The Rejection of Pascal's Wager
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Are Atheists Immoral People?

Whether knowingly or not, Christian apologists have always painted atheists as immoral people who can't be trusted. In 1724, a Christian theologian, Richard Bentley had this to say about atheists: "no atheists as such can be a true friend, an affectionate relation, or a loyal subject". It was not until 1869 that atheists were finally considered "competent" enough to give testimony in a court of law in England. In 1871, the Supreme Court of Tennessee declared that atheists have "a recklessness of moral character and utter want of moral sensibility" and were thus not entitled to be "heard or believed in a court of justice in a country designated as Christian." [1]

The problem with all these accusations is that it is simply not supported by historical and current empirical evidence. Indeed studies have consistently shown a somewhat negative correlation between religiosity and moral behavior. Atheists tend to come out better when statistically compared to believers. Let us list these studies: [2]

  • Abraham Franzblau, "Religious Belief and Character Among Jewish Adolescents," Teachers College Contribution to Education, no. 634 (1934): found that the higher the acceptance of religious beliefs, the less inclined to honesty the adolescents became!

  • Murray Ross, Religious Beliefs in Youths, New York 1950: a survey of 2,000 associates of the YMCA found that those who labeled themselves atheists and agnostics were more willing to help the poor that those who called themselves religious.

  • Travis Hirschi & Rodney Stark, "Hellfire and Delinquency", Social Problems Vol 17 (1969), pp202-213: reported that there is no difference in the likelihood to commit crimes between children who attend church regularly and those who did not.

  • R.E. Smith, G. Wheeler & E. Diener, "Faith Without Works: Jesus People, Resistance to Temptation and Altruism." Journal of Applied Social Psychology, Vol. 5 (1975) p320-330: in their study found that college-age students in religious schools were no less likely to cheat than atheist and agnostic students in non-religious schools.

  • David M. Wulff, Psychology of Religion: Classic and Contemporary Views, New York 1991 p219-220: reported in his vast study that people with religious affiliation and / or attended church regularly and / or rated doctrinal orthodoxy as important tend to be prejudiced, intolerant of ambiguity, dogmatic and racist.
We have seen elsewhere how historically Christian intolerance and dogmas had let to atrocities committed against millions.

Far from being immoral, atheists [a] and other skeptics (like Deists) have always been in the forefront of moral progress. The evidence over the last couple of hundred years, when atheists were able to openly function in society, attests to this fact.

The call for the abolition of black slavery came not from Christians but from atheists generally. Slavery was abolish in France in 1791, not by the church, but by the atheistic founders of the revolution. In the U.S. the early critics of slavery, Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790), George Washington (1732-1799), Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) and John Quincy Adams (1767-1848), were all either atheists or Deists. Later the abolitionist cause was taken up by such people as Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865), a Deist, Raplh Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), a Unitarian minister turned atheist, and William Lyold Garrison (1805-1879), an atheist. In England, the battle for the abolition of slavery was fought mainly by such as Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) and John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) - atheists all. [3]

The majority of the opposition to ending slavery claim mainly from the churches and religious groups. For them it was not important whether slavery was inhumane, it was more important whether it was permitted by the Bible. I have noted this in another posting.

The fight for women's rights and suffrage (the right to vote) were spearheaded mainly by atheists and skeptics. In the UK we find brave women such Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) who wrote Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792), Harriet Martineau (1802-1876), George Eliot (1819-1880) and Fanny Wright (1795-1852) in the UK. The first three were all atheists, while Ms. Wright was a Deist. They were supported by men such as William Godwin, Percy Shelley (1792-1822), Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), George Jacob Holyoake (1817-1906) and John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), all atheists.

It was the same in the US. The women who fought for women's rights, Abigail Kelly Foster (1810-1887), Ernestine Rose (1810-1892), Lucretia Mott (1793-1880), Matilda Joslyn Gage (1826-1898), Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902), Susan B. Anthony (1820-1906), Margaret Sanger (1883-1966), were all atheists or, in the case of Kelly and Mott, rebel Quakers.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902) fought for half a century for women's rights. Beginning in 1848 she fought for the woman's right to vote in the US; something she knew was the key to the acquisition of other rights. Throughout her fight she met with ridicule, threats and sometimes even violence. She died before she managed to get the right to vote - which was ratified in the nineteenth amendment of the US constitution in 1920. [4]

As we have shown elsewhere in this website, from misogynist passages in the Bible, through the pronouncements against women by the early Church fathers to the situation today, the suppression of women has a long tradition in Christianity. Thus far from being a help, Christianity have been a hindrance to women's emancipation.

