Apr 28, 2011
People’s moral behavior is affected by all sorts of things—mood, anonymity, empathy, hormones, even whether they’re in a clean or dirty location. In recent years, psychological researchers have accrued more and more evidence to support what many have long suspected: that morality is affected by religion. However, the evidence is painting a much more nuanced picture than the simplistic assertion that religion makes people act better.
For one thing, research has consistently shown, for decades now, that when you observe people’s moral behavior, religious people and nonreligious people act very similarly. That is, being religious—on its own—doesn’t seem to make people less likely to cheat, or more likely to be generous to a stranger. One way that religion can increase these types of behavior is if people are compelled to think about it in the moment they are making their moral decision. Research shows that if religious thoughts are implicitly aroused in people’s unconscious, they will be less dishonest and more charitable.
New research with my collaborator Ara Norenzayan has suggested that there is another nuance to the religion-morality relationship: the types of religious beliefs that are held. Specifically, it appears that believing in a vengeful, punishing God is more likely to relate to moral behavior than believing in a loving, forgiving God. In a study we ran with students at the University of British Columbia, those who, days before, had indicated that their view of God skewed more toward the angry, wrathful type were less likely to cheat on a math test than those whose image of God was softer and more comforting. And this difference remained after we statistically controlled for other variables, such as the participants’ sex, ethnicity, personality, and type of religion, which may have accounted for the difference.
This is just one study, done with university students and focused on just one type of moral behavior—cheating. As such, we should be careful not to read too much into the findings. However, other research seems to corroborate that there may be something particularly useful, from a moral perspective, in the institution of supernatural punishment. A few years ago, Robert Barro and Rachel McCleary, a pair of economists at Harvard University, published a study looking at how religion affects the GDP of developing countries. The strongest relationship they found was for belief in hell. It turns out that the greater the rate of belief in hell in a society, the stronger their economy (again this analysis controlled for relevant variables).
But why? Well, if supernatural punishment increases adherence to moral norms, and economic success rests on minimizing corruption and maximizing honest trade, then it makes sense that these types of religious beliefs could have a large scale impact. Indeed, we and others have argued that religious beliefs—and in particular those regarding omniscient, punitive supernatural agents that police our moral behavior—may have been instrumental in producing the level of cooperation required for early societies to grow beyond small groups where everybody knew each other.
None of this means, of course, that people who don’t believe in “mean Gods” can’t be moral. Moral behavior, as I mentioned, is influenced by any number of things, and largely nonreligious societies have found many secular ways to ensure that people follow rules. But if we wanted to isolate what type of God-belief is more likely to encourage moral behavior, the empirical research is converging on an answer: the scary one.
Azim Shariff is a professor of psychology at the University of Oregon.