Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Trust and atheism

In Nicholas Wade's book The Faith Instinct, the NYT science writer argues that religion is a human evolutionary adaptation and that through at least the Industrial Revolution, groups, polities, and later entire states in which religion played a prominent role in the life of its members prospered while irreligious ones failed.

Disappointingly, he devotes virtually nothing to the contemporary Darwinian successes of religious states and groups within states relative to the low fertility of their secular counterparts. The reasons he identifies for religion's evolutionary advantages--that of altruism, loyalty, and sense of duty on behalf of co-religionists, social cohesion, and shared morality--may be why he chooses not to do so. These factors are likely not as important today in determining genetic prosperity as they were 50,000 years ago. In downplaying the theological and philosophical precepts of religion and focusing instead on the the practical benefits it bestowed on the community, he locks himself out of a potential explanation for the fecundity of fundamentalists today, generally some variation of a religious imperative to multiply and spread across the earth.

That's a digression from what I wanted to look at in this post, though. In contemplating the viability of morality without religion, Wade asks (p207):
Was Locke correct that atheists cannot be trusted?
The best I can come up with is the GSS item on extramarital activity. The table below shows the percentages for each group who report having cheated on a spouse at some point in their lives:

Uncertain believer19.7%
Firm believer14.6%

As we've established previously, if you're looking to minimize the chance of being cuckolded, marry a conservative girl who loves Jesus.

That said, it's difficult to gauge whether or not atheists are trustworthy relative to theists, but the GSS also offers insight into how trusting atheists and theists are of people generally. The following table shows the percentage of respondents in each group who say that in general most people can be trusted (as opposed to thinking one "can never be too careful"):

Uncertain believer39.3%
Firm believer32.4%

The differences are modest, but atheists do appear to be more trusting (and possibly less deserving of trust!) than firm believers are. This could be interpreted as suggesting that religiosity does not lead to higher levels of trust in society or alternatively that religion offers a way for people to build trust who are not naturally inclined towards it. That's reading a lot into a little, though--it could also be that firm believers have greater in-group trust than atheists do, but lower levels of trust for outsiders.

GSS variables used: GOD(1)(2)(3-5)(6), EVSTRAY, TRUST


Ron Guhname said...

I suspect that believers, like conservatives, tend to have a darker view of human nature and thus are a little less trusting.

Your sample included everyone, right? Blacks and Hispanics are more likely to be believers, and they trust less, so that might help explain the link.

On the question of marriage, I married a girl who loves Jesus, and all my kids look like me--poor bastards.

dearieme said...

Or Christians lie about adultery.

TwoYaks said...

Re: Morality, it might also help to look at criminality, broken down by self-reported (I committed x infractions in the last year) and those caught (I was convicted x times in the last 10 years).

Audacious Epigone said...


Good point. The breakdown for whites only (people can be trusted):

Atheist -- 42.2%
Agnostic -- 41.3%
Uncertain believer -- 41.9%
Firm believer -- 37.8%

That cuts the gap in half.

I suspect those poor bastards have an enormous amount going for them, although I understand that being white is a bit of a liability in California...

Dearime and TwoYaks,

Yes, a sole question about marital infidelity doesn't inspire a whole lot of confidence in the conclusion, admittedly.

Anonymous said...

You need to norm marital fidelity by # years married. Atheists are much less likely to be married, so they're probably even worse per year married.

OneSTDV said...

Marry a girl who loves Jesus, but not TOO much. You don't want the type that sends your kid to Jesus Camp, just the type that likes going to church because it makes her "feel good" and she likes to gossip with the other moms.

Half Sigma said...

Atheists are more likely to be upper class, and the upper class are more trusting because the people they know are more trust-worthy.