Are theists less moral than Atheists? This is not the way this question is usually worded but I think this is a reasonable question. So many atrocities have been done in the name of religion, God or the supernatural that it begs the question, "Are religious people bad people?"
I am often confronted with the question about where I get my morals. Without God, can't I just do whatever I want? Can't I rape, murder, extort, cheat or whatever? Well, yeah. If the Christian belief of free will is valid I can ask the same question. We can do whatever we are physically able. The real question should be "why do people chose not to terrible things?"
The Christian perspective: There is an all powerful, all knowing being who has mapped out what is good and what is bad (and the exceptions) and shall judge us for violating these rules. We are punished for our bad behavior at the end of our materal existence and the result will be eternal damnation or eternal paradise (unless you are a Catholic where there are incremental forms of punishment). We can avoid damnation even if our crimes are unspeakable if we are genuinely sorry and seek true repentance in the arms of Jesus. Theists do not commit terrible acts because they fear punishment by an all powerful deity.
The Atheist perspective: There are ways to behave and there are ways not to. Most are inherited but some are figured out by the individual. My upbringing gave me some general and some specific parameters to live by. I have tweaked those based upon experience and contemplation. I think this is the case for most Atheists. We are raised a certain way and figure out the rest. We use a lot of common sense and critical thinking. We do not commit terrible acts because that is a messed up thing to do. But we do it for us. Not to avoid punishment.
Thus far, this is a pretty standard argument. Atheists are better because we chose not to rape morally and theists do it out of fear of punishment. It provides us with any number of witty retorts to theists but I do not think it actually shows the real picture.
In debates I often ask why the Christian marters themselves for one one section of the Bible and ignores another. Wearing fabrics of different varieties and not stoning women who help their husbands in fights as the bible commands. Why they think swearing is sinful when it is not a sin in the Bible. The Lords name in vain seems to be so forgotten as a sin but shit is damnation worthy. How is this sort of thing justified? How do they decide which sections of the bible are really really serious and which parts are based upon the culture of the time? Slavery, owning ones wife, and Idolatry are just a couple of examples.
They use common sense and critical thinking. They read a passage and decide if it is applicable to life today. As a culture we have decided that slave owning is bad; therefor the bible does not really really condone it, while you may not like you really can suffer a witch to live. Things of the like. To make that determination they use the same tools we atheists and non-religious do. They use common sense and critical thinking.
Based upon the above I would argue that the Bible does little to aid them in their journey to morality. Seems they use the Bible to gain higher moral ground and look down on the rest of us for making the same decision without a prop. Why the prop makes you a better person I cannot say. Hundreds of years of PR perhaps.
Now we can finally get to the area where theists may be less moral than atheists; justified hate. If I hate the gays or the Jews or the Mormons or whoever I need to justify that with my personal standard. I have rules which work. "Do not burn people at the stake" I am stuck justifying any exceptions I may choose to make. I need to justify with logic, reason and create an argument that supports my exception.
Religious based morality can have any number of exceptions. There are plenty of them in the Bible. God says thou shall not kill except your son if you are Abraham or in a just war according to Tom Aquinuas or to save the holy land from the heathens or kill an abortion doctor. It is easy to make exceptions to the rules when you can believe that the creator of the rules wants you to.
In fact, any rule can be overruled by those who think God wants it overruled. Those of us who need to justify and hold internal consistency cannot do this. We are bound by rules we accept. We are the arbiters of our morality. We cannot claim that a higher authority has allowed us to commit horrible acts. We need to stick with those rules we have built for ourselves and hold the responsibility for all we do on our shoulders.
If I commit a murder, I do not have the option of saying it was God's will. I am stuck taking full responsibility for everything I do.
I am not saying that Atheists do not do terrible things. Just that they have chosen that path and cannot hide behind a higher morality. Stuck with the real world. And I am not saying that the Christian is more likely to commit terrible acts. Just that they have a nice divine shield to hide culpability behind.
This post has gotten away from me. I intended to compare some information I found on the internet. I have attached a couple of amusing webpages. One showing the religious affiliation of persons in prison and another talking about how atheists are more likely to swear in public. Which of these shows better what is and what is not a moral person.
Federal Data of Prison population this is self reported data based upon prison entry forms.
Self reported survey taken from http://www.barna.org/barna-update/article/16-teensnext-gen/25-young-adults-and-liberals-struggle-with-morality
Survey talks about the difference between Evangelicals and Atheists in things like lying. Keep in mind this is self report so consider how many people may have lied about lying. Makes me smile.