A world survey: Do we need God to be moral?

July 24, 2020 • 8:45 am

A new study by the Pew organization (click on screenshot below or get full pdf here) surveyed 38,436 people in 34 countries across the globe, asking them questions about how important God or religion is to them and—today’s topic)—do you really need God to be moral.  The methods included both face to face and phone surveys.

The overall results aren’t that surprising: more religious countries and more religious people within countries think that “belief in God is necessary to be moral and have good values”, while richer countries (which are also less religious countries) tend to harbor respondents who don’t think faith is necessary for morality. And the proportion of those who see God as important in this respect is waning in most of Western Europe over time, though growing in Russia, Bulgaria, Japan and Ukraine).

The overall results show a pretty even division across the globe, though religion plays an important role in most people’s lives. But these results aren’t that informative given the observed variation across countries (see below):

Below is a plot showing the variation across the surveyed countries. Look at the first two lines showing a substantial difference between the U.S. and the more secular Canada.

Overall, I would have thought that even religious people wouldn’t assert that you need God to be moral, mainly because there’s so much evidence that nonbelievers are moral. In fact, the most secular countries in the world—those in Scandinavia—could be construed as being more moral than many of the more religious countries, like Islamic countries of the Middle East. Further, the Euthyphro argument, which shows that our sense of morality must be prior to belief in God (unless you believe in Divine Command theory), disposes of the we-need-God-to-be-moral claim. But of course few people have thought the issue through that far.

Muslim and Catholic (or devout Christian) countries show the strongest belief in God as a necessity for morality. 90% or above ratings are seen in the Philippines, Indonesia, Kenya, and Nigeria.

Three more plots. The first one shows the familiar pattern of richer countries adhering less to religious dicta than poorer ones. In this case there are multiple confounding factors, for “belief in God is important for morality” is surely itself highly correlated with simple “belief in God.” The relationship here is very strong. My own view is that of Marx: countries where you are in bad shape and can’t get help from the government tend to be those where people find hope and solace in religion.

This is also true within countries: there’s a consistent pattern in the surveyed nations of people with higher income being less likely to see God as necessary for morality (and of course the higher-income people are less likely to be religious in general).

As expected, people with more education tend to connect morality with God to a lesser extent. Again, this is probably because of a negative relationship between education and religiosity:

In the comments below, reader Eric said I may have “buried the lede” by neglecting the rather large drop between 2002 and 2019, in the proportion of Americans who think God is necessary for morality. This is part of the increasing secularization of the U.S:


Finally, there’s a plot showing the variation among countries on the general importance of religion. Western Europe, Australia, South Korea, and Japan lead the pack for secularism, while Catholic, Muslim, and African Christian countries are those seeing religion as more important. That’s no surprise:

In truth, the failure of nearly half the world’s people to see that atheists can be moral, which should dispose of the “God-is-necessary” hypothesis, is depressing. But one could argue that for many religious people, “morality” consists largely of religious dictates: what you eat, who you sleep with and how, how you feel about gays and women, and so on. So, for example, Catholics and Muslims might see the free-loving and egalitarian Scandinavians as immoral.

68 thoughts on “A world survey: Do we need God to be moral?

  1. Like people who “believe” the Earth is 7,000 years old, or that evolution or climate change doesn’t exist, this is one more example of the irrelevance of what people “believe”. Who cares? Show me the data!

  2. You may have buried the lede here, Jerry. PEW also reported that the number of USAians who think belief in God is necessary for morality has dropped 14 points in 17 years (from 58% in 2002 to 44% in 2019).

    So, while the current numbers may not be what we’d hope, the trend is in the right direction and, at roughly a 1% per year drop, moving pretty fast.

    1. It is nice to see the majority flip sides, with the majority in the USA now holding that God is not necessary for morality. If only we could get them to see that guns aren’t either.

  3. Of course religion is vital to being moral, that’s why believers have spent millennia killing off other believers for believing wrong.

