Is Belief in a Vengeful God More Likely to Promote Moral Behavior Than Belief in a Loving God Is?

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.

Category: Q&A

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4 Responses

  1. Matt Woodley says:

    I’ve read some of this research and I find it fascinating, but the following question is left unclear by the research: How do the researchers define a “mean” God? In the Christian tradition, God is presented as both a judge and a caring Father. Does the research only allow for two mutually exclusive categories? And how mean is the mean God? Does the mean God do nothing except watch for offenders and punish them?

  2. uff the fluff says:

    It seems like quite a stretch to say that an increased incidence of cheating, or a short-term increase in economic growth is a good stand-in for morality. If the belief in a “mean” God is strongly correlated with morality we will need a lot more evidence. It seems like a historical context would be needed as well. For example, were Inquisitors strongly moral? Were Crusaders?

    It seems like we are making awfully broad claims based upon not much evidence.

    It also seems like a bit of a stretch to equate Karma and its consequences with a western conception of Hell.

  3. Tim Harris says:

    This all sounds extraordinarily dubious to me, and vague gesturings about controlling for ‘relevant variables’, a remark that has clearly been put in to make the large claims being made here sound trustworthy, doesn’t make it less so. Did the Japanese all fervently believe in hell (the Christian one) during the period of rapid economic growth, and did this belief disappear with the stagnation of the Japanese economy. The Chinese economy is growing very fast at present; the largest religions in China are basically forms of Taoism (agricultural and spirit cults) and Buddhism. What relevance have these findings in the Chinese case? I am sorry, but you need to give more and better evidence for the very large claims you are making.

  4. Natasha says:

    “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)”

    Is that the Christian hell? And is it only taking GDP into account, or does it take the individual aspect into account? Cause believing in an angry god has definitely not made the people in islamic countries richer. And trust me, belief in the Christian hell hasn’t done anything to improve the financial lives of people in Latin America. On the other hand, countries like Sweden and Denmark, with very high percentages of atheism, seem to be doing pretty well.

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