Atheism, Determinism and Social Problems

My goal is to clarify the logical connections between atheism, determinism, and negative social outcomes. (Please notice how I define atheism). It is very important to note that I am not saying that atheists (the people) are responsible for more negative social outcomes compared to people with other belief systems. There are a wide range of variables that affect what choices we make.

At the same time, there are clear connections between:

  1. Affirming that everything that exists is composed of matter, energy, and space-time, and therefore explained by natural laws and the physical properties of matter
  2. Affirming that human actions, as part of the natural order, are determined by these same laws and properties of matter
  3. An acceptance of determinism and a tendency towards anti-social behavior

The current scientific research is leading scientists to deny that we have free will. Our brains are increasingly being understood exclusively in terms of conformity to natural laws. Here’s how an abstract for an article in Psychological Science, “the highest ranked empirical journal in psychology,” describes this research:

The feeling of being in control of one’s own actions is a strong subjective experience. However, discoveries in psychology and neuroscience challenge the validity of this experience and suggest that free will is just an illusion.

So, what happens when lay people come to believe that “free will is just an illusion”?

An article in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin showed that:

In Experiment 1, induced disbelief in free will reduced willingness to help others. Experiment 2 showed that chronic disbelief in free will was associated with reduced helping behavior. In Experiment 3, participants induced disbelief in free will caused participants to act more aggressively than others. Although the findings do not speak to the existence of free will, the current results suggest that disbelief in free will reduces helping and increases aggression.

An article in human relations:

An experiment was conducted to investigate attitudes toward punishment in relation to beliefs in free will and determinism. College students responded to two questionnaires; one designed to assess attitudes toward punishment and one designed to assess strength of belief in free will or determinism. It was found that subjects who scored higher in belief in determinism recommended more punitive measures for behavioral deviations than those who scored higher in belief in free will.

An article in Social Psychological and Personality Science:

Possessing a belief in free will predicted better career attitudes and actual job performance…In Study 1, stronger belief in free will corresponded to more positive attitudes about expected career success. In Study 2…Results indicated that employees who espoused free will beliefs were given better work performance evaluations than those who disbelieve in free will.

And an article in Psychological Science:

The no-free-will group’s EEGs measured brain activity far lower than the control group’s during that first, unconscious phase of readiness potential. Deep in the brain, the gumption to act flagged along with the belief in self-determination.”

To summarize: When researchers compare people who believe in determinism with those who believe in free will, the determinists:

  1. Are more aggressive and less helpful towards others
  2. Recommend more punitive measures for behavioral deviations
  3. Have a less positive view about expected career success.
  4. Are given more negative work performance evaluations.
  5. Have a far lower “readiness potential”, within the brain structure, to take action.

Therefore, we may conclude that:

  1. Atheism implies that determinism is true.
  2. A belief in determinism leads to a variety of anti-social beliefs.
  3. To the degree that a belief in atheism leads people to believe in determinism, a more widespread acceptance of atheism will lead to anti-social outcomes.

Again, a very important caveat is that this is looking at just one dimension of the social consequences of atheism, and then, only in relationship to those who also accept determinism. But, for this particular variable, there is a growing amount of scientific backing for the conclusion that a belief in atheism, insofar as that leads to a belief in determinism, leads to anti-social outcomes.

Thanks to Jesse Bering for his excellent 2010 article in Scientific American which brought this issue to my attention.