    1. Does that make it vital in a ‘what not to do’ sense? Kinda like a promise ring would tell you who not to date. 😉

    2. We ask the wrong question when we ask can one be moral without god. I think we should start asking, “Can one be moral if one is religious?” As with science, I think religion is incompatible with morality. The Christian belief in original sin precludes the existence, growth and development of a moral, ethical culture and society. Could one write a more useless ethical code than the 10 commandments? Other than the almost universal prohibitions against stealing and murder, what of worth is there in that document?

      The Pew poll is nice, but it still insults atheists by even posing the question.

      1. I very much agree with Leigh. But what intrigues and infuriates me is the imposition of the cavalier and ignorant assumption that religion follows the same pattern everywhere in the world, and consists first of all in a willed ‘belief’ in ‘God’ in the manner set out in the Apostles’ Creed, which begins “I believe in God, the Father Almighty…”. It certainly does not in Japan, where there is only a very small minority of Christians since the Japanese had the sense to kick out the missionaries. Christianity & Islam are the only two religions that insist explicitly on willed ‘belief’ so far as I know, and that is one large reason, I suspect, why both are so susceptible to, and terrified of, atheism.

        There is a very good chapter on Japanese religion in Richard Lloyd Parry’s ‘Ghosts of the Tsunami’, which is about the aftermath of the tsunami of 2011.

        I recall also the tale of the anthropologist (mentioned, I think, in Nigel Barley’s excellent ‘The Innocent Anthropologist’)who was assiduously taking down ‘myths’ from some South American Indian elder. Finally, the elder, who had had no doubt his fill of anthropologists, turned to the anthropologist and said, ‘I suppose you think we believe in all this.’

        The best account I have come across of how myths (which originally simply meant ‘tales’) function in a society is in Robert Bringhurst’s ‘A Story As Sharp As a Knife: The Classical Haida Mythtellers and Their World’. They are meant first of all to be enjoyed, different versions are given by different storytellers, whose talents are appreciated. The question of whether the stories are ‘true’ does not arise; they are enjoyed and provide food for thought.

  4. The headline is a good way to force me to read the story. I saw “Do we need God to be moral” on my RSS feed and thought it meant “is it necessary that God is moral” which I found to be somewhat surprising. I had to read the article before I understood that it means “Does there have to be a god for humans to be moral”.

    Well, to answer the question: I am an atheist and yet I don’t steal other people’s stuff, even when I know I can get away with it.

    1. I read the question in the same way and my immediate thought was, if it’s the stain god that’s being talked about it would be nice if it discovered some morals (actually, I think that applies to all gods).

  5. It is self-evident to many believers that atheists are immoral, because to them morality consists of following the norms established by their religious group. I recall how my religious aunt visited the Krupp Villa and simply assessed the morality of its founding dynasty by counting Christian symbols in that house. Nothing can make up for not being a believer, apparently. The RCC is lucky that Hitler did not attend mass every week…

    The low crime rates of atheists is probably still somewhat unknown to the general public. Perhaps it is assumed that criminals are too antisocial to follow a religion? Yet Europe’s prisons are full of devout Muslims who see no contradiction between their faith and a life of crime, especially if that comes at the expense of unbelievers. In the US, African-Americans are also far more religious than White Americans while boasting a far higher crime rate. Somehow the Mike Huckabees of the country fail to notice this.

    That being said, I do not assume that atheism promotes more moral behavior. It seems more plausible to me that atheists are a self-selected group that excludes many poorly-educated and mentally ill people.

  6. It’s really quite simple. People do not get morals from religion, rather religion gets morals from people.

  7. Religion is a subset of irrational belief systems. In its organized form it attempt to impose these beliefs on others. If organized religion didn’t attempt to do this, religious belief would be as innocuous as believers in astrology, for example. The main goal of secularists should be to oppose these impositions and not be so concerned in changing minds because this is an unlikely task to succeed. The underlying premise of mind changing is that humans are essentially rational beings and once convinced that religion is irrational, ludicrous non-evidence based belief systems will disappear. I am more skeptical. My fear is that if the religious variant that attempts to impose its beliefs on other should disappear, other non-religious based belief systems will emerge that could be as dangerous as religious ones. In other words because many, if not most, humans are susceptible to irrational beliefs, the disappearance of religion in its organized form will not herald in a golden era of enlightenment.

