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Ethical Conduct in the Moral Right

Are religious people really more ethical than atheists?

Members of a religion are obliged to comply with its ethical principles. How good are religious people at living up to what is expected of them? Are they more ethical than atheists, for example? Let's review the evidence.

World history
Students of world history recognize that when there are real conflicts of interest, religion, however pacifist in principle, does not restrain warlike impulses and there are many so-called religious wars. These generally have little to do with theological differences and are mostly sparked by friction over vital resources, like land, oil, or employment opportunities. The religious war in Northern Ireland revolved around jobs and houses held by Protestants and desired by Catholics, for instance.

Bad people
There is a high level of religious faith in jails, even among the most violent and depraved offenders. Criminal convictions and long prison terms (or even the death penalty) may encourage prisoners to reflect on the error of their ways. Religious conversion in such cases is a sort of "plea bargain" according to which more lenient treatment is anticipated from parole boards, prison officials, and even in the next life. The fact that some of the worst people can be so religious implies that religiosity is no guarantee of ethical behavior.

Despite a widespread perception that religious people should behave more ethically in general, researchers find little evidence that religious people either think or behave more ethically (1). One study, found that atheists were significantly less likely than religious students to cheat on an exam (2).

Psychologists find that religious belief stunts moral development, because it commits people to a dogma, or formula, rather than working out ethical solutions for themselves (the highest stage of moral development known as post-conventional morality).

Fundamentalist religions may undermine moral reasoning. People who "know" that they are saved, may be relatively unconcerned about who is hurt by their actions in this world. A Roper survey found that after being "born again," people are more likely to drive drunk, use illegal drugs, and engage in illicit sex (3).

Religious texts exhort people to behave charitably and with compassion but social scientists over the decades find little evidence of this affecting actions. Among the research findings assembled by sociologist Alfie Kohn (4), were the following:

A 1950 study of Episcopalians found no relationship between involvement in religious activities and charitable acts.

A 1960 questionnaire study found that belief in God was only slightly related to altruism. Attendance at religious services was completely unrelated to altruism.

In 1984, interviews with 700 residents of a medium-sized city found that religious people were not particularly good citizens, as determined by involvement with neighbors and participation in local organizations.

People who rescued Jews in Nazi Germany were not any more religious than non rescuers.

Religious people are more intolerant of ethnic minorities.

A 1992 Gallup study (5) showed, however, that church members are more likely to claim they make charitable donations than non members are (78 percent vs. 66 percent).

A 2006 study found that among developed countries, those with a higher proportion of religious believers had more homicides, more teen births, and more venereal disease (5).

A 2008 study of ethics in high schools (6) found little difference between religious and secular independent schools in self-reported stealing (19 vs. 21 percent, respectively), or lying to parents (83 vs. 78 percent), but cheating was more common in religious schools (63 vs. 47 percent).

If indeed there are ethical differences between religious believers and atheists, a galloping horse wouldn't notice the difference. Neither can a catholic priest. According to the late Rev Richard John Neuhaus:

One would like to think that people who think of themselves as devout Christians would also behave in a manner that is in accord with Christian ethics. But pastorally and existentially, I know that that is not the case - and never has been the case.

1. Barber, N. (2004). Kindness in a cruel world: The evolution of altruism. Amherst, NY: Prometheus.
2. Clark, B. (1994). How religion impedes moral development. Free Inquiry, 14(3), 23-25
3. Freethought Today, September 1991, p. 12.
4. Kohn, A. (1990) The brighter side of human nature: Altruism and empathy in everyday life. New York: Basic.
5. Wuthnow, R (1994). God and mammon in America. New York: The Free Press.
6. Josephson Institute (2008). Report card on the ethics of American youth.