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Should Believers Trust Atheists?

The Science and Religious Conflict Project team here at Oxford has recently finished hosting a major international conference on Religion, Tolerance and Intolerance (For details see: The conference involved a large number of very interesting papers by eminent scholars across a range of disciplines. One that particularly peaked my interest was a paper on ‘Religion as Parochial Altruism’, which was presented by Professor Ara Norenzayan from the Department of Psychology at the University of British Columbia.

Norenzayan discussed, among other topics, the attitude of religious believers to atheists in America. I knew that atheists were not popular in America but I was surprised to learn that they are the least liked group in the entire country. While 33.5% of Americans would disapprove if their child married a Muslim (the second least popular group in America) an amazing 47.3% would disapprove if their child married an atheist. In another survey average Americans revealed that they were more likely to vote for a homosexual that an atheist presidential candidate.


There is one piece of good news for atheists, however. It seems that, in contrast to gay men, average Americans do not actually find atheists disgusting. Instead they find atheists untrustworthy. This seems like good news because, unlike a disgust reaction, distrust ought to be amenable to argument. Religious believers think that they have reasons to distrust atheists and these reasons may be countermanded by further reasoning.


The most frequently stated reason for distrusting Atheists goes back at least to John Locke. According to him:


“…those are not at all to be tolerated who deny the being of a God. Promises, covenants, and oaths, which are the bonds of human society, can have no hold upon an atheist. The taking away of God, though but even in thought, dissolves all” (J. Locke, Letter Concerning Toleration, 1689)

There seems something intuitively plausible about this line of reasoning. If God is checking to see whether a believer performs immoral acts, such as lying, and if there are consequences for the believer in failing to behave morally, such as failing to obtain salvation, then it seems that the religious believer will have a source of motivation to keep promises and tell the truth that the atheist lacks.


One way that an atheist could respond to this line of reasoning is to point out that there are additional reasons to be honest that the atheist and the believer can both share. If an individual acquires a reputation for dishonesty then this will impede her ability to cooperate with others in the future, so it is generally in the interest of people to be honest, in order to maintain a reputation as someone who others can cooperate with in the future

A second line of argument that the atheist can develop is one that questions the alleged trustworthiness of believers. It is very rare for a religion to have and enforce a blanket ban on lying. The Ninth Commandment in the Bible, which is sometimes interpreted as forbidding all lying, actually stipulates that one should not “bear false witness against your neighbor”. This wording is telling as it is sometimes considered by the religious that it is acceptable to lie or break promises to those who are not members of one’s own religious tradition. If this interpretation holds sway then members of rival religious groups will be no more trustworthy from the point of view of one’s own group than atheists.


A further consideration is that there are not many religious believers who think that God will punish them for each and every immoral act. A more common belief is that we face an overall assessment, in which the balance of good and bad acts is taken into account. But a religious believer who thinks this way may have little more reason to be trustworthy on a given occasion than an atheist. If a believer is of the view that she is generally a good person and thinks that God will recognize this then she may feel that she has enough divine credit, so to speak, to tell a particular lie or break a particular promise. And even if she worries that she may not have enough divine credit now, she may be confident that she will be able to earn that credit by future good deeds, thereby allowing herself a lie or a broken promise.

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20 Comment on this post

  1. Perhaps I am not understanding this, but is “neighbor” suppose to be identified with those who are members of one’s own religious tradition? I am not myself religious, and this might not apply given my limited experience with those who are religious, but I don’t see how the line “bear false witness against your neighbor” is telling in the way you are proposing. That is, that “the religious” at times are willing to lie to those who are not of the same religious sect.

  2. You can find Locke’s worry spelled out in detail in More’s “Utopia,” published 173 years earlier in 1516. I’m curious to hear of still earlier instances.

    The Utopians allow for freedom of religion, as long as the doctrine is theistic and affirms the immortality of the soul. Their thinking about human happiness is grounded on these principles:

    “that the soul is immortal, and by the beneficence of God is born for happiness; that our virtues and good deeds will be rewarded after this life, and our crimes have punishments prepared for them. Though these are religious principles, the Utopians still think that reason leads them to believe and grant them; if they are eliminated, the Utopians have no hesitation in affirming that no one could be so stupid as to feel that he ought to pursue his own pleasure by hook or crook. He would only be concerned not to sacrifice a greater pleasure for a lesser one and not to pursue one that would be requited by pain. For they think it would be truly insane to pursue virtue, which is harsh and difficult, and not only to banish the pleasures of life but even to seek out pain of your own accord, and to expect to get nothing out of it (for how can you get anything out of it if you get nothing after death, since you have spent your whole life here without pleasure, that is, wretchedly?).” (Trans. Clarence H. Miller. New Haven: Yale Nota Bene, pp. 81-2.)

