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Are Religious People More Moral?

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Are Religious People More Moral?

This article was originally published at The Conversation and has been republished under Creative Commons.

Why do people distrust atheists?

A recent study we conducted, led by psychologist Will Gervais, found widespread and extreme moral prejudice against atheists around the world. Across all continents, people assumed that those who committed immoral acts, even extreme ones such as serial murder, were more likely to be atheists.

Although this was the first demonstration of such bias at a global scale, its existence is hardly surprising.

Survey data show that Americans are less trusting of atheists than of any other social group. For most politicians, going to church is often the best way to garner votes, and coming out as an unbeliever could well be political suicide. After all, there are no open atheists in the U.S. Congress. The only known religiously unaffiliated representative describes herself as “none” but still denies being an atheist.

So where does such extreme prejudice come from? And what is the actual evidence on the relationship between religion and morality?

How does religion relate to morality?

It is true that the world’s major religions are concerned with moral behavior. Many, therefore, might assume that religious commitment is a sign of virtue or even that morality cannot exist without religion.

Both of these assumptions, however, are problematic.

Many ethical standards held by different religious groups do not overlap.

Religious groups’ ethical ideals often do not match those of other religious groups. Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston/Flickr

For one thing, the ethical ideals of one religion might seem immoral to members of another. For instance, in the 19th century, Mormons considered polygamy a moral imperative, while Catholics saw it as a mortal sin.

Moreover, religious ideals of moral behavior are often limited to group members and might even be accompanied by outright hatred against other groups. In 1543, for example, Martin Luther, one of the fathers of Protestantism, published a treatise titled “On the Jews and Their Lies,” echoing anti-Semitic sentiments that have been common among various religious groups for centuries.

These examples also reveal that religious morality can and does change with the ebb and flow of the surrounding culture. In recent years, several Anglican churches have revised their moral views to allow contraception, the ordination of womenand the blessing of same-sex unions.

Discrepancy between beliefs and behavior

In any case, religiosity is only loosely related to theology. That is, the beliefs and behaviors of religious people are not always in accordance with official religious doctrines. Instead, popular religiosity tends to be much more practical and intuitive. This is what religious studies scholars call “theological incorrectness.”

Religious people's beliefs and actions often differ from the doctrines and teachings of their religion.

Religious people’s beliefs and actions often differ from the doctrines and teachings of their religion. Dimitris Xygalatas

Buddhism, for example, may officially be a religion without gods, but most Buddhists still treat Buddha as a deity. Similarly, the Catholic Church vehemently opposes birth control, but the vast majority of Catholics practice it anyway. In fact, theological incorrectness is the norm rather than the exception among believers.

For this reason, sociologist Mark Chaves called the idea that people behave in accordance with religious beliefs and commandments the “religious congruence fallacy.”

This discrepancy among beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors is a much broader phenomenon. After all, communism is an egalitarian ideology, but communists do not behave any less selfishly.

So what is the actual evidence on the relationship between religion and morality?

Do people practice what they preach?

Social scientific research on the topic offers some intriguing results.

When researchers ask people to report on their own behaviors and attitudes, religious individuals claim to be more altruistic, compassionate, honest, civic, and charitable than nonreligious ones. Even among twins, more religious siblings describe themselves are being more generous.

But when we look at actual behavior, these differences are nowhere to be found.

Researchers have now looked at multiple aspects of moral conduct, from charitable giving and cheating on exams to helping strangers in need and cooperating with anonymous others.

In a classical experiment known as the “good Samaritan study,” researchers monitored who would stop to help an injured person lying in an alley. They found that religiosity played no role in helping behavior, even when participants were on their way to deliver a talk on the parable of the good Samaritan.

This finding has now been confirmed in numerous laboratory and field studies. Overall, the results are clear: No matter how we define morality, religious people do not behave more morally than atheists, although they often say (and likely believe) that they do.

