01/07/2015 07:17 pm ET Updated Mar 09, 2015

Atheism Leads to Moral Decay: Once Again, the Big Lie

There's nothing like ringing in the new year with an old canard.

A few days ago, the chancellor of a public university, Troy University in Alabama, sent students and staff an email message regarding the new year. In addition to expressing his hope that their new year would "be blessed," Chancellor Jack Hawkins, Jr. included a link to a video, which, he said, would serve as a reminder of America's "greatness and vulnerability."

The video itself is ninety seconds of intellectual rubbish and bigotry masquerading as insight. Essentially, it's a Harvard business school professor making the claim that religious belief is essential for democracy. The professor suggests that if people do not believe in God, they will not voluntarily obey the law. The video ends with the ominous observation, "If you take away religion, you can't hire enough police."

The assertion that widespread atheism will lead to moral and social decline is a claim oft-repeated. But frequent repetition doesn't make this unsupported assertion true. Instead, it serves as a reminder of the prejudice that many have toward atheists, as well as a telling admission of the weakness of arguments for theism.

To begin, where's the evidence to support this claim? None is cited in the video. That's not surprising, because there is no evidence to support this claim. What evidence is available refutes the purported connection between disbelief in God and moral and social decline. Widespread, voluntary rejection of belief in God is a phenomenon of only the last several decades, but there are a number of European countries, principally in Scandinavia, where a significant percentage of the population, if not a majority, no longer believes in a deity. The sociologist Phil Zuckerman, in his book-length study, Society Without God, described how Sweden and Denmark are peaceful, prosperous democracies with generally law-abiding, civic-minded populations, whose crime rates compare favorably with the United States, a much more religious nation. Their police presence is much lower as well. So much for the supposed tumble into the abyss.

Moreover, empirical studies of the behavior of theists and nontheists have not revealed any significant causal connection between lack of belief in God and criminal conduct. If one visits our prisons, one would find the overwhelming majority of inmates are believers.

Admittedly, a few years ago, the researchers Robert Putnam and David Campbell did conduct surveys, the results of which were summarized in their 2010 book American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, which purported to show that religious Americans are more pro-social than nonreligious Americans. For example, religious Americans donate more to charities. Leaving aside questions about their methodology (the surveys relied heavily on self-reporting), a close look at their studies shows that it's not religious belief per se that correlates with altruism, but rather being active in a religious community. Being actively engaged in community associations may have some connection with pro-social behavior (in part, because it serves as a reminder of our obligations toward others), but there's no reason to think that civic associations cannot perform this function as well as religious groups.

In addition, the Putnam and Campbell study revealed one important aspect of conduct toward others where the nonreligious scored better than the religious, and that is with respect to support of civil liberties and conduct and attitudes toward minorities, such as gays and lesbians. Put simply, the nonreligious are, overall, more tolerant. Bottom line: even assuming the Putnam and Campbell study is reliable, at most it shows that there are some differences in conduct between religious and nonreligious, not that a religious society is necessarily better or that a democracy cannot survive with a nonreligious population.

Of course, the most interesting thing about the assertions that atheism leads to moral decay is the motivation for such claims. Exactly who is supposed to be persuaded by these claims? It's not like atheists are suddenly going to slap their foreheads and exclaim, "My goodness, I better start believing in God." No, these claims are clearly designed to bolster the religious who may have some doubts about the soundness of their beliefs. To put it mildly, the intellectual foundations for theism have been greatly eroded over the last couple of centuries. It is much more difficult to accept belief in invisible spirits. So, if one cannot come up with a positive argument for belief in God, try to scare people into believing. We better believe in God or chaos will result!

This viewpoint is sad enough when it's found in the ordinary believer. It's especially unfortunate when it's articulated by the head of a tax-supported public university. At the end of the day, Chancellor Hawkins's message reveals more about him than it does about atheism. Among other things, it shows he may be in more need of education than many of his students.