    The argument is embedded in a problematic discussion of the nature of welfare, value, and motivation. . . .

  3. I encountered this statistic several years ago and mentioned it in my classes. At the time I found the idea (and still do) odd since, though being religious, I find atheist thought important in my own spiritual development. But the students — all non-philosophers — expressed thoughts similar to Locke. “How can you trust someone who does not believe in an eternal reality that makes all values true?”

  4. @Ashton: As ML King pointed out in his “Promised Land” speech, the answer to “Who is my neighbor?” has an answer in the New Testament. Jesus responds to this question with the parable of the Good Samaritan, the moral of which seems to be most decidely that one’s neighbors are NOT merely “those who are members of one’s own religious tradition,” since the Samaritan helps someone from a different religion. But then, that definition may only have weight to “the religious” who believe (and who don’t merely believe, but also follow) the New Testament, and the “Thou shalt not bear false witness” dictum is from the Old Testament. Perhaps Kant’s Categorical Imperative might be a better way to persuade someone to trust an atheist? By definition it applies to everyone, including atheists.

    @Aaron: Locke’s Utopian argument agrees perfectly with Kant’s corresponding practical postulate (and for the same reasons). An empiricist and a rationalist agreeing with each other. Who’d have thunk it?

  5. Why are we assuming that atheists ARE trustworthy? In my experience, some are, and some aren’t: just like religious believers in fact. Trustworthiness depends (probably in descending order) on genes, upbringing, life experiences, and values. Values can be implicit (i.e. how one lives one’s life practically) or explicit (consciously formulated ideas about how we want to live their life). They can be introverted (I know how I want to live my life, but I’m not necessarily telling you), or extraverted.

    And why is it so great to be an atheist anyway? What does it do for us?

  6. Peter: what reason do you have to suppose that genes are the most important factor in trustworthiness?

  7. Not a very strong one, to be honest (it wasn’t the most important point I was making). I just have the impression that the pendulum in psychology recently has swung back in the direction of nature (as opposed to nurture). Perhaps it’s just fashion, but this seems to be the conclusion of various recent studies (e.g. involving identical twins). The important point is that it depends on a lot of things, and I suspect the presence or absence of religious (or more accurately theistic) belief is a relatively minor one in itself.

    If we really want to convince religious believers that atheists are trustworthy then someone should do some empirical studies (if they haven’t already) against objective criteria for “trustworthiness” (and, for that matter, “atheist”). But we should also be prepared for disappointing results. Perhaps the really important question is whether, from the perspective of the future of humanity, it is important to promote atheism as such, and if so why.

  8. For anyone interested in particularly graphic depictions of this common American view of atheism, read the fiction of the talented American writer Flannery O’Connor.

    There is some indirect evidence on the morality of atheists in the USA. Atheists tend to be better educated than the American mean. Higher levels of education tend to correlate with lower crime rates, lower divorce rates, and low abortion rates. American scientists are a group in which atheism is particularly prevalent. In terms of conventional moral indicators, American scientists would do unusually well in terms of moral behavior. None of this is particularly surprising. The US is a pretty religious society. Even if you’re raised in a very secular home, at some point in your life you’ll have to make a conscious choice about the nature of religion. Consequently, those who become (or in the case of those raised in a non-religious home) or stay atheists, tend to be somewhat reflective individuals, precisely those people who are likely to be thoughtful about moral issues. I suspect that in a nation where atheism was the social norm, such as the Soviet Union, the pattern would be different.

  9. Ralbin’s analysis (which I tend to share) reminds me of a friend I had at college from Northern Ireland who used to be asked, “Are you Catholic or Protestant?” When he said he was an atheist, they said, “Yes, but are you Catholic or Protestant?”

  10. Religion is formal law as public record. If you want to know what a Christian believes you can look in a book. The text, or law, is a ground. Reason has no single ground. It’s fundamentally private. That fact more than anything is why democracy is founded in the rule of written public law and not the rule of reason. The primary function of law is that a people come to some form of agreement. What they agree upon is secondary. Absolute truth is not a goal.
    Courtrooms are chambers for decision-making not truth production.

    I asked my dentist why he crossed himself before he began work on my root canal.”To remind me that there’s something out there bigger than I am.” I said my family were atheists but that for us history served the same function. He paused for a minute before smiling and nodding.

