Atheists can be good, but people who believe in God are more likely to value being good, a recent study showed.
An analysis by sociologist and pollster Reginald Bibby of the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, Canada, addressed the question "Do people need God to be good?"
Polling 1,600 Canadians, the nationwide survey found that those who believe in God are consistently more likely than atheists to highly value such traits as courtesy, concern for others, forgiveness, generosity and patience. Believers are also more inclined to place high value on friendship, family life, and being loved.
While God and religion are not the only sources of such traits, the survey reported that they are among the most important sources. And without them, "it is not at all clear that comparable equivalents currently exist that could fill the void," according to the report.
"To the extent that Canadians say good-bye to God, we may find that we pay a significant social price," Bibby concluded in the study.
Bibby suggests that the primary reason believers place higher value on being good is that they are far more likely than atheists to be part of groups that work hard to instill those values. Although not all believers translate their values into action, they are at least inclined to hold the values, according to the study.
"Atheists, on the other hand, do not have as many explicit support groups that are committed to intentionally promoting positive interpersonal life," Bibby reported.
The debate on whether God is necessary to have good morals has increasingly taken public stage between staunch atheists and Christian apologists.
Earlier this month, Oxford University professor of historical theology Dr. Alister McGrath, a Christian, squared off with bestselling author Christopher Hitchens, who wrote God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, at Georgetown University in Washington. Rebutting Hitchens' argument that knowing right from wrong is innate and doesn't come from a higher being, McGrath, who said he is a former atheist, asked how one can have a viable moral system without some sort of transcendent basis of morality.
"There are some forms of religion that are pathological, that damage people. For every one of these atrocities which must cause all of us deep concern, there are 10,000 unreported acts of kindness, generosity, and so forth arising from religious commitment," McGrath argued.
Nearly half of Canadians (49 percent) say they definitely believe God exists and 33 percent say they think He exists; 11 percent have doubts and don't think there is a higher power; and 7 percent say they definitely do not believe God exists.