citizens were, in fact, Christian.  Rather, the term “Christianized” suggests that the population was heavily influenced by Christian ethics, practices and even beliefs.

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22 Responses to Can You Trust an Atheist?

  1. Ryan M. Mahoney says:

    I find this “wide spread” belief insulting and ignorant. I have a friend, presently living in Australia, that I would absolutely describe as a good person; he’s honest and funny as all get out. He’s a friend. I trust him. I also have a former co-worker and Facebook friend that I would also describe as a good guy and hard worker. As far as I know, he has always been forthright in his business dealings. If I had need for his legal services I would absolutely trust him with my business. Atheists can be morally good people or not just like anybody else, even if they do not have an intellectually consistent reason for being so.

  2. I didn’t site this statistic, but a University of Minnesota study revealed that nearly 48% of Americans said that they “would disapprove if my child” married an atheist. What I found to be really interesting is that 33.5% of the same respondents also said that they “would disapprove” if their child married a Muslim. Now I’m not talking about the Christian call to be evenly yoked. That’s not the discussion I’m having.

    What I want to know is why more Americans would disapprove of an in-law with “no beliefs” as opposed to an in-law with Islamic beliefs? Is this simply an expression of Americans believing that all paths lead to God, save for the atheistic path?

  3. Matt E says:

    I think everyone has “beliefs,” and it feels a little artificial to separate them into two categories, “religious” and… I dunno, “otherwise.” Atheists have beliefs about why the world is the way it is, why humans are the way they are, etc. They have evidence for these beliefs, but they don’t amount to “proof.”

    • I completely agree Matt. In my estimation, the atheist makes as many “leaps of faith” as the Christian does. As for separating these in “two categories,” that would not be an accurate representation of the studies. They studies include many theistic options. I’m simply asking the question about those that self-identifiy as having no religious beliefs. Just want to be clear.

  4. Carrot says:

    I think my only objection to any sort of “other belief” (ie – anything not mine) is whether or not they were total jerkwads about the subject. If I can go to a Hindu Ceremony or Jewish Ceremony and give due respect and mind my manners, I expect the same out of anyone not belonging to “my team”. If I’ve a friend who merited an invite to a family religious function and then discovered they couldn’t be civilized enough to not denounce the practice going on around them, our friendly association would fast become more distant. I’m not asking for conversion, I’m asking for not offending the hosts/don’t make Mother cry. If they can’t mind their manners, it doesn’t matter what their belief system is. I’d say my trust and good will would go to people of good character and not the flavor of their belief as every team has some untrustworthy types.

    • So Carrot … I hear you when you are talking about minding the manners. And hopefully, that is something that is being modeled on this site as people agree and disagree. But I guess my question to you is this: does character not connect, in some tangible way, to beliefs? I’m tracking with you that there are people of “good character” in many different groups, but at the same time, I’m not convinced that belief does not connect to character.

      Take Nietzsche, for instance. His conception of morality was the “uberman.” And for him, the “uberman” was the man who had the courage and the will to seize that which he wanted. Weakness was immoral. Strength and the will to take was moral. Can you see what I’m saying? I don’t think we can totally divorce character from beliefs. But at the same time, I’m not comfortable with 53% of people saying that atheists can’t be moral.

      What do you think?

      • Carrot says:

        I don’t think that behavior is linked to belief. If it were, you wouldn’t have pedophile priests and “Family Values” Ministers caught in gay love affair scandals. I suppose you could say they obviously didn’t believe what they were preaching, in which case now you have a deceptive liar on your hands. Any way you slice that, you come up with a person who doesn’t seem to be of good character. It doesn’t however, suggest that the aforementioned deceptive liars are atheists for failure to abide by their own rule of law. In fact, if all it takes was a belief in any sort of religion to make them trustworthy law abiding people, the jails would be stocked with nothing but atheists and churches in crime-filled neighborhoods would be empty.

