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Study linking atheists and morality unreliable, says academic

 | August 14, 2017

Study by international team led by American psychologist cannot be used as evidence that atheists are morally bad or even good, says UPM lecturer.

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PETALING JAYA: A study that is said to link morality and atheism should not be wrongly assumed to be the sole indicator that atheists are morally-depraved, says a professor.

Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM) lecturer Christopher Teh Boon Sung, who is also an active science-related blog writer, claimed that the social study done by an international team, led by University of Kentucky psychology professor Will Gervais, should not be misinterpreted as it was merely based on human perceptions – which tend to be influenced by personal biasness.

“Gervais’ study revealed our rigid notions or bias against atheists, claiming that they are morally bad. But we need to be careful not to generalise or misinterpret his findings to mean something they are not.

“They cannot be taken as evidence that atheists are indeed morally bad or even good,” Teh told FMT.

Teh remarked that the study was fundamentally about questions relating to both religion and morality.

“Why is religion so important to us and what is morality? Can it only be derived from religion? These are the questions deduced from the study.”

He further claimed that mutual opinion spawned from the majority does not make it factually correct.

For instance, the result of the study, which measured the attitudes of more than 3,000 people in 13 countries on five continents, revealed that atheists are broadly perceived as potentially morally depraved and dangerous.

In the social study, the results of which were published in Nature Human Behaviour journal on Aug 7, Gervais revealed that atheists are more easily suspected of vile deeds than Christians, Muslims, Hindus or Buddhists.

The study measured the attitudes of over 3,000 people in several countries, ranging from “very secular” countries such as China and the Netherlands, to countries with high numbers of believers, such as the United Arab Emirates, United States and India.

The countries had populations that were predominantly Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Muslim or were non-religious.

Participants of the study were given a description of a fictional wrongdoer who tortured animals as a child, then grows up to become a teacher who murders and mutilates five homeless people.

Half of the group was asked how likely it was that the perpetrator was a religious believer, and the other half how likely it was that he was an atheist.

The fear and distrust against atheists recently hit the headlines when a viral photo of a gathering by the Kuala Lumpur chapter of the Atheist Republic made its rounds on social media.

It caused an uproar among the Muslim community, sparking claims that Muslim apostates were involved.

Consequently, on Aug 8, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Shahidan Kassim called for a probe, saying: “I suggest that we hunt them down vehemently and we ask for help to identify such groups.”

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