    The logic of law is conservative, even pessimistic. The logic of science is optimistic.
    Simon Blackburn, in the Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy defines Humanism as “most generally any philosophy concerned to emphasize human welfare and dignity, and optimistic about the powers of unaided human understanding.” The best that can be said is that his may be the contemporary definition. As a matter of history it’s simply incorrect [ The link is to a passage by the art historian Erwin Panofsky]

    The most famous image in the popular imagination of the power of reason alone is in the character of the Mad Scientist. And it’s not uncommon in philosophical circles to read arguments claiming that unaided reason shows that history is bunk [ There’s no similar myth of the mad historian, what there are are horror stories in fiction and life of people who claimed that history no longer applied to them.

    What drives me up the wall reading through Anglo American academic writing is that there are so many arguments based so much on what the authors know or assume, that actually adding something from outside is impossible. Someone can say “All language is English” and if someone responds in another language they’re ignored as spouting gibberish.

    Interesting parallel to the mad scientist in American culture is the lone hero. Sadly such discussions have no place in discussion of philosophy.

  11. I’m intrigued by Seth’s view of religion as public and reason as private. Can’t both be either? There’s no way I can find out what a Christian believes by looking in a book. Christians have all sorts of idiosyncratic beliefs, some more Bible-based and some less.

    As for whether absolute truth is a goal – well, that depends on your values. It can be if you want it to be. Nor, I think, does democracy have to be founded on the rule of written law. It’s a mechanism by which the people (as opposed to an élite) take decisions, usually by voting (either directly on issues or by electing officials). It’s usually enshrined in written law but I don’t see this as a logical necessity.

    With regard to English-speaking academic writing, I wonder if the real problem is that native English speakers tend not to read extensively in other languages because of the dominance of our own.

  12. Colin McGinn: Relativism and Democracy
    I am struck by this passage from Tocqueville: “I have previously stated that the principle of the sovereignty of the people hovers over the whole political system of the Anglo-Americans. Every page of this book will reflect certain fresh instances of this doctrine. In nations were it exists, every individual takes an equal share in sovereign power and participates equally in the government of the state. Thus he is considered as enlightened, virtuous, strong as any of his fellow men.” Toqueville’s point is that democracy presupposes that each person is as competent and virtuous as any other. But of course this is false: people differ widely in intelligence and virtue. Note that he says “considered” not “really”. So democracy rests on a lie. How, then, to defend democracy? Well, if truth, reason, virtue, etc are not objective qualities that people exemplify to varying degrees, but are rather relative to each person, we have a way out: everyone is as smart and good as anyone else to himself. Then democracy rests on no lie, since everyone really is cognitively and morally equal. Relativism steps in to save democracy from its noble lie. Thus relativism finds a foothold. But relativism is rubbish; so where does that leave democracy? I think in a very basic way, McGinn is right and in a more important way he’s very wrong, to the degree that I find his argument almost obscene. McGinn to me is an arch-Catholic who calls himself an atheist. His idealism is anti-democratic and I’m a defender of democracy. He’s also an arch individualist which is another conflict.

    My point above was that a faith understood in a common language (Christian/Jewish/Muslim/Hindu) as opposed to a personal experience, is a public record and that it’s most important function to society is in that. Not that it isn’t also private. And the texts don’t have to be written they just has to be collective. The myths of a group bind the group together. And the availability of others myths makes them less foreign. “Oh, you believe in a book too” For some people that book is the Constitution. In a sense I told my dentist I believed in books, and that worked for him, at least to the point of respecting my choice. For someone like McGinn and many others that’s not enough. They want “truth.”

    The structure of law courts are strictly formal. “Due process” even what’s now called “substantive due process” is not a guarantee of more. “Beyond a reasonable doubt” is vague. Adherence to precedent, “Stare decisis” got Galileo in trouble, but we still refer to it in courts. Justice is called “imperfect justice” and it’s all we’ll ever have. And trying to perfect it is less important than raising people who can argue and re-argue articulately, that understand all sides of an argument. So my questions about religion and religious people are not just about what they believe but how those things functions to them: structure and subtext. And my comments above were based on observations of that. It’s that kind of reading that interests me, of texts, paintings, and people. Philosophy prefers to decontextualize and read for intention.
    I grew up around literature professors and lawyers so that’s where I get my “relativism.” But it’s also where I learned to read the way that brought me to my response to the post about atheists and trust.

  13. The first paragraph from “I am struck” to “…so where does that leave democracy?” is McGinn and was meant to be indented. The formatting didn’t work. My apologies.

  14. What I would be interested to see is a survey that also included the question: ‘How many atheists do you personally know?’, and see whether distrust in atheists was strongly correlated with not knowing any of them. (Obviously, if you trust atheists you’re more likely to have them among your friends, but that should give a fairly smooth curve, not one or more abrupt step changes). Given that atheists are such a small minority in the US, I think it’s entirely possible that many people may not personally know any ‘out’ atheists (just as once few people knew any ‘out’ gay people). If people have to get their knowledge about any minority from (often biased) media rather than from personal experience, it’s not surprising if they are willing to believe in the immorality of such groups.

