Moral compass - atheists vs theists

Warning: The posting below makes reference to what is considered to be A Dangerous Idea. It is so dangerous, it can (conceivably) doom you - and your future descendants - to an existence of suffering simply by reading it.

Keep reading at your own peril.

Have you ever heard of the Legend that is Roko's Basilisk?'s_basilisk

I've been fascinated with the idea since I first learned if it. I am transfixed by the concept of an idea so dangerous that just hearing about it can (in theory) endanger your future and even your descendants' futures.

Now that you're up-to-speed on the idea (and, incidentally, doomed), I'll draw the connection to this thread. (Or some other thread as determined by James R : Not sure which of your threads to piggyback on.)

I did not make the connection between the Basilisk and God until I started reading even deeper into it and came across this re-interpretation, at the link above:

"Quite a lot of this article will make more sense if you mentally replace the words "artificial intelligence" with the word "God", and "acausal trade" with "prayer"."

In other words, Roko's Basilisk makes a functional stand-in for a God for the purposes of an atheist. An atheist, granting the premises of the Roko's Basilisk conjecture, have a personal (self-serving) imperative to do as Pascal urges: throw as much of their resources at bringing a sentient AI into existence as they can manage.

Some further reading:

"Discussion of Roko's basilisk was banned on LessWrong for several years because Yudkowsky had stated that it caused some readers to have a nervous breakdown."'s_wager#:~:text=Pascal's wager

"Pascal's Wager: Pascal argues that a rational person should live as though (the Christian) God exists and seek to believe in God. If God does not actually exist, such a person will have only a finite loss (some pleasures, luxury, etc.), whereas if God does exist, he stands to receive infinite gains (as represented by eternity in Heaven) and avoid infinite losses (eternity in Hell)"

"Newcomb's Problem:
Box A is transparent and contains a thousand dollars.
Box B is opaque, and contains either a million dollars, or nothing.
You can take both boxes, or take only box B.
And the twist is that Omega has put a million dollars in box B iff Omega has predicted that you will take only box B."
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A 2019 Pew Research Center poll found that 44% of Americans (compared with 26% of Canadians) think that a belief in God is needed to be moral. Other polls have found that distrust of atheists is common among theists who belief that a belief in God is needed to be moral.

A new study by Tomas Staahl and associates at the University of Illinois at Chicago has examined the moral compasses of theists and atheists. The study is published online (Feb 24, 2021) in the journal PLOS One.

The study shows that there are many similarities between the moral compasses of theists and atheists, but also some key differences.

Both groups highly endorsed moral goals like fairness and protecting the well-being of vulnerable people, for instance, and both highly endorsed liberty but not oppression.

However, the study found that, in making moral judgments, atheists tend to place less emphasis than theists on matters of group cohesion, such as valuing loyalty and respecting authority.

The study refers to the theory that morals are largely founded on five central values: caring, fairness, authority, loyalty and sanctity.
  • Caring involves a desire to protect vulnerable individuals from harm.
  • Fairness involves concepts such as justice.
  • Authority involves acting in accordance with the law and directions of authority figures such as police, parents, teachers, officials, etc.
  • Loyalty involves not acting in way that would go against principles or values of one's own groups (social, community, country, etc.)
  • Sanctity involves not doing anything perceived as degrading or "unclean".
The study found very little difference between atheists and believers on the values of caring and fairness. However, atheists placed much less emphasis on the other three values than theists. All three of those values can be seen as involving group cohesion - maintaining harmony in a social/cultural group. In making moral decisions, atheists typically did not regard those three values are being of high importance.

These findings still held when the survey results were controlled from political orientation, making it more likely that the differences are actually due to religious orientation rather than to political orientation.

Both groups (atheists and theists) scored low on questions meant to detect amoral attitudes (i.e. a lack of concern about whether a choice or a course of action is moral). For instance, both groups strongly disagreed with statements like "I am willing to be unethical if I believe it will help me succeed."

The study did not investigate whether the groups differed in actual behaviours, as opposed to their expressed opinions.

