Beliefs Mark Silk: Spiritual Politics Opinion

The rising belief in moral atheists

Portrait of Pierre Bayle

Somewhere, Pierre Bayle is smiling.

Bayle was a 17th-century French Calvinist philosopher of notoriously liberal views. Not only was he all for religious toleration. He believed that atheism didn’t lead to bad behavior.

As he put it in Various Thoughts on the Occasion of the Comet (1682), “[A] society of atheists would practice both civic and moral actions just as other societies practice them, provided that crimes were severely punished and that honor and shame were associated with certain acts.”

Three hundred and 35 years later, Americans seem to be catching up with that view.

According to a Pew survey released this month, a majority of us now say it’s not necessary to believe in God in order to have good morals and good values. Six years ago we were evenly split on the question, 49 percent to 48 percent, but now the “not necessaries” outnumber the “necessaries” 56 percent to 42 percent.

The increase is due not only to the ongoing rise of the Nones (who overwhelmingly think atheists can be moral) but also, as the survey points out, to a shift in views among the religiously affiliated — including even white evangelicals. Six years ago, a quarter of the latter allowed as how atheists might be moral; now, a third of them do.

What seems to be going on here is an across-the-board shift away from religiosity in the American public at large, including among those who identify with a particular religious tradition. This can be seen in another recent Pew survey that shows striking growth in the proportion of Americans who say they are spiritual, not religious — from 19 percent to 27 percent over the past five years.

Add these to the 18 percent who say they are neither spiritual nor religious and there are now almost equal numbers of Americans who say they’re non-religious (45 percent) as say they’re both religious and spiritual (48 percent). The latter are down from 59 percent five years ago. (Six percent say they’re religious but not spiritual.)

Not surprisingly, the religiously affiliated who say they are spiritual but not religious tend to have low levels of religious observance. They are either headed out the church door or barely inside it.

Disengagement from religion means disengaging religion from one’s morality and values, from how one lives one’s life — and how one sees others who are similarly disengaged. Ergo, a greater willingness to accept atheists as moral people.

In his Farewell Address, Washington famously warned: “[L]let us with caution indulge the supposition, that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure–reason & experience both forbid us to expect that National morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”

These days, Americans are abandoning Washington’s views for Bayle’s because of our personal experience of ourselves.

About the author

Mark Silk

Mark Silk is Professor of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College and director of the college's Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life. He is a Contributing Editor of the Religion News Service

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