When and where religion has an impact

On the other hand, religious reminders do have a documented effect on moral behavior.

Studies conducted among American Christians, for example, have found that participants donated more money to charity and even watched less porn on Sundays. However, they compensated on both accounts during the rest of the week. As a result, there were no differences between religious and nonreligious participants on average.

Shrines and places of worship appear to invoke short-term impacts on moral behavior.

Shrines and places of worship appear to invoke short-term impacts on moral behavior. Dimitris Xygalatas

Likewise, a study conducted in Morocco found that whenever the Islamic call to prayer was publicly audible, locals contributed more money to charity. However, these effects were short-lived: Donations increased only within a few minutes of each call and then dropped again.

Numerous other studies have yielded similar results. In my own work, I found that people became more generous and cooperative when they found themselves in a place of worship.

Interestingly, one’s degree of religiosity does not seem to have a major effect in these experiments. In other words, the positive effects of religion depend on the situation, not the disposition.

Religion and rule of law

Not all beliefs are created equal, though. A recent cross-cultural study showed that those who see their gods as moralizing and punishing are more impartial and cheat less in economic transactions. In other words, if people believe that their gods always know what they are up to and are willing to punish transgressors, they will tend to behave better and expect that others will too.

Such a belief in an external source of justice, however, is not unique to religion. Trust in the rule of law, in the form of an efficient state, a fair judicial system, or a reliable police force, is also a predictor of moral behavior.

And indeed, when the rule of law is strong, religious belief declines and so does distrust against atheists.

The coevolution of God and society

Scientific evidence suggests that humans—and even our primate cousins—have innate moral predispositions, which are often expressed in religious philosophies. That is, religion is a reflection rather than the cause of these predispositions.

But the reason religion has been so successful in the course of human history is precisely its ability to capitalize on those moral intuitions.

Certain concepts of God may have been introduced when humans first lived in large-scale societies.

Certain concepts of God may have become important when humans first lived in large, permanent settlements. Saint Joseph/Flickr

The historical record shows that supernatural beings have not always been associated with morality. Ancient Greek gods were not interested in people’s ethical conduct. Much like the various local deities worshiped among many modern hunter-gatherers, they cared about receiving rites and offerings but not about whether people lied to one another or cheated on their spouses.

According to psychologist Ara Norenzayan, belief in morally invested gods developed as a solution to the problem of large-scale cooperation.

Early societies were small enough that their members could rely on people’s reputations to decide whom to associate with. But once our ancestors turned to permanent settlements and group size increased, everyday interactions were increasingly taking place between strangers. How were people to know whom to trust?

Religion provided an answer by introducing beliefs about all-knowing, all-powerful gods who punish moral transgressions. As human societies grew larger, so did the occurrence of such beliefs. And in the absence of efficient secular institutions, the fear of God was crucial for establishing and maintaining social order.

In those societies, a sincere belief in a punishing supernatural watcher was the best guarantee of moral behavior, providing a public signal of compliance with social norms.

Today we have other ways of policing morality, but this evolutionary heritage is still with us. Although statistics show that atheists commit fewer crimes than average, the widespread prejudice against them, as highlighted by our study, reflects intuitions that have been forged through centuries and might be hard to overcome. The Conversation

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  • Charlie Sommers

    “The greatest tragedy in mankind’s entire history may be the hijacking of morality by religion.”
    ~Arthur C. Clarke

  • Richard Lefebvre

    How can so many people today still keep on believing in invisible invented by man gods when in truth there is no hell below nor heaven above ? The evolution of the Univers over 14 billion years has created all of the galaxies and ours is just one of them. Living forms may also exist as a chance statistically. I believe that we don’t really want to know and that stiff punishment seems to prevail if the sheeple don’t abide by the books. Sorry but athiests are the LIGHTHOUSES for the future.

  • Cotton Top

    God is a metaphor for that which trancends all
    levels of intellectual thought. It is as simple as that
    Joseph Campbell

  • Cotton Top