        I’ve not read any Nietzsche, so I’m ill equipped to discuss particulars. However, I don’t believe in “Might Makes Right”. Eventually, anyone who feels they are morally obligated to take whatever they needed would come up against someone who did not wish to part with the item in question but lack the strength (but not the will) to protect what was theirs. I’m going to guess that its impolite to take things by force. I’m putting “Intimidation” in there with force. Sounds like bully justification to me. Conversion by the sword.

  5. stauron3n1 says:

    I was once in a meeting with an atheist who enthusiastically maintained that one can be a moral individual without believing in God. Declining the temptation to request his definition of morality, and to ask from whence he thought morality proceeds; instead,I asked him why would an atheist choose to be moral?

    When asked why I asked, I told him that if I were an atheist, and persuaded that there was no universal and eternal justice, that I’d choose to live like a viking, and plunder, pillage and ravage my way through life, and if apprehended, immediately commit suicide to avoid potential consequences.

    He seemed quite disturbed by the observation and insisted on changing the topic.

    Given that I’ve never been able to figure out the definition of, or even the “upside” of “morality” for atheists, I for one, would have trouble voting for one.

    • Welcome to the site, sir. Don’t know how you find us, but I’m glad that you did. If I may, I’d like to ask you a few questions:

      1. Can you conceive of any group outside of Christians have a moral base? Or is there something particular that you are pointing to in atheists?

      2. What about the Christian conception of “common grace?” How does that fit into this discussion? Any thoughts.

      Thanks again for stopping by.

  6. Stephen Hadley says:

    I am the heathen from Down Under that Ryan referred to and I find all of this very scary. I live my life as an honest, hardworking, father who treats his friends and family with respect. I am very trustworthy and still maintain close friendships with people for over 30 years despite moving all over the world.

    I have maintained all of these qualities while not once referring to a book or set of rules. How is that possible?? it scares me that stauron3n1 would live life like a viking if he had the same lack of “intellectually consistent reason” that I do.

    I wish that one day all atheists and people of religion could have the relationship that Ryan and I have had for the last 25 years. One of love , respect, and acceptance…. and belly hurting laughter. But then there’s no fear or ignorance in our relationship so that’s what makes it so easy for us I guess.

  7. Welcome “heathen from Down Under.” Appreciate you stopping by. More than that, I appreciate you caring enough to actually comment. While you and I do not know one another, I think Ryan could vouch for me when I say that I am trying to construct this site as a place where people can actually converse without the usual “flame wars.”

    In that spirit, may I ask you a question. Do you have a loving, respectful and accepting relationship with other Christians apart from Ryan? Or is that somewhat unique to your friendship? I ask because I’m curious to know whether you would consider him to be typical of the Christians you know.

    Again, thanks for stopping by.

  8. Josh Y says:

    I can definitely see how an atheist would be offended if you made that comment regarding the plundering, pillaging lifestyle. I don’t doubt the ability of an atheist to make moral decisions, because in the Garden, Adam and Eve ate from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Even though we all are born slaves to sin, we also have a sense of right and wrong embedded in us. We cannot do this perfectly over our entire lives, but I don’t doubt that someone who is thinking could listen to some of the stronger naggings. Whether or not a person is willing to acknowledge this, it’s still there. What I don’t get is how an atheist would explain this sense of right and wrong. As a Christian I could explain it, but I’m not sure how this gets ingrained into humanity without having a God who put it there.

    • Morning Josh … Welcome to the site. While Sam Harris does not speak for atheists everywhere, he is one of the “Four Horsemen” of New Atheism; and as such, his work is worth considering. In his 2010 book entitled “The Moral Landscape,” Harris attempts to root the human conception of right and wrong in science. Put simply, he argues that what we called “morality” is nothing more than animal behavior finely-tuned through the process of natural selection. In other words, what we conceive of as morality is nothing more than herd mentality. What makes his work particularly interesting is his assertion that at some point, science will shift from telling us how things to work to telling us how things ought to work. In other words, science will become the new Decalogue or Ten Commandments. If you’re really interested in the subject, it might be a book worth reading. And who knows, maybe a possible thesis topic? (Hint, hint.)

