Sam Foster/Flickr
Source: Sam Foster/Flickr

Many people argue about the role of religion in our moral lives. Some claim it is harmful, other say religion is helpful.

A new argument about the function of religion comes from an idea called moral dyad theory.

Developed by researchers Kurt Gray and Daniel Wegner (2010), moral dyad theory is about how people think about perpetrators and victims of harm. Specifically, when something good or bad has happened, people tend to identify a moral agent (a “doer”) and a moral patient (a “receiver”).

This is a dyadic structure. This means we need a victim and a perpetrator fulfill the template.

Furthermore, the researchers state that this dyadic structure leads people to identify a moral agent when they see a moral patient. More specifically, when people view a person who is suffering, they perceive a victim. Therefore, to complete the moral dyad, they must find a moral agent (a perpetrator).

Put differently, if we see suffering, we tend to look for someone to blame.

In their paper, Gray and Wegner review a study in which they presented participants with a survey to understand how people think about the minds of God along with other entities. Researchers identified various characteristics and grouped them into two broad categories.

They labeled the first category “Experience.” This is the ability to feel. Experience entails feelings and emotions like hunger, pain, embarrassment, and joy.

The second category is “Agency.” This is the capacity for planning, careful reasoning, and moral responsibility. When suffering is present, people are eager to identify an entity responsible for the harm—a moral agent.

Moreover, researchers suggest people possess a Hyperactive Agent Detection Device. This is a mental module easily activated to attribute events in the environment—especially harm—to an agent. When people see suffering, they see a moral patient (or victim). In order to complete the moral dyad, people seek an entity (a perpetrator) to assign moral blame.

Additionally, Gray and Wegner suggest that individuals are more likely to assign moral blame if they perceive an entity to have the capacity for Agency rather than Experience.

To put it another way, we judge people to be deserving of punishment if we think they have the capacity for Agency. But for those who we perceive to have the capacity for Experience, but not Agency, we do not assign moral blame.

This is where God comes in. When individuals see suffering and no obvious moral agent, they may be driven to identify the ultimate moral agent: God. In the mind survey, participants assigned the highest Agency rating and the lowest Experience rating to God. For many people, God is the ultimate agent, but cannot be a recipient of harm. God thinks, but doesn’t feel.

Then there’s moral typecasting theory. According to this idea, people generalize the roles within a specific interaction to other interactions as well. If a person is a victim in one case, we have a difficult time thinking of them as a perpetrator in another case. If a person is a perpetrator, we have a hard time thinking of them as a victim. One implication of this idea is that a moral agent cannot be seen as a victim, and a moral patient cannot be viewed as an agent.

Applying moral typecasting theory, Gray and Wegner argue that God’s lack of Experience stems from his role as a moral agent.

Gray and Wegner argue that people believe in God in part because when they see suffering, they aim to complete their moral dyad. They see a victim, and search for a moral agent.

They state that promiscuously assigning agency is a function of the Hyperactive Agency Detection Device, and that this device may be evolutionarily beneficial. For instance, human ancestors who frequently detected agency where none existed were more likely to survive than humans who failed to detect agency when it was present.

Our desire to complete our moral dyads still exists even for those of us who are not religious. An interesting question is how some non-religious people complete their moral dyads.

In a recent New York Times article, psychologist Clay Routledge describes his research on religious belief. He reviews surveys showing that non-religious Americans are more likely to believe in ghosts, UFOs, and government conspiracies. Routledge then describes his own findings, stating, “The less religious participants were, we found, the less they perceived their lives as meaningful. This lack of meaning was associated with a desire to find meaning, which in turn was associated with belief in U.F.O.s and alien visitors.”

Perhaps this extends to morality as well. Some of the non-religious among us might seek culpable moral agents not rooted in scripture.

Moral dyad theory and moral typecasting are elegantly described in the book The Mind Club by psychologists Daniel Wegner and Kurt Gray. The question of who has a mind, and our intuitions about moral blame and victimhood, are far from settled. But moral dyad theory helps to explain one purpose of religious belief, and how we think about who to blame for suffering.

You can follow Rob on Twitter here: @robhendersonEW. 

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Gray, H. M., Gray, K., & Wegner, D. M. (2007). Dimensions of mind perception. science, 315(5812), 619-619.

Gray, K., & Wegner, D. M. (2010). Blaming God for our pain: Human suffering and the divine mind. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 14(1), 7-16.

Routledge, C., Abeyta, A. A., & Roylance, C. (2017). We are not alone: The meaning motive, religiosity, and belief in extraterrestrial intelligence. Motivation and Emotion, 41(2), 135-146.

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