Dec 24th 2014

Is religion a force for good?

by Ryan McKay

Senior Lecturer in Psychology at Royal Holloway

Do we need religion in order to be moral? George Washington cautioned against “indulg[ing] the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion”, and today more than half of Americans believe morality is impossible without a belief in God.

The idea that religion is important for morality is not just widespread but deeply ingrained. Psychologist Will Gervais has shown that even people who explicitly deny believing in God harbour the intuition that acts such as serial murder and incest are more representative of atheists than of religious people. Of course, prominent atheistic commentators resent any suggestion that the religious have some special claim on moral behaviour. Comedian Tim Minchin said “if you think altruism without Jesus is not altruism, then you’re a dick.”

In Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion he writes: “Faith can be very very dangerous, and deliberately to implant it into the vulnerable mind of an innocent child is a grievous wrong.” In a month when gunmen shouted “Allahu akbar” (God is greatest) while murdering 132 school children in Pakistan, it may be easy to sympathise with this viewpoint.

There is no shortage of spirited rhetoric on this emotive topic, but what does the scientific evidence reveal? Does religion promote moral behaviour? In a new paper published in Psychological Bulletin, Harvey Whitehouse and I explore this issue.

What is religion and what is morality?

The first problem is how to define “religion” and “morality”. This is no mere matter of academic hair splitting. Take religion: what does it actually mean to be religious? Does it mean that one believes in agents or forces that transcend ordinary physical laws? For example, gods, ancestors, or karma? Or that one identifies and affiliates with a certain community or tradition – by being Roman Catholic, Sunni Muslim or Buddhist for example? Or that one attends certain services and partakes in certain ritualistic behaviours? Each of these possible definitions captures phenomena that would not ordinarily be classed as religious – a belief in Santa Claus say, or national or sporting affiliations, or rituals in military settings. What is more, each of these tendencies may be underpinned by different psychological processes, with differential effects on relevant behaviours.

The situation is, if anything, worse where morality is concerned. According to the currently influential Moral Foundations Theory, there is no single morality but rather a set of mutually incompatible and incommensurable moralities, each underpinned by a psychological system specialised for solving a particular adaptive problem. For example, the moral foundation of “fairness” generates ideas about justice and rights, and is thought to have evolved to solve the problem of how best to secure the benefits of two-way partnerships. Depending on your cultural background and political leanings, your personal moral norms may be constructed on a particular subset of these moral foundations. So while some may consider appropriate sexual behaviour to be of primary moral importance (the “sanctity” foundation), for others morality may be more a matter of charitable concern for those who are less well off (the “care” foundation).

To be seen to be doing

Assuming we could all agree on what it means to be religious and what it means to be moral, how might we go about investigating the relationship between them? One common approach simply involves asking people about their beliefs and behaviours. For example, surveys indicate that those who score higher on indices of religiosity – those who report praying regularly, for example – reliably report giving more money to charity.

So does this mean religion promotes charitable behaviours? Not necessarily. There is evidence that religious individuals are more motivated than nonreligious individuals to preserve a moral reputation, so it could be that the religious are more likely to report charitable behaviours simply because they care more about making a charitable impression.

Another problem is that a correlation between religiosity and charity (self-reported or otherwise) does not merit the conclusion that religiosity promotes charitable behaviour. It could be that people with community-minded dispositions are more likely to gravitate toward religion (and more inclined to donate to charity), simply by virtue of those social inclinations.

Religious primers

To circumvent these problems, a number of studies have employed “priming” methods in a bid to establish causal relationships between religious concepts and morally relevant behaviours. In these studies, which began with the seminal work of psychologists Azim Shariff and Ara Norenzayan, religion is not just measured but is “experimentally assigned” to some of the participants.

For example, in a recent study Mark Aveyard had 88 Muslim students listen to an audio recording of a busy city street, and asked them to count the number of vehicle horns they heard. In one condition the Islamic call to prayer could be heard on the recording. The students then took an unsupervised mathematics test on which cheating was possible. Aveyard found that participants exposed to the call to prayer cheated substantially less. This finding is consistent with the results of other priming studies, which have also found that religious priming enhances cooperation and generosity towards others.

So, religion may promote a love for thy neighbour (or at least neighbourly behaviour), but how big is the neighbourhood? The positive picture revealed above is complicated by the results of other studies, which have shown that religious priming also elicits a range of aggressive and prejudicial behaviours. For example, Brad Bushman and colleagues found that participants who read a description of violent retribution commanded by God were more aggressive in a subsequent task than participants who read the same description but with the passage about God’s sanction omitted. And Megan Johnson and colleagues have found that participants primed subliminally with Christian concepts display increased covert racial prejudice and negative affect toward African Americans.