    In my view, religion is like a virus that has invaded the body that cannot be eliminated, but can be contained so that it does not harm the body politic. The containment of one specific virus does not mean that the body is not subject to infection by others. Thus, to continue the analogy, even if religion is contained, other irrational belief systems are lurking with the potential to harm the body politic. Continuous vigilance is necessary to thwart these other invaders. Even if organized religion should be effectively defeated, this would represent the winning of a battle, not the perpetual war against irrationality and the harm it causes.

    1. Completely agree. Countless atrocities were committed in the past following such moral imperatives as being “a good nazi”, “a good stalinist” or “a good maoist”.

    2. I agree with much of what Historian says, but it should be pointed out that Christianity and Islam in particular have influenced the way that other religions present themselves. The establishment of State Shinto in Japan was an attempt to create an ideology (carefully not defined as a religion, but as true history) out of folk-practices so that the Japanese would not fall for foreign beliefs after the opening of Japan not only to trade, etc, but to enthusiastic crowds of Christian missionaries. Bali, a mainly Hindu enclave in the largely Muslim Indonesia, was required by the Indonesian government to come up with a sacred text in order to justify Hinduism as a proper religion, since all ‘proper’ religions, like Islam & Christianity, had sacred texts; the Balinese chose Bhagavad Gita. The present Hindu nationalism in India owes much to the examples of Islam and Christianity and their intolerance of other ‘beliefs’.

  8. I’ve occasionally seen sentiments such as “If you don’t believe in God what stop you raping and killing?” or some such fatuous question.
    I’m tempted to reply something on the lines of “in my case, empathy”, and provide a helpful link to an online definition, but I doubt that would have any effect.

    On another point, in the last plot, the question as phrased is perhaps vague: “Is religion [Not at all/…etc] important in your life”. Obviously it is meant to ask how much credence you have in it, and how much your behaviour is influenced by it, in which case my answer would be “Not at all”.

    But given a literal interpretation I’d have to say that yes, regrettably, it is important in most of our lives: I suspect that a great deal of social policies and laws are strongly influenced by it, even in the UK (for example the establishment of religious schools).

    The construction of survey questions can be a bit of an art form!

    1. Penn Gillette’s response to that is a classic at this point; “The question I get asked by religious people all the time is, without God, what’s to stop me from raping all I want? And my answer is: I do rape all I want. And the amount I want is zero. And I do murder all I want, and the amount I want is zero. The fact that these people think that if they didn’t have this person watching over them that they would go on killing, raping rampages is the most self-damning thing I can imagine.”

      I think the actual situation is a bit more complicated than that, but as a first-order answer, it’s right on the money.

      1. “The fact that these people think that if they didn’t have this person watching over them that they would go on killing, raping rampages . . . .”

        I reasonably speculate (perhaps someone has done some objective surveys) that many murderers, if asked prior to their murdering whether they believed in God, would say that they did. Once convicted and in prison, I suppose that they would allow that their belief was apparently not sufficiently strong (or that “The Devil made me do it”), but now they have found God. I gather that in this regard skepticism runs high among prison employees and management. (I wonder how “restorative justice” works – if it possibly can – in murders.)

        1. There is indeed a trope of criminals suddenly “discovering Jesus” when facing conviction to get a lighter sentence. But as you know, this is usually viewed as a cynical attempt to manipulate judges and other authority figures.

          My impression from encountering some criminals (not in the US) is that they are usually superstitious in some way. Their religious views are often hateful (as in the belief that priests in rival congregations are Satanic). What they do not have is remorse. God conveniently wants the same things as them and encourages their sense of grandiosity. Sometimes he gets credit, e.g. when they successfully avoid an arrest.

