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The Paradox of Religiosity and Dishonesty

Are religious people really more honest? These findings suggest otherwise.

Key points

  • Most people believe that religious people are more honest than non-religious people.
  • There is convincing evidence that religious people view lying more negatively than non-religious people do.
  • It turns out that religious people lie at least or maybe more than non-religious people do.
  • People may be predisposed toward honesty, even in the absence of religious edicts.

This post was co-authored by my research collaborator, Lindsey Cox.

Studies have shown that religious people are typically viewed as more trustworthy than their non-religious counterparts. On the face of it, this makes sense. Religious people have committed themselves to belief systems in which lying is largely incompatible. Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and other religious faiths may permit some lying in exceptionally narrow cases, but with moral prescriptions such as, “Thou shalt not bear false witness,” all these religions have very clear and firm prohibitions against lying.

With religious edicts commanding the faithful to be honest, we might expect religious folk to be more honest than their less-faithful neighbors. But are they?

Studies Examining Religiosity and Honesty

Previous research has made the clear case that religious people view lying as more morally reprehensible than non-religious people, and this moral objection to dishonesty may even translate into more honest behavior. However, other researchers have offered evidence that there is no real difference in honesty levels between the religious and non-religious.

To help settle this controversy, we recently carried out a large and comprehensive study on this topic. We studied several hundred people from the general population of the United States. For each of them, we assessed their levels of religiosity using several different measures of religious beliefs, practice, and commitment. We also assessed their attitudes about lying and their lying habits using several validated measures.

Religious People May Lie More

One of our key findings was that deeply religious people view lying more negatively than their less-religious counterparts. When it comes to the actual act of lying, however, we found that any connections between religiosity and lying were quite small and inconsistent. However, where they did exist, we found that more religious people were actually more inclined to lie than less religious people. Interestingly, people who were motivated by their religious practices because of external incentives such as socializing and feeling protected were the most inclined to lie.

Taken together, our results indicate that religious people seemed to lie as much or more than people with less religious identity and commitment.

Why Doesn't Religiosity Constrain Lying?

So why don’t religious prohibitions against lying translate into reduced lying among the faithful? One possibility is that one’s religious obligations are simply not on one’s mind at all times. Perhaps lapses into dishonesty simply occur when one’s religious motives are out of mind.

In somewhat of a test of that hypothesis, researchers in a very large study prompted some participants to focus on their religious convictions by having them reflect on the Ten Commandments. Another group of participants was asked to recall non-religious texts. The researchers then placed all the participants in a situation in which they could lie or tell the truth. The results showed that both groups lied in equal amounts, suggesting that engaging with religious beliefs about lying did not affect dishonest behavior.

We have our own sense of why religious and non-religious people lie in similar fashion. Whether people are religious or not, they tend to have a preference for being moral, cooperative, and fair to others. Because we are an innately cooperative species with the social and cognitive hardware that support that prosociality, most people, regardless of religion, have a natural preference for honesty. If that general tendency is common between religious and non-religious folks, religious beliefs about lying may simply be a redundant layer of moral prohibition that merely buttresses a moral imperative already supported by other social commitments. That is, people are already inclined to be honest with each other, so religious rules and reminders around dishonesty have no unique leverage.

Lindsey Cox is a graduate student and a forensic psychology apprentice in a forensic psychology practice in Dallas, Texas.