Another recent study by Joanna Blogowska and colleagues revealed that self-reported religiosity predicted the helping of a needy member of the in-group but also physical aggression towards a member of a moral out-group (a gay person).

So, is religion a force for good? Ultimately there may be no easily characterisable relationship between religion and morality. Under the pluralistic approach we advocate decomposing both religion and morality into smaller units, such that the relationship between them fans out into a matrix of separate relationships between more basic elements. So some components of “religion” may promote some components of “morality” just as others suppress the same, or different, components.

In short, in discussing whether religion is a force for good we must be very clear what we mean by religion and what we mean by good. This rather nuanced conclusion may disappoint the polemicists, but – at least until this research field matures – a measure of restraint before we jump to conclusions about whether religion is inherently good or bad may not be such a bad thing.

The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

To follow what's new on Facts & Arts please click here.

Browse articles by author

More Essays

Nov 18th 2020
EXTRACT: "Here are just a few ways exercise changes the structure of our brain."
Nov 15th 2020
EXTRACT: "Perhaps it is Piller’s discovery that when it comes to war there is no such thing as innocence...."
Nov 4th 2020
EXTRACT: "I imagined America as the land of the free that gave voice to the forgotten. Where race, color, and creed do not matter and human rights are guarded with zeal. Where the ingathering of all cultures and people made it richer and human resources and talent knew no limits or constraints. Where opportunity awaits the able and generosity is extended to the needy. Where everyone is equal before the law and political differences are valued to make America better. Where sacrifices are willingly made to right the wrong morals and fortitude guide its leaders. Where caring about friends and allies is the hallmark of the nation and opposing oppression near and far is the emblem that distinguished America. This is the character of America. This is the soul of America. This is what made America great. The America that gave me a home. The America that fulfilled my dreams."
Oct 15th 2020
EXTRACT: "“The paintings which I propose to do will depict the struggles of a people to create a nation and their attempt to build a democracy” – this is how Jacob Lawrence described his project in 1954. Over sixty-five years later his proposal has, if anything, become only more urgent. Two days after this exhibition closes, Americans will vote in what is arguably the most significant election in a generation, an election that will measure our commitment to preserving that democracy, the struggle for which was Lawrence’s mighty theme."
Oct 15th 2020
EXTRACT: "There are also other ways our life stories can be passed down through generations, besides being inscribed in our DNA...... One 2014 study looked at epigenetic changes in mice. Mice love the sweet smell of cherries, so when a waft reaches their nose, a pleasure zone in the brain lights up, motivating them to scurry around and hunt out the treat.... The researchers decided to pair this smell with a mild electric shock, and the mice quickly learned to freeze in anticipation....... The study found this new memory was transmitted across the generations. The mice’s grandchildren were fearful of cherries, despite not having experienced the electric shocks themselves. The grandfather’s sperm DNA changed its shape, leaving a blueprint of the experience entwined in the genes."
Oct 1st 2020
EXTRACT: "As we Americans face the potential loss of a peaceful transition of power after the election and the possible end of democracy as we know it, we are reminded that discourse matters, that words matter and that the one who quotes poetry is a man who reads—and that matters."
Sep 25th 2020
EXTRACT: "We now know the potentially appalling long-term effects of suffering cruelty from others, including damage to both physical and mental health. The benefits of being compassionate towards oneself, rather than treating oneself cruelly, are also increasingly recognised..... And the idea that we must suffer to grow is questionable. Positive life events, such as falling in love, having children and achieving cherished goals can lead to growth..... Teaching through cruelty invites abuses of power and selfish sadism. Yet Buddhism offers an alternative - wrathful compassion. Here, we act from love to confront others to protect them from their greed, hatred and fear. Life can be cruel, truth can be cruel, but we can choose not to be."
Sep 19th 2020
EXTRACT: "Over his incredible career, David Attenborough has seen more of earth’s natural wonders than almost anyone. To hear him talk, with such clarity, about how bad things are getting is deeply moving. Scientists have recently demonstrated what would be needed to bend the curve on biodiversity loss. As Attenborough says in the final scene, “What happens next, is up to every one of us”. "
Sep 15th 2020
