When God Is Watching You in the Bedroom
The intimate relationship between religion and prosociality.
Posted May 04, 2020
A common theme among the religions of the world is that of a supreme being watching over us, meting out rewards for good behaviors and punishments for bad ones. We see religions organized around such deities among all historical civilizations, and such belief systems remain common around the world today. Observations such as these suggest that belief in God may be a human universal, something built into our DNA.
And yet, studies of hunter-gatherer societies indicate that our prehistoric ancestors had no religion. Hunter-gatherers have spiritual beliefs to be sure—notions about invisible divinities behind the forces of nature. But the concept of a supreme being who sits in judgment of us is foreign to them.
Indeed, hunter-gatherers have no need for a belief that God is watching them. In their small, close-knit clans, everyone knows everyone, and there are no secrets. In other words, they have no need for an old man in the sky who monitors and regulates their behavior, since the group as a whole accomplishes that on its own.
It was only with the rise of agriculture around ten thousand years ago that organized religion emerged. Agriculture meant enormous food surpluses, which fed the many thousands of city dwellers. Cities are anonymous places where it’s easy to harm others for your own benefit—the very definition of evil.
The police can’t be everywhere all the time keeping order in society. However, an omniscient, omnipotent god can be, and so civilizations invented supreme beings and encouraged their citizens to believe in them, just to keep them in line. This, at least, is a common account for the evolution of religion.
In a recent article, Canadian psychologists Christopher Burris and colleagues explored the relationship between religion and prosociality, that is, doing good for another even at a cost to oneself. Specifically, they tested three ideas that have been proposed to explain why thinking that god is watching encourages us to be kind to others:
- The supernatural monitoring hypothesis proposes that we’re motivated to conform to moral expectations if we believe a supreme being is watching us.
- The supernatural reward hypothesis proposes that we’re motivated to conform to moral expectations if we believe a supreme being will reward us for doing so, either in this life or the next.
- The supernatural punishment hypothesis proposes that we’re motivated to conform to moral expectations out of fear that God will punish us for our transgressions.
There’s some evidence supporting each of these three hypotheses, and it could quite likely be the case that each is effective in certain circumstances but perhaps not others.
In the current study, Burris and colleagues considered how being reminded that God is watching influences sexual behavior in young adults. The reason for the focus on sex was twofold. First, sex is one of our most private behaviors. And second, humans have sex for many different reasons. In fact, the researchers came up with a list of 50 different reasons to have sex.
These 50 sexual motives clustered around four common themes, two of which were more selfish than the others, namely:
- Personal gratification, such as having sex because you’re horny.
- Reaction to social circumstances, such as having sex because your partner pressured you to.
The other two themes had a prosocial orientation:
- Emotional intimacy, such as having sex to express love for your partner.
- Desire to reproduce, which tends to be the most highly sanctioned sexual motivation among organized religions.
In this study, college students rated the acceptability of each of these 50 sexual motives on a scale from 1 to 9, where 1 meant “not a good reason” and 9 meant “a very good reason.”
The researchers predicted that the participants would respond more favorably toward prosocial motivations for sex, such as emotional intimacy and desire to reproduce, if they were reminded that a judging God was watching beforehand. Likewise, they should rate selfish reasons, such as personal gratification, less favorably.
However, the researchers feared that overtly mentioning God would make the purpose of the experiment obvious, so they resorted to subliminal suggestion instead. Ample research shows that stimuli presented for a small fraction of a second aren’t consciously perceived even though they do briefly influence people’s attitudes. In the current study, a subliminal suggestion appeared before each of the sexual motives that the participants rated.
The researchers created subliminal suggestions for each of the three hypotheses about religion and prosociality. The supernatural monitoring hypothesis was tested with the subliminal suggestion, “God is watching,” the supernatural reward hypothesis with “God is smiling,” and the supernatural punishment hypothesis with “God is frowning.” Likewise, to explore the proposal that an all-seeing God serves as a proxy for human observers, the researchers constructed three parallel subliminal suggestions: “People are watching”; “People are smiling”; and “People are frowning.” Finally, the neutral prompt “People are walking” provided a baseline for comparison with the other groups.
When participants were simply reminded that either God or people were watching, they showed no shift toward prosocial sex motives compared with baseline. Likewise, there was no shift when they were reminded that God or people were smiling. In other words, the study failed to support the supernatural monitoring and supernatural reward hypotheses.
In contrast, participants responded more favorably to prosocial motives and less favorably toward selfish motives when they were reminded that God or people were frowning. Thus, the supernatural punishment hypothesis was supported in this study.
Interestingly, about a quarter of the participants in this study reported their religion as Christian, about another quarter as “Other,” and nearly half as either non-religious or atheist. And yet, the same pattern of results obtained whether the participant espoused a belief in God or not. This result certainly attests to the persistent power of religious belief in our society, such that even those who reject religion cannot fully escape from it.
The other interesting result of this study was that it didn’t matter whether the participants were being punished by God or by other people. In either case, they were motivated more toward benefiting others and less toward themselves. This finding provides further support for the proposal that a supreme being serves as a proxy for human observers to encourage prosociality in anonymous societies.
The eighteenth-century French philosopher Voltaire famously said, “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.” Clearly, the sage understood the role that belief in a supreme deity plays in regulating human behavior in modern societies.
Burris, C. T., Rempel, J. K., & Viscontas, T. (2020). Sins of the flesh: Subliminal disapproval by god or people decreases endorsement of hedonistic sex. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, 12, 223-230.