  15. Seth, I’m still intrigued, especially by your point about philosophy preferring to “decontextualise”. I agree that what we call “philosophy” is a very particular way of using words, favouring logic and abstraction and attempting to extract general principles that apply in many (if not all) different contexts. I also agree that philosophers (as opposed to “philosophy”) makes an error if it reads this type of intention into writing that was not intended to be precise in this way.

    I also think there’s an interesting discussion to be had around relativism and democracy. I also am a “relativist” in the sense that I don’t think there is an objective ground for morality, it’s rather something you choose (I’ve made this point in response to earlier posts), but that does not mean I would regard everyone as morally equal with respect to my own values. My response to Tocqueville would rather be a pragmatic one à la Churchill: democracy is the worst system invented apart from all the others. The idea that all men are equal is not so much a “lie” as a pragmatic simplification to avoid the sinister consequences, all too well documented through history, of assuming they are unequal. Sometimes the assumption breaks down, of course, which is why we don’t let convicted criminals vote.

  16. “I also agree that philosophers (as opposed to “philosophy”) makes an error if it reads this type of intention into writing that was not intended to be precise in this way.”

    Even the most precise language needs to be read that way. Your argument reads like the conservative legal argument for “original intent” in readings of the Constitution. But the Constitution is a text just like this post, which used words, “favouring logic and abstraction” which I read. against the grain, to criticize.

    This is referred to I think as anti-naturalism and it makes no sense to me. Open-ended empiricism can’t be formalized and that’s the conflict. The formalism of numbers works as more than form because numbers generally manifest relations in the world. Words “represent” relations and those relations change. Mapping the change in those relations (in time and by geography) is not anti-naturalist. To me it sounds like Santayana (and it wasn’t his idea) but Santayana is linked with Quine, which really throws me for a loop. Quine was a scientific anti-cosmopolitan, so I don’t get the connection. I don’t think Santayana would have a problem with my analysis. And it seems to me to have supplied a better description of the relations of believers and atheists than that supplied by an analysis based on philosophical intent. It gives a better model of the world (of experience).

  17. “Your argument reads like the conservative legal argument for ‘original intent’ in readings of the Constitution.” Why? How?

    I don’t think “favouring logic and abstraction” should be read as a criticism (if this is what you meant). Whether it is useful in describing the relationship between believers and atheists is another matter.

    With regard to history (and pessimism) versus science (and optimism). History cannot be pessimistic or optimistic because it’s about the past, not the future. Science is (in itself) neither pessimistic nor optimistic because it is an attempt to uncover the “laws” of nature. I would be a naturalist more than an anti-naturalist, in the sense that I consider social systems to be legitimate objects of scientific enquiry. But only to the extent that our objective is to understand, rather than (directly) to change. If we want to change something, then we need not only history (for lessons) and science (to suggest new approaches) but also clarity of purpose. What are we trying to achieve? How cautious do we want to be? What kind of risk are we willing to accept and how should we deal with uncertainty? If we want to bring something to that debate, and not only say “we should agree on something”, then relativism can only take us so far.

  18. I think we’re arguing at cross purposes. History is never about the past, but about our understanding of the past, in the present. There will always be another history or biography of “X” for each new period of any civilization; history is interpretation. History pessimistic in the sense that the knowledge of history leads us towards pessimism, or conservatism. The rule of law is founded on conservatism. Again I’ll go with Santayana: we rarely make new mistakes, mostly we just repeat old ones. If we want to understand experience we need to understand that we experience the world through perspectives, which change over time. The difficulty is in recognizing and marking those changes. The history of the Catholic church isn’t written by theologians, who will strive to see continuity, but by historians. Philosophers descend from theologians, and historians are still here doing the same job they always have, examining everything made by man, with and against the intended logic of the makers.

    I’ll end where I came in: religious people in the US distrust atheists because of an association of atheism with the atheism of pure reason (and arrogant technocracy) which gets a lot of press; professional atheists include people like McGinn, who hasn’t convinced me he’s an atheist at all. This is an American or Anglo-American phenomenon with a long history. The secularism of books is much less threatening because less arrogant, and frankly less dangerous. Spencer Coxe, the director of the Philadelphia ACLU from 1952-79, called the ACLU “a conservative institution.” If we lived in a stronger democracy it would be more clear to more people what he meant.

  19. Thanks Seth, that’s much clearer (for me at least). I still have some quibbles about the study of history leading to pessimism, which to me (unlike you I gather) has a rather negative connotation, but in general I like your perspective on this issue. One other quibble though: philosophers descend from theologians? Bit unfair on Socrates.

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