    2. And on a less moral but more practical level, not wanting to rape and kill is a good idea because no community would accept someone who did whatever the hell they wanted. Morality, far from being invented by God, developed as a way for humans to live together in communities as social animals. Without a community to belong to, a human being is impoverished in every way. And for a community to function well, it must impose restraints on its members—who would want to live in a community where members could cheat, kill, and rape whoever they wanted?

  9. I’m honestly surprised that the morality argument as endlessly argued by religious apologists is still an issue.

    It’s so clear there is no there there. It’s tantamount to the same folks who absurdly try to tie cosmic inflation to creation, or evolution to a divine watchmaker.

    These are obsolete 19th century problems.

  10. Putting the responsibility for morality on a god is a cop out, pure and simple. It’s a way to relieve yourself of the burden of figuring out what is and isn’t moral yourself. It’s a way to avoid any responsibility for making a moral decision and risking getting it wrong. It’s a way of leaving yourself free to justify anything you do. It’s a way of leaving yourself open to being used by those you deem authorities of your religion.

    Religions’ greatest power has always been twisting nasty things so that they become virtues.

    1. A catholic acquaintance, who knows I am an atheist, once told me, when I was caring for my wife when she was ill, that I would be rewarded in this life and the next for what I was doing. I was furious, and told him that I did not do such things for rewards of any kind, behaved as I did because I wanted to, and considered that behaving in a ‘good’ way for the sake of some reward, wherever it came from, was profoundly immoral.

  11. Perhaps an important reason many believe religion is important for morality is that children need guidance to become fully mature and moral human beings. Parents enlist God in the process of disciplining children as they pass through stages of development. Teens especially are naturally rebellious of authority and it may seem important to put the fear of hell into their heads to keep them from turning out bad. Cursory analysis shows this is not in the evidence, but such folklore persists. Teen pregnancy rates in the Christian southern states are higher than in the north, for example.

    1. “Cursory analysis shows this is not in the evidence, but such folklore persists.”

      Regardless, dealing with teen rebelliousness is not pleasant. Advice is always appreciated (I perceive it similar to young adult Wokeness, and with dealing with certain narcissistic adults who can’t be troubled to wear a face mask.) Teens who aren’t inclined to rebel are given grief by those who do. I imagine there are at least a few mothers who question whether the “reward” of dealing with intense and prolonged rebelliousness was worth the pain of labor.

      “Teen pregnancy rates in the Christian southern states are higher than in the north, for example.”

      I wonder how the rates of Christians in the northern (or western, for that matter) states compare.

  12. The weakness in this line is the word “evidence”: “Overall, I would have thought that even religious people wouldn’t assert that you need God to be moral, mainly because there’s so much evidence that nonbelievers are moral.”

    Thomas Edsall’s latest column in the NYTimes summarizes a series of studies that, among other things, establishes that “an aversion to altering one’s belief on the basis of evidence was more common among conservatives and that this correlated “with beliefs about topics ranging from extrasensory perception, to respect for tradition, to abortion, to God.”” Since a large fraction of conservatives tend to be religious, a large fraction of these religious people will not be concerned with evidence that might challenge their assumptions.

    Here is a link to the article: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/22/opinion/liberals-conservatives-trump-america.html

  13. “Do we need God to be moral?”

    I will doubtless be accused of nit-picking, but I think it’s important to distinguish between “Do we need God to be moral” and “Do we need to believe in God to be moral.” To the first question, I would answer Yes; to the second, No.

    Morality is intricately bound up with human rights. So if it’s true that “all men are created equal and endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights,” it follows that we need God to be moral. Whether we believe in God is irrelevant.

    1. Sorry, but this comment seems to make no sense at all. You quote the Declaration of Independence as if it proves that there is a creator who gave us unalienable rights. Without that creator, you claim, there would be no morality. You are assuming God exists with no evidence save what’s asserted by the Founders.