An important part of a women's right is to have control over her own reproductive system. Almost all the leading fighters for a woman's right to have access to birth control were atheists. It must be remembered that fighting for such a cause, which is still unpopular in many places today, was fraught with difficulty. Many of these pioneers were incarcerated for their cause. Francis Place (1771-1854) an avowed atheist was Britain's first birth control propagandist. He also worked hard for access to elementary education for working-class children. Others who followed in his wake were of the same convictions. Charles Knowlton (1800-1850) was Massachusetts doctor who was self-taught freethinker. His book Fruits of Philosophy (1832), a manuscript giving advice on contraception, is considered a birth-control classic. He was also the first advocate of birth control to be put in prison for this. He was sentenced to three months hard labor in 1832. In 1834 some Christian clergymen tried to get him jailed a second time but did not succeed. Charles Bradlaugh (1833-1891), another atheist, published Knowlton's Fruits of Philosophy in Great Britain, together with another (then) atheist Annie Besant (1847-1931). In 1877, both were charged with publishing obscene material. Both were sentenced to six months' jail but the verdict was subsequently overturned on a technicality.

Another atheist, Margaret Sanger (1883-1966), struggled her whole life to give women the right to have access to information on birth control. Her work as a nurse at a hospital in New York's Lower East Side, an immigrant slum, brought her face to face with the horror of illegal $5 abortions that poor desperate women submitted themselves to. She published her own monthly periodical The Woman Rebel in 1914 which contained information on contraception. Her book Family Limitation (1914) contained explicit and clearly worded description of contraceptive methods and their pros and cons. In 1916 Sanger was jailed for thirty days for operating a birth control clinic. After her release, she continued to work tirelessly for the cause. By 1932 there were 80 birth control clinics in the US. Her triumph came in 1938 when an appeal court ruled that contraceptive literature could enter the country without customs interference. [5]

Again we find historically and even today, many churches are doing all they can to prevent women from getting access to birth control methods or to safe abortions when they are necessary.

Bertrand Russell (1872-1970), atheist and philosopher, was for his whole life - among many things - an ardent campaigner against the nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction. He managed to get himself arrested at the age of 98 while demonstrating for his cause. [6]

Peter Singer (b1940), an atheist, called both "the most influential" and "maybe the most controversial" philosopher alive by the New Yorker, is an ardent animal rights activist. His influential book Animal Liberation (1975) exposed the inhumane treatment of animals in slaughter houses and in medical experiments. It changed the whole outlook of the world on the issue of animals and ethics. Singer mentioned in an interview that part of the reason why most people were unable to see that animal should have some rights is the Bible; for it says that men have dominion over the animals, reducing them to no more than objects to be used and discarded at our whim and fancy. [7]

The one common denominator you see in the short list above is that the atheism of these people enabled them to see outside the confining, amoral [b], box of organized religions. When they took up their causes, neither they nor the issues they fought for were popular. Invariably, all of them, got in trouble with the law, the ecclesiastical authorities and, increasingly, conservative university authorities, who were always on the side of the status quo. However by fighting for their causes, these atheists were able to change the world for the better.

It simply goes against the evidence for any one to assert that atheists are immoral people. Far from being immoral, they were often times the only ones who used their moral senses to decide right from wrong.

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a.I include agnostics, freethinkers and other form of non-theists here. For the reason see my section on atheism and agnosticism.
b.The reader of my website will know by now that I do not consider blindly following the commands in a book derived from pre-scientific, semi-barbaric, superstitious, ancient semitic and mediterranean cultures to be an example of high morality.


1.Martin, Atheism, Morality and Meaning: p12-13
2.Shermer, The Science of Good and Evil: p235-236
3.Knight, Honest to Man: p142
McCabe, The Social Record of Christianity: p111-112
Phelips, The Churches and Modern Thought: p27
4.Haught, 2000 Years of Disbelief: p134
McCabe, The Social Record of Christianity: p130
5.Fryer, The Birth Controllers: p11-12, 54-64, 110-118, 157-191, 222-243
6.ibid.: p233
7.Singer, Writings on an Ethical Life: p318-329

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© Paul N. Tobin 2004

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