Sociologist Phil Zuckerman argues, “When it comes to the most pressing moral issues of the day, hard-core secularists exhibit much more empathy, compassion, and care for the well-being of others than the most ardently God-worshipping.”
Consider climate change. The best available data shows that — as a direct result of human activity — we are destroying our planet. The results are already manifesting with greater and deadlier frequency: poisoned air and water, massive wildfires, stronger hurricanes, brutal mudslides, quickly melting glaciers, rising sea levels, the wanton disappearance of forests and coral reefs. Such developments do not bode well for the future; more suffering and death are on the rapidly approaching horizon. And, yet again, what do we see? It is the most staunchly secular among us who understand the science behind climate change and want to do what needs to be done in order to prevent it, while it is the most pious among us who dismiss the science and don’t want to address the dire threat. For example, a recent PRRI study found that over 80% of secular Americans accept the evidence that human activity is causing climate change — and they place addressing climate change at the top of the list of their political priorities — while only 33% of white Evangelicals accept such evidence, and thus place is towards the bottom of their list of political priorities.
So the demonstration of superior atheist morality comes from many more secular Americans placing climate change “at the top of the list of their political priorities.” But once again, Zuckerman runs into the same buzz saw of considerations that shredded his pandemic example. To begin, there is no evidence that such political priorities have anything to do with secular people being motivated by empathy, compassion, and care for the well-being of others. Zuckerman merely assumes that to be the case. And the assumptions of an atheist apologist hardly qualify as evidence.
What’s more, there is an alternative explanation that has nothing to do with morality. Again, it’s Fear. Only this time it is fear of some coming apocalypse. For example, if you are afraid that we are “we are destroying our planet,” then you will favor proposals to help reduce that fear. If you are not afraid the planet is being destroyed, you have no reason to favor such proposals. Zuckerman should read his own words. If “only 33% of white Evangelicals accept such evidence,” of course they are “going place it towards the bottom of their list of political priorities.” That’s reasonable. The main, relevant difference here is that “80% of secular Americans accept the evidence that human activity is causing climate change” while “only 33% of white Evangelicals accept such evidence.” One can explore the causes behind this different level of acceptance, but it’s rather clear morality is not in play here.
In other words, Zuckerman’s evidence for the superior morality of atheists may just as well instead be evidence of their greater fear of the apocalypse as a consequence of their greater likelihood of believing in such a dark future.