  9. Stephen Hadley says:

    Thanks Scott, happy to drop by.

    One of the joys of being an atheist is that religion isn’t really on my radar. I enjoy the freedom of not judging people by their religious beliefs or their country of birth or even their sexual orientation. It’s very liberating.

    Some of my other friends are Christians but I wouldn’t say they shared any more traits with Ryan than my athiest friends would. I would say Ryan is typical of my friends and among them would be atheists, homosexuals, and event lawyers.

    By excluding anyone because of their religious beliefs or lack there of would be to miss out on so much more of their personality.

    but that’s just me.

    • Ryan M. Mahoney says:

      Among all of your friends, I am sure you have only one that opened his bedroom window and rigged the three-man to work with two men in order to launch water balloons at cars on Quentin Rd.

  10. Stephen Hadley says:


  11. Well since I am the one that suggested Scott read the article I’ll jump into the fray.

    There was more to the article that Scott probably didn’t have time to go into here, and part of that was some of the alienation that those who are “out” about their Athiesm feel. How in some communities, they get ostracized, threatened, etc. That was the part that concerned me, was how whacked it seems people can get when they can’t relate to someone having a different belief than their own.

    I don’t think that you have to have a belief in a Higher Power to have morals. Or be a good person. There are PLENTY of people that DO believe (or so they profess) in a Higher Power and are still cruel, mean, nasty human beings.

    So, I think that since human beings have things like emotions and rational thinking, we also have a conscience.

    Now, whether or not someone else, as a Christian, Jewish, Muslim, etc thinks that is because of the PtB creating you…that’s your opinion.

    But someone can not believe in a Higher Power and still have morals. Just like someone who says they do believe can be a lying, stealing, SOB. Or a serial killer.

  12. Cal says:

    Yeah, a majority of Americans ostracizing atheists, what a “Christian” nation! I liked the comment on Nietzsche, morals are subject to the one espousing them. To some Muslims, it is a moral imperative to put to death a daughter who has brought shame on your house (ie. led an immoral life style); thus honor killings. The Civil Religion of America says ‘Greed is Good’ and promotes Capitalism, the self-made by the bootstraps man and the ‘American Dream’.

    This makes me think of a conversation NT Wright had when he was a chaplain to a school. He’d greet all the kids and a good chunk would say, sheepishly at times, “I don’t think you’ll be seeing too much of me; I don’t believe in god” and to that say “Which god don’t you believe in?”. Usually this would elicit a little shock and get a response of, “Some old man in the sky, always being a bit of a stodgy grump” to which he would say “I don’t believe in that god either!”

    Thank God for His Incarnation in Jesus Christ, dying for the sins of the world and bringing truth and life.

  13. lamehousewife says:

    You can be doing everything right, morally speaking, but does that mean anything? There are atheistic type Christians out there who feel that as long as they are doing everything “right” that they should be good to go, but wasn’t that the distinction Jesus was making between the Pharisee and the Tax Collector in Luke 18? There is something deeper that Jesus is going for.
    And really?! Science will be heading toward a decalogue? Who then will be the ones to interpret those findings since scientists already disagree about so many interpretations on their own findings? It would be nice if people could move passed the Old Testament discoveries so that we can actually move into Jesus’ overabundant mercy and justice. Grace moves people’s hearts, but if they never attribute that to Him????
    Now, for me personally, atheism scares me since the 20th century saw so much human annihilation because atheism was thought to be the “new” key to human freedom and happiness. I think that I heard that 240 million were killed in the name of atheism (Mitch Pacwa on EWTN)…just in one century. This compares to maybe 7 million over 2000 years in Christian wars. Death is a terrible result in either case, but I think atheism might have a bit more of the “scary” attached to it for me.
    The atheists I have met thus far, present “comment” party not included, have been angry, arrogant, demeaning, or scared.
    God bless, brother! I love the thoughtful topics!

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