      1. That’s why I said “If it’s true. . . .” If it isn’t true, then all bets are off.

        My main point is that “Do we need God to be moral” and “Do we need to believe in God to be moral” are two different questions and shouldn’t be conflated.

        1. That strikes me as true but hardly interesting. The answer to both questions is the same. “No we don’t.” There are countless other ways to modify the question and get the same result.

          Do we need God to be spelled with a capital “G” to be moral? Do we need to understand that Christianity isn’t really monotheistic to be moral? You can spend all day coming up with such questions. And waste the whole day.

        2. We don’t need God to be moral. This is easily shown with a simple biblical thought experiment. Say Yahweh exists as written in the OT. Say Yahweh hands down the moral rule “you can keep slaves, but only for 7 years – then you have to let them go.” I respond: “no I reject that moral rule. I’m going with the moral rule “you cannot keep slaves, period” instead.

          See? I did not need God to be moral.

          1. Indeed, you’ve shown yourself to be clearly more moral than God. I think Sam Harris said, anyone of us can be better than God, simply by changing a line in the bible.

    2. I prefer to think that the creator in this statement is nature and we are endowed with natural rights as in Locke, from whom Jefferson got his ideas. And from Francis Hutcheson about men being created equal. I doubt Jefferson thought God was the fountainhead of these principles.

    3. Many, if not most, of the founding fathers were free-masons. Their concept of a ‘God’ or a ‘Creator’ is very ‘stretchy’, for most it is a kinda deist, not theist, notion. It does not resemble the house and garden variety of God or Creator, many would be considered atheists by Christians (just not “Stupid Atheists”). They have a traditional interest in the deities of ancient Egypt. Of course, that might have been different a few centuries ago.

      1. Agreed that there was a wide variety of beliefs amongst the founders, however the stretchy-ness doesn’t derive from their free masonry. The masons accept people of basically any religion, so long as you believe in a god and accept their pledges about being good etc. Thus, one founder could be a deist mason, another could be a Catholic mason, another could be a Quaker mason, etc..

        In more modern times, some Chrisitans sects have come out in opposition to masonry by treating it as a competing religion, but back then it wasn’t seen that way (and AFAIK, the masons themselves still don’t see it that way).

        1. Not so sure about Catholic masons. They we’re pretty well excluded which is why the Knights of Columbus came to be. (Or so my memory tells me.)

          1. Puts me in mind of my mother, who claimed to have refused to provide a urine sample because she was Catholic and wasn’t about to pee in a Mason jar.

      2. If I dare say so, the whole Declaration of Independence is a stretchy and somewhat self-contradictory document. I’m not a lawyer and can thus live with that view.

    4. I sort of get where you are coming from here. (Probably some unlikable phrases there).

      I think we need a good definition of what we mean by moral.

      As a free will skeptic, it does not make sense to me think of in terms of good or bad (motion of atoms) … so, I try to avoid thinking in terms good and bad. Fail miserably of course.

      In my terms, I try to be amoral. If my actions happen to be in accord with what most people like, is that being moral?

      The concept of morality and its derivatives are useful for manipulating other people.

  14. The first one shows the familiar pattern of richer countries adhering less to religious dicta than poorer ones…This is also true within countries…

    Indeed, look no further than the American South. The poorest states = the most religious states.

  15. Religion is, living in South Africa, very important in my life: I am confronted with it on a daily basis, and regularly fight it (all very kindly).

  16. “Do we need God to be moral?”

    I suspect the question is naive. Firstly monotheistc gods are a relatively recent development and even the idea of morality is relatively modern. How did people behave 10,000 years ago? Mostly small bands of hunter gatherers with small societies and small sets of ethics but no ‘morals’ perhaps?

    So if the questions asked had been “In our urbanised industialised societies with greater emphasis on individual rights rather than community responsibilities does belief in a god improve social behaviour” – then we might have a proper debate.

