Tomas Ståhl

Linda J. Skitka









Project Team:

Dr Tomas Ståhl, University of Illinois at Chicago, USA (Principal Investigator)
Dr Linda J. Skitka, University of Illinois at Chicago, USA (Co-Investigator)

Dates: 1 September 2017- 1 December 2018
Award: £68, 487.38


The rise of “Nones” in the United States and elsewhere has been accompanied by a notable increase in scholarly attention to the psychology of unbelief, as well as to attitudes toward the nonreligious. Atheists constitute one of the most disliked groups in the United States, and this antipathy is primarily driven by distrust. In particular, many people are concerned that atheists may not have a strong sense of right and wrong. In the present research we examine the validity of these concerns, by studying how unbelief relates to endorsement of various commonly shared moral values and principles.

We propose that the relationship between unbelief and morality is multifaceted, and ultimately spurious. Specifically, we argue that the relationship between unbelief and morality will depend on whether the processes through which people became unbelievers were primarily cognitive, demotivational, or cultural in nature. Different antecedents of unbelief are expected to also generate distinct moral profiles (i.e., unique associations with various moral values and principles). For example, we suggest that an analytical thinking style, which is an established cognitive antecedent of unbelief, is likely to generate support for utilitarian moral principles, and a view that rationality and personal liberty are important moral values. Limited mentalizing ability, or theory of mind, which is another cognitive antecedent of unbelief, is also expected to generate support for utilitarian moral principles. However, it is also expected to reduce endorsement of various moral values that serve the protection of vulnerable individuals, as well as values that serve group cohesion. Finally, cultural/demotivational antecedents of unbelief, such as existential security, and a lack of exposure to personally costly displays of faith in the community, are expected to reduce endorsement of values that serve group cohesion. However, cultural/demotivational antecedents of unbelief are expected to be unrelated to endorsement of moral values that serve to protect vulnerable individuals, as well as to utilitarian principles.

In two waves of cross-cultural surveys, comparing a culture in which religious belief is the norm (the U.S.) with a culture in which unbelief is the norm (Sweden), we will examine the relationships between different “varieties of unbelief” and endorsement of various moral values and principles. The first cross-cultural survey will focus on the role of two presumed cognitive antecedents of unbelief: analytical thinking and (limited) mentalizing ability. The second cross-cultural survey will focus on presumed cultural/demotivational antecedents of unbelief: existential security, and (lack of) childhood exposure to various costly religious displays. In both surveys, we will investigate (1) how strength of unbelief relates to endorsement of various moral values and principles, (2) whether there are cultural differences in the presumed antecedents of unbelief, (3) to what extent these presumed antecedents predict unbelief in each culture, (4) whether there are cultural differences in the moral profiles of unbelievers, and (5) whether such cultural differences in moral profiles among unbelievers can be explained by differences in cognitive, and cultural/demotivational antecedents of unbelief.