Why Religion Is Natural and Science Is Not

A naturalist examines the cognitive and cultural foundations of religion, science, and more

Are Religious People More Moral than Atheists?

The eyes have it (too).

A Memorable Inauguration

                Whether they support the current president or not, Americans of virtually all political persuasions, who saw his inauguration, could not help but make a mental note that they were witnessing a landmark event in American history.  A man of African heritage was taking the oath of office as the new President of the United States.    

                For some Americans a comparably memorable moment occurred during the President's inaugural address a short time later.  The President described the United States as a nation "of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and nonbelievers . . . "  The comment grabbed the attention of many Americans and of probably all of America's atheists, who have rarely, if ever, received such public acknowledgment before, let alone by the nation's chief executive.  

                Many religious Americans found the comment off-putting, as it seems there is no one about whom most Americans are more wary than atheists.  Historically, surveys have shown, for example, that clear majorities of Americans have said that they would not vote for an atheist for president.  Although polling indicates that this anti-atheist bias may have decreased slightly over the last two decades, atheists remain the least trusted group by far, especially among born-again Christians.  Beyond the fact that religious people are less likely to know many atheists well and to interact with them extensively, why are they so leery of them?

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                The major concern appears to be doubts about atheists' morality.  My experiences over the past few months, doing nearly a dozen newspaper and radio interviews in connection with the appearance of my new book, support this conjecture.  For example, one of my interviewers, Dennis Prager pressed the thesis that, all else being equal, religious people will prove more trustworthy than atheists to carry out basic familial obligations such as care for elderly parents

The God Effect

                At first glimpse, what the New York Times dubbed the God Effect seems to support Prager's proposal.  In what is known as the Dictator Game, Azim Shariff and Ara Norenzayan (S&N hereafter) gave participants ten dollars and told them that they could keep or share as much of it as they wanted with a second player, whom they would never meet.  Under such conditions participants keep all or most of the money for themselves, and that is just what S&N's control participants did. 

                By contrast, S&N primed religious concepts in the minds of participants in their experimental group by having them unscramble short lists of words to produce sentences.  The lists included words like "divine" and "prophet," which were used in non-religious senses in the unscrambled sentences -- such as "her dress was divine."  The point about such priming procedures is that the effects that they induce are, presumably, unconscious.  Crucially, when their participants in the experimental group played the one shot, anonymous Dictator Game, they were significantly more generous than the controls, leaving on average $2.38 more.  The religious primes seemed to have elicited greater generosity.

At Second Glimpse, Glimpses Matter

                At second glimpse, however, S&N's findings cause as many problems for the view that religion makes people more moral as they provide evidences for it.  Although twenty-four of their fifty student participants were non-believers, those atheists and agnostics, like all of S&N's participants, had been assigned to the control and experimental groups randomly.  S&N found that these participants were just as susceptible to the unconscious God Effect as religious participants were. 

                More importantly, though, in a second study S&N provided evidence that the effects on their participants may not have been due to anything uniquely religious.  This study was like the first, but S&N incorporated additional checks on their methods.  Instead of students, their participants were community members (with fewer atheists), and they were questioned about the experiment afterward.  S&N also used the scrambled sentences task to produce neutral primes for their control group and legal primes for a third group.  Using words like "civic," "jury," and "contract," the latter condition yielded sentences like "he drives a Civic." 

                This second study replicated the God Effect, but it also revealed a comparable legal institutions effect.  Participants in that third group proved just as generous as those who had had religious concepts primed.  The questioning of participants afterward supported the unconscious impact of priming, since seventy-five of seventy-eight participants were unaware of anything connected with religion in the experiment. 

               

image by Archeologo
Other studies suggest that any conditions that reduce anonymity in such economic games or that even unconsciously cue concerns about reputation generally will engender more moral behavior.  A picture of two eyes on the wall, as opposed to a picture of flowers, was, for example, sufficient to significantly increase the payments for drinks in a lounge using the honor system.  Religious concepts have what it takes to inspire better conduct, but the eyes have it too. 

 

 

Robert N. McCauley, Ph.D., is the author of Why Religion Is Natural and Science Is Not. He is William Rand Kenan Jr. University Professor of Philosophy at Emory University.

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