Media release: Report contradicts religious claims of moral superiority

Si Gladman / 15 December 2023

Religious claims of moral superiority over non-religious people do not stack up, the latest report into religiosity in Australia reveals.

The Rationalist Society of Australia (RSA) has today published the latest volume of social researcher and RSA Fellow Neil Francis’ landmark Religiosity in Australia research series, with Part 5 – Religion, morality and ethics – now available for download.

Francis analysed high-quality survey data sets from Australian university studies, as well as peer-reviewed scientific literature, to provide a clearer picture of morality and values among religious and non-religious Australians.

In analysing views on the moral justifiability of a range of behaviours relating to cheating and stealing, Francis finds no consistent significant difference in the moral attitudes between religious people and those of no religion.

However, on matters relating to death (such as abortion and euthanasia), sex (such as homosexuality and premarital sex) and divorce, non-religious people and people of low levels of religiosity have more permissible attitudes than the most religious.

“The evidence is in: religious Australians are not generally more moral than the non-religious. In many domains examined in this study, they’re less moral, at least in the normative prosocial sense,” he says.

“This begs a question about a question: why do so many ask “is it possible to be moral without religion?” Why not ask, more neutrally, “does religion make people more, less, differently, or no differently moral?”

In the report, Francis examines attitudes of tolerance towards people of other faiths and towards science and issues such as climate change, finding that religious Australians are more likely to be prejudiced toward different others and more denying of science.

He also reveals the high rates of support among religious Devouts for authoritarianism (45 per cent) and dominionism (12 per cent), calculating that about 770,000 Australians are ‘dominionists’ – that is, they believe not only that theirs is the only acceptable religion but that their religious clerics should be the final arbiters of law.

In her foreword to the latest volume, public ethicist Dr Leslie Cannold says it furnishes a better understanding of legitimate moral distinctions between non-religious and religious groups and “empowers us to challenge unfounded beliefs about religious moral superiority”.

RSA president Dr Meredith Doig said the latest volume in the Religiosity in Australia series is vital reading for anyone interested in developing a better understanding of differences between religious and non-religious people.

The fifth volume is the latest in a series of empirical analyses of religiosity in Australia, based on hard evidence rather than hearsay or anecdotes.

In Part 1 of the series, Personal faith according to the numbers, Francis reveals that the level of support for religion in Australia has for many years been significantly overstated, and the social views of senior religious spokespeople out of touch with those they purport to lead.

Part 2, Religious minds, religious collectives, provides unique insights into Australians’ journey with religious faith from childhood to adulthood. It explores the increase in people identifying as ‘spiritual but not religious’ and the decline of trust in religious institutions and their leaders – factors that have driven people to leave institutionalised religion.

In Part 3, Religion and politics, Francis paints a more revealing picture of the relationship between religion and how Australians are likely to vote on a range of issues. He untangles why politicians and political parties overestimate the power of religion as a driver of voting behaviour.

Part 4, Religion and charity, uncovers that while religious people are more likely than the non-religious to engage in volunteerism and charitable donation, they do so more often for their own personal benefit and that of their own congregation, with a uniquely high rate of feeling obliged to donate.

Neil Francis’ work is made possible due to the donations of our members and supporters. If you want to support us in continuing our work, please make a donation or become a member.

All the more reason.