    1. We know quite a lot about hunter-gatherers. They all have morals.

      Living in urban societies does not require monotheism. Look at India. And then recall that Catholicism is chock-a-block full of deities large and small although they all pretend there’s only “one god”.

  17. Looking at the question from a philosophical perspective, I would point out that the question is meaningful only under the assumption of moral realism (an objective morality exists).

    If we come instead from a position of moral anti-realism (there is no such a thing as objective morality) then the question becomes “Do we need god to have moral beliefs?” and the answer is trivially “No”: people have had all kinds of moral beliefs throughout the ages, and they still do, god or no god. In other words, the question gets completely deflated.

    1. Yes, this is why the question is a bit of a red herring: of course a religious person would consider someone who violates any one of the Ten Commandments to be immoral. Meanwhile, an atheist might say, “But I’m not killing or stealing, this proves that I don’t need God to be moral.” But the religious person then points out the one about covetousness, and says that they in fact are immoral, and the atheist scoffs at the idea that wanting something someone else has is immoral. It’s a true incommensurability problem. I’m inclined to think that believing in objective morality is not that far removed from tying morality to religion in this regard, it just differs in what it counts as “moral.”

  18. Did they ask “Is denying god in itself an immoral act?” [I some counties it is even a crime.] If you believe that, then of course you can’t be moral without believing in god.

  19. Scary, but it helps to explain why we have a fascist nutjob turning Brazil in the worse covid scenario in the world.

  20. Having read some of “god’s” written output – OT/NT/Quran/Talmud I challenge any religious to fine anything in there that we would consider moral. Any dirty underhanded deed, any foul murder, any despicable treachery, any genocide it is all condoned by this creation of the human imagination. If everybody followed the dictates of this disgusting deity the world would be an even worse place than it is now – dog forbid!

    1. As Mark pointed out before, people do not get morality from religion, religions get morality from people. And people’s morality continuously changes through history and across cultures. So comparing the moral views of religions established thousands of years ago with today’s morality is an exercise of futility.

      The problem religions have is that they deal with Truth (with capital T) and by definition Truth does not change through time and across cultures. That is why they always need to deploy all sorts of acrobatic moves in order to “reinterpret” the old scripts while at the same time claiming that what the old scripts are saying has not changed a bit.

    2. And that’s why my answer to the thread title question is:

      Yes, we desperately need God to be moral, and He should start immediately! He has a lot to make up for!

      1. This is also true within countries: there’s a consistent pattern in the surveyed nations of people with higher income being less likely to see God as necessary for morality (and of course the higher-income people are less likely to be religious in general).

        Well, that simplified the question quite a lot! GDP per capita is common measure. I believe the old -00’s theory was that religion is caused by – and perhaps cause – society “dysfunctionality” (insecurities).

        In fact, when I look at correlation coefficients, the r ~ 0.9 is much larger than the r ~0.5 of the old theory [ https://whyevolutionistrue.com/2016/01/15/religiosity-is-correlated-with-unhappiness/ ].

  21. “Socrates then poses this question to Euthyphro: “Are good things good because the gods approve of them, or do the gods approve of them because they are good …”

    Let’s eat!
    I think that’s good, is that god approved eating?
    God approved suicide bombing I’m not so keen on… the food tends to fly everywhere!

  22. This is also true within countries: there’s a consistent pattern in the surveyed nations of people with higher income being less likely to see God as necessary for morality (and of course the higher-income people are less likely to be religious in general).

    Well, that simplified the question quite a lot! GDP per capita is common measure. I believe the old -00’s theory was that religion is caused by – and perhaps cause – society “dysfunctionality” (insecurities).

    In fact, when I look at correlation coefficients, the r ~ 0.9 is much larger than the r ~0.5 of the old theory [ https://whyevolutionistrue.com/2016/01/15/religiosity-is-correlated-with-unhappiness/ ].

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