Both groups highly endorsed statements like "Society works best when it lets individuals take responsibility for their own lives without telling them what to do.", which is a statement about liberty and oppression.

Both groups said they saw rational thinking — believing in evidence-based claims and being skeptical of claims lacking evidence — as a moral issue, which is interesting because it is a reasonably commonly-expressed opinion that religious belief and rational, scientific thought are incompatible.

The study found that atheists are more likely than believers to base their moral judgments on the consequences of actions, rather than on a more fixed set of principles ("It is just wrong to do X, and if I did this thing I would be doing X, so that would be wrong.")

When it comes to reasons or explanations for the differences in the moral compasses of atheists and theists, the study found some correlations which, it should be noted, are not necessarily causes.

For example, participants who were raised religiously, or in strongly religious environments, and observed important people in their communities engaging in religious activities, were more likely to share the "typical" theist moral compass described above. The authors speculate that this is because, in such an environment, it can be costly for a person to decide or express the opinion that the religious beliefs and moral "rules" might be false.

Whether a person viewed the world as a dangerous place was also correlated, with those who saw the world as being more dangerous being more likely to have the theist moral compass than the atheist one. The authors speculate that this might be because the believers surveyed thought that God would help protect them from harm.

More analytical thinkers were more likely to have the typical atheist moral compass, and more self-identifying atheists were found to be "analytical thinkers" than self-identifying theists, in the study.

The study was based on 4 surveys, conducted in the US (a highly religious country) and Sweden (a highly secular country), with atheists and theists in both countries. The findings were replicated across both countries. The authors express interest in seeing whether the findings are duplicated in non-Western countries. For example, China is a largely irreligious but very group-oriented country. They are also interested in examining countries in which atheism is officially forbidden, such as in some predominantly Muslim countries (e.g. the United Arab Emirates).

Do these findings fit your own ideas about your own moral compass? Do you fit the "typical" theist or atheist mould, as described here?

I'm Canadian and I feel that one of the most ethical acts of this past century was pulled off
largely by Israelis who identified as Atheist, Agnostic or Skeptic. The most religious Israelis had a tendency to
NOT support Operation Moses and Operation Solomon but Israeli Skeptics had a huge tendency to enthusiastically be in support
for bringing the Ethiopian Falasha Jews to Israel.

White Jewish people...... thinking of Black Jewish people... as being truly "Jewish" and being willing to support Operation Moses and Operation Solomon
is in my opinion... .one of the most important accomplishments by anybody.... anywhere.... in this past century or so!
The only morals that are required for society to function properly out of that list are fairness and caring, or alternatively authority and caring in my view. I also believe that morals are only required in order for society to function properly. Sanctity is pointless, because if the people who would be offended by the unclean action never find out about it, then it can't hurt them through it's so called uncleanliness. Also, loyalty would probably be pointless in most cases because if the person doesn't find out about the disloyal action, then it can't affect them. I said in most cases. The disloyal action might affect them in some cases. If said disloyal action doesn't negatively impact anyone then it is fine though.

I would say that the value of authority trumps the value of fairness because it is better for people to just not break the rules that say that they can't hurt one another than to break those rules and be punished for it. However, realistically, some people are going to break the rules, and in most cases, that probably wont matter. In the cases where they break the rules that say they can't hurt one another it might matter though. Therefore, I advocate a mixture of fairness, in the form of justice, caring, in the form of I don't know what yet, and authority of a libertarian kind to create utopia.
There might even by some tension or conflict between the relevant moral values, for some people: desecrating important national symbols is bad, free speech is good, so if burning the flag is free speech, which principles win the battle?

which principles win the battle?

You forgot stupidity. Stupidity is / would be the winner

Care - Seems appropriate in group settings
Justice - Needed in groups
Authority - Too often abused in position
Loyalty - To what or whom? 1&2 I might agree. Beyond care and justice is dangerous
Sanctity - If in terms of discipline and self development maybe. It's personal in any case.

I'm not an atheist