The idea that non-believers in God lack morality has been disputed in new research by the University of Kent.
A common supposition that of the purposeless disbeliever, lacking anything to ascribe ultimate meaning to the universe, does not bear scrutiny, the study said.
Most endorse objective moral values and human dignity at similar rates to the general populations in their countries, the report presented at the Vatican said.
One of the authors, University of Kent sociologist Dr Lois Lee, said: "These findings show once and for all that the public image of the atheist is a simplification at best, and a gross caricature at worst.
"Instead of relying on assumptions about what it means to be an atheist, we can now work with a real understanding of the many different world views that the atheist population includes.
"The implications for public and social policy are substantial and this study also stands to impact on more everyday interactions in religiously diverse societies."
The research is supported by a £2.3m grant from the John Templeton Foundation and is led by the University of Kent in collaboration with Queen's University Belfast, St Mary's University Twickenham, and Coventry University.
Anthropologist Dr Jonathan Lanman, from Queen's University Belfast, said: "Our data directly counter common stereotypes about unbelievers.
"A common view of unbelievers is that they lack a sense of objective morality and purpose but possess an arrogant confidence and a very different set of values from the rest of the population.
"Our representative data across six diverse countries show that none of this is true. In a time when our societies seem to be growing more and more polarised, it has been both interesting and encouraging to see that one of the supposed big divides in human life (believers vs. unbelievers) may not be so big after all."
The global Understanding Unbelief programme to advance the scientific understanding of atheism and non-religion will present the results from its research at the Vatican in Rome.
The multidisciplinary research programme maps the nature and diversity of "unbelief" across six countries - Brazil, China, Denmark, Japan, the UK and US.
Key findings from the research include:
- Unbelievers exhibit significant diversity both within, and between, different countries
- In all six countries, majorities of unbelievers identified as having "no religion"
- Relatively few selected atheist or agnostic as their preferred (non) religious or secular identity
- Popular assumptions about convinced, dogmatic atheists do not stand up to scrutiny
- Unbelief in God does not necessarily entail unbelief in other supernatural phenomena and the majority of unbelievers in all countries surveyed expressed belief in one or more supernatural phenomena
- Unbelievers and general populations showed high agreement concerning the values most important for finding meaning in the world and your own life. Family and freedom ranked highly for all.