EXTRACTS: "The Anglo-Australian multinational company Rio Tinto – the largest iron ore mining company in the world – demolished two 46,000-year-old Aboriginal rock shelters in May.......The Dampier Archipelago of Western Australia is home to thousands of Aboriginal pictographs, and perhaps the oldest surviving rock art in the world. Indeed, Australia’s Indigenous art represents the longest uninterrupted tradition of art in the world – going back over 50,000 years......Aboriginal people represent the oldest continuous culture in the world...."
Sep 13th 2020
EXTRACT: "Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution was a defining event that changed how we think about the relationship between religion and modernity. Ayatollah Khomeini’s mass mobilisation of Islam showed that modernisation by no means implies a linear process of religious decline.....Reliable large-scale data on Iranians’ post-revolutionary religious beliefs, however, has always been lacking...........In June 2020, our research institute, the Group for Analyzing and Measuring Attitudes in IRAN...conducted an online survey......The results verify Iranian society’s unprecedented secularisation."
Sep 12th 2020
EXTRACT: "Just as you can upgrade your old computer’s operating system, culture can evolve even if intelligence doesn’t. Humans in ancient times lacked smartphones and spaceflight, but we know from studying philosophers such as Buddha and Aristotle that they were just as clever. Our brains didn’t change, our culture did."
Sep 2nd 2020
EXTRACT: "Our lab in Cambridge, England, is working with a promising new family of materials known as halide perovskites. They are semiconductors, conducting charges when stimulated with light. Perovskite inks are deposited onto glass or plastic to make extremely thin films – around one hundredth of the width of a human hair – made up of metal, halide and organic ions. When sandwiched between electrode contacts, these films make solar cell or LED devices."
Sep 2nd 2020
EXTRACT: "Bryant, a black man, was sentenced to life in prison for trying to steal hedge clippers from a Louisiana carport storage room in 1997. He has already served twenty-three years for this petty crime, and on 31 July the Louisiana Supreme Court denied a request to review his life sentence. The denial followed a lower appeals court’s 2019 decision that concluded “his life sentence is final.” The only judge on the Louisiana Supreme Court to dissent (or even issue an opinion) was Chief Justice Bernette Johnson. She wrote a stinging rebuke, observing that Bryant’s “life sentence for a failed attempt to steal a set of hedge clippers is grossly out of proportion to the crime and serves no legitimate penal purpose.” "
Aug 18th 2020
EXTRACT: "In 2016, the Brennan Center for Justice reported that as high as 40 percent of prisoners should not be in prison—”behind bars with no compelling public safety reason.” There are literally thousands of young prisoners, Black and white, who are serving life sentences without the possibility of parole for non-violent offences. It is unfathomable that we as a society are spending billions of dollars every year to sustain such pointless cruelty, to inflict needless pain on individuals, fathers and mothers, who pose no threat at all to the public."
Jul 31st 2020
EXTRACT: "From a Kantian standpoint discrimination based on race – or religion, or gender – is fundamentally wrong. It is wrong, first of all, because it is dehumanizing, a denial of human dignity. When I racially discriminate, I am denying the person’s intrinsic self-worth, I am, in fact, denying their very right to exist, whether I know it or not. The moral law demands that I treat every individual as a free person equal to everyone else. If the moral law grants each of us a kind of infinite worth, it does not grant someone greater worth than anyone else."
Jul 12th 2020
EXTRACT: "Remember, your wellbeing is extremely important when supporting someone with depression. Take time for self-care so you can model positive behaviours and be replenished enough to provide this crucial support."
Jul 4th 2020
EXTRACT: "--- Nobody is more dangerous than he who imagines himself pure in heart, for his purity, by definition, is unassailable. --- Author James Baldwin’s words, written in the America of the late 1950s."
Jun 29th 2020
EXTRACT: "Numerous studies have shown that children who grow up in more deprived neighbourhoods tend to have worse physical health as adults compared to those raised in more affluent areas. This is the case even when researchers take into account family income and education, and whether or not parents have major illnesses. In order to address this health disparity, researchers need to understand how those living in disadvantaged neighbourhoods end up with worse health outcomes. Our team’s latest study has highlighted one potential way your childhood neighbourhood may influence your health for years to come. It might do so through changing how the activity of your genes is regulated."
Jun 29th 2020
EXTRACT: "Ruth Poniarski is a painter and the author of Journey of the Self: Memoir of an Artist (Warren Publishing, 2020), in which she tells the story of her decade long struggle with mental illness, a “spiraling malady” which led her into a “pattern of psychosis”. I recently had the opportunity to talk with Poniarski about her life and work, and how she eventually overcame her demons."