One Reason The Argument from Morality Might Be Persuasive

Allegory of Goodness by 16th-century Italian artist Jacopo Comin, who became known as Tintoretto.

As I have noted previously (see here and here, for example), I consider the Argument from Morality a very, very weak argument for God’s existence. Nevertheless, many philosophers who are much deeper thinkers than me champion the argument, and in many of the accounts of atheists who became Christians, the Argument from Morality was at least a factor in them accepting the Truth.

I have read several books and internet articles on the issue, but I have not read a single defense of the Argument from Morality that has been even moderately convincing to me, despite the fact that I do believe that God is the only source of morality. As a result, I have often wondered why the Argument from Morality has so much apparent power. One possible reason is that I am totally clueless on what makes a good argument for God’s existence. However, I recently ran across a study that might provide an alternate reason.

It was published in Nature Human Behavior, and it explores the preconceptions that people have when it comes to morality. The authors studied nearly 3,800 people in 13 different countries, and they found that in the vast majority of those countries, the participants were much more likely to believe that an evildoer is an atheist.

The study is interesting on many levels, but I will touch on two of them. First is a technical issue that I found fascinating. The study consisted of several questions, many of which dealt with the participants’ demographics and basic beliefs. However, there was also an “attention check” question that was worded this way:

Here is a different type of question. SKIP THE NEXT QUESTION. It is only included to ensure that you are paying attention and reading directions. Do not leave an answer for the question about US presidents.

Who is the current President of the United States of America?

a) Barack Obama
b) Mitt Romney
c) Steve Perry
d) George Washington

It kind of reminds me of a test I was given in elementary school. We were told to read the directions carefully, and those directions said to ignore everything below the directions and watch the rest of the class. The few students who didn’t read the directions started doing crazy things like barking, flapping their arms, and hopping around their desks – all of which were commands given below the directions.

So anyway, the interesting thing was that 13% of the participants ignored the directions and answered the question! All of their responses were removed from the results of the study, since they obviously weren’t paying attention. That makes sense, of course, but I am just amazed that the percentage was so high!

Now to the meat of the study. The main question involved a short story about a boy who harms animals for amusement. He eventually loses interest in harming animals and escalates to people. So far, he has murdered and dismembered five homeless people. The participants were then asked to answer the following question:

Which is more probable?
1. The man is a teacher
2. The man is a teacher and [does not believe in any gods. / is a religious believer.]

Half of the surveys used the “does not believe in any gods” part of what is in the brackets, while the other half used the “is a religious believer” part of what is in the brackets.

Overall, they found that people were more than twice as likely to choose “The man is a teacher and does not believe in any gods” than they were to choose “The man is a teacher and is a religious believer.” So when people were willing to make a judgement of an evildoer’s religious beliefs, they were much more likely to think that the evildoer is an atheist. The numbers varied by country, but in every country but Finland and New Zealand, people were more likely to believe the evildoer was an atheist. Interestingly enough, even atheists were more likely to believe that the evildoer was an atheist, although not by a 2-to-1 margin.

The authors call this “extreme intuitive moral prejudice against atheists.” For me, however, it might be an answer to why the Argument from Morality seems to have so much power. If people think that atheists are more likely to be evildoers, then that inherent bias would make the Argument from Morality more convincing. I would love to find out the persuasiveness of the Argument from Morality in Finland and New Zealand, where this bias doesn’t seem to exist. If my interpretation is correct, people in those two countries shouldn’t find the argument persuasive.

If any social scientists read this article, take that as a suggested research topic!

7 Comments

  1. Hi! I’m from Finland and don’t find the argument from morality at all persuasive. I just think that it’s too hard to prove the existence of objective moral values. That said, I would certainly expect the evil person to be a non believer, at least in reality.

    I could imagine that the reason for Finlands apparent neutrality is that religion is non existent here compared to Europe proper and the Americas. We also seem to take pride in some kind of agnosticism and universal tolerance.

    1. Jay Wile says:

      Thanks for your input, Marko. That’s interesting.

  2. Kathy Mokris says:

    God’s Word from Romans 1 and 2 talks about how God has revealed Himself in nature and how He’s given people some knowledge of the law. Even in a so-called atheist, the conscience knows. Very interesting study!

  3. Dr. Wile, did you ever get a chance to read (and interact with) J. P. Moreland’s book which he mentioned in a comment wherein he defends the moral argument?

    1. Jay Wile says:

      Yes, I did. It was filled with quite a bit of philosophy jargon, so I had a philosopher read it with me. His best arguments were not based on morality. They were based on consciousness. For example, he argues that consciousness can’t be an emergent property, which is a property that comes about because of the interactions of multiple components and is discrete from all the properties of the individual components. This is typically the way an atheist explains consciousness. However, that doesn’t work because an emergent property can be defined objectively. However, there are many “properties” that a person has which can only be defined by the person. I found that to be his best argument for the existence of the supernatural.

      His argument from morality was really no different than the standard argument, and it didn’t even grapple with the idea that natural selection can be the “valuer” that determines moral value.

      I never reviewed it for two reasons. First, I didn’t feel competent to review it. As I said, it had a lot of jargon in it, and were it not for the help if my philosopher friend, I would not have understood it. Second, it is not the kind of book that I think a general audience can read, and those are the kinds of books I like to review.

  4. Benjamin Stowell says:

    I thought the purpose of the Moral Argument was to place atheists in an awkward position where they have to admit that morality is subjective, and therefore murdering 5 homeless people, while wrong subjectively, would not be wrong objectively. If atheists live their lives as if such a thing is wrong objectively, then there’s a contradiction. Do Christian philosophers really use the Moral Argument primarily to support the existence of God? If so, I would agree with Dr. Wile that that is a mistake, as it becomes then a matter of preaching to the choir.

    1. Jay Wile says:

      It depends on who is making the argument, Benjamin. Some use it to claim only that without God, there is no objective morality. Others use it to claim since we inherently “know” some things are objectively wrong, then morality must be objective, and therefore, there must be a God. I happen to disagree with both uses. While it is not the correct morality, I do think that atheists can construct objective moral codes. Indeed, some atheists have.