A recent sociological study reveals that people around the world view atheists with moral suspicion. The belief that atheists are prone to be immoral people is held even by other atheists, and is found in societies both religious and secular.
Greg Funderburk, Minister to Adults at South Main Baptist Church in Houston, explains a possible source for this view. “I think that probably comes from a religious idea of God being the moral agent for people,” he says, “and for someone to declare that they don’t believe in God comes with the baggage that they’re without this moral agency.” Funderburk dismisses this idea as a “terrible prejudice.”
Remembering a close friend from years ago who was an atheist, Funderburk recalls, “I never thought twice about him not having a very strong principled outlook to life and a conscientious approach to life.” He says it’s hard to say what his friend or other atheists base their morality on. In any case, he adds, “It’s clear that whether you believe in God or not, you’re capable of making moral decisions.”
So is our conscience, a sense of right and wrong, an inherent part of the human condition? “That’s actually a really interesting question about where our conscience stems from,” Funderburk says. “Is it just something innate that we have? Is it an evolutionary artifact? Or does it come from a belief and dedication to God?”
In any case, atheists and people of faith may be wary of other, Funderburk says, based on assumptions they make about each other. Atheists may assume believers think of themselves as morally superior, while people of faith may regard atheists as people who think of faith as a fantasy or a crutch.