Religion and morality

A study published this week in Current Biology which found children who grew up in non-religious homes are more altruistic, generous, kind, empathic and sensitive to injustices than those who come from religious homes, brought into focus again the long-held belief and self-assertion by religious people that religion and morality are closely linked, and if you are religious, you are a more moral, honest, and trustworthy person – a better person.

Religious people often report on how much they give and how charitable they are, but studies continue to indicate there is no positive relationship between religiosity and everyday moral behaviour.

This led to the consideration that some religious people may exaggerate their charitable activities, or that they are more vocal about it than their non-religious counterparts.

As a general rule, however, the person who truly believes in God, and who has some sense of the moral principles set forth in the Bible, is a better person. He is less likely to be feared in the neighborhood, and is more likely to be a savoring influence in his community.
The connection between religion and morality, Christian Courier

Some even assert a lack of faith implies a lack of morals, and morality cannot exist without faith in a creator.

… without God, there is no basis for morality.
Exploring Christianity – morality, Exploring Christianity

This self-asserting religious ‘moral superiority’ has long been accepted by society as a given, and for a long time it was well-reflected in polls, such as polls showing in the United States that most people would not vote for an atheist president. However, such attitudes are slowly changing as more and more people are realising this religious self-assertion, and long-held belief, about an implied connection between faith and higher morality is simply incorrect, and not borne out by the facts.

You can have your own beliefs, but you can’t have your own facts.

ChildrenThe study published in Current Biology is the latest in a long line of research scientifically debunking the mythological link between religion and morality. It involved 1,170 children aged between 5 and 12 years from six countries, Canada, China, Jordan, Turkey, the United States, and South Africa.

It showed parents in religious households believed their children have more empathy and sensitivity for justice. However, the children’s attitudes and behaviours observed in the course of the study contradicted those expectations. Children from non-religious homes were in fact more generous than their counterparts …

Consistent with research linking religiousness and adult self-reports of moral behavior, frequency of religious attendance, spirituality, and overall religiousness predicted parent-reported child sensitivity to the plight of others (empathy and sensitivity to justice). Religious individuals consistently score higher than non-religious ones on self-reported measures of socially desirable responding. This previous literature, coupled with the current findings, supports an internal consistency in adults’ self-assessments of their moral dispositions and extends to their beliefs about their children.

Children from religious households are more likely to be identified by their parents as more empathic and more sensitive to the plight of others. They also believe that interpersonal harm is more “mean” and deserving of harsher punishment than non-religious children. Thus, children who are raised in religious households frequently appear to be more judgmental of others’ actions, while being less altruistic toward another child from the same social environment, at least when generosity is spontaneously directed to an ambiguous beneficiary.

While there is a gap between children’s knowledge of fairness and their actual behavior between 3 and 8 years of age, it cannot explain the negative impact of religiosity on altruism. The phenomenon of moral licensing is well established in a variety of domains including prosocial behavior. It can disinhibit selfish behavior and reduce prosocial behavior and may account in explaining how children raised in religious households, who are perceived to be more empathetic and sensitive to justice, are in fact less altruistic to their own class mates.
The negative association between religiousness and children’s altruism across the world, Current Biology, 5 November 2015

This study is not the first to bring into question the linking of morality to religion.

Data obtained in 2013 by Patheos under a Freedom of Information Act request from the United States Federal Bureau of Prisons revealed the religious affiliations of the United States’ 218,000 federal prisoners. Only 0.07% of those prisoners identified as atheist, and 17% reported no religious preference, but did not identify as a non-believer.

Conversely, 28.7% identified as Protestant and 24% as Catholic.

Keeping in mind these are self-reported religious affiliation, it still indicates there are a significant number of people in prison who profess to be religious. If ‘godlessness’ was an indication of a lack of morality, you would expect to see a higher representation of atheists in prison. And conversely, if religion was as closely linked to morality as many assert, you would expect to see a much lower, close to zero, number of religious people incarcerated for crimes.

Phil Zuckerman, Professor of Sociology at Pitzer College in Claremont, California, researched the connection between religiosity, morality and criminality extensively, and his conclusions were published in Sociology Compass in 2009:

If religion, prayer, or God-belief hindered criminal behavior, and secularity or atheism fostered lawlessness, we would expect to find the most religious nations having the lowest murder rates and the least religious nations having the highest. But we find just the opposite.

Murder rates are actually lower in more secular nations and higher in more religious nations where belief in God is deep and widespread (Jensen, 2006; Paul, 2005; Fajnzylber et al., 2002; Fox and Levin, 2000). And within America, the states with the highest murder rates tend to be highly religious, such as Louisiana and Alabama, but the states with the lowest murder rates tend to be among the least religious in the country, such as Vermont and Oregon (Ellison et al., 2003; Death Penalty Information Center, 2008).

Furthermore, although there are some notable exceptions, rates of most violent crimes tend to be lower in the less religious states and higher in the most religious states (United States Census Bureau, 2006).

Finally, of the top 50 safest cities in the world, nearly all are in relatively non-religious countries, and of the 8 cities within the United States that make the safest-city list, nearly all are located in the least religious regions of the country (Mercer Survey, 2008).
Atheism, secularity, and well-being: How the findings of social science counter negative stereotypes and assumptions, Phil Zuckerman (2009)

A 2013 study published in the journal Theoretical Criminology titled ‘With God on my side: The paradoxical relationship between religious belief and criminality among hardcore street offenders,’ questioned the usefulness of religious instruction in the prevention of crime, finding religion could in fact encourage crime in some offenders:

Despite the deterrent effects of religion that have been highlighted in prior research, our results indicate that religion may have a counterintuitive criminogenic effect in certain contexts. Through purposeful distortion or genuine ignorance, the hardcore offenders we interviewed are able to exploit the absolvitory tenets of religious doctrine, neutralizing their fear of death to not only allow but encourage offending.

There is even emerging scientific evidence of ‘moral’ behaviour in animals. If even apes can tell wrong from right, show empathy and demonstrate the basic components of what we commonly refer to as ‘morality,’ perhaps humans can manage the same naturally, without ‘divine intervention’?

Is it about time for religious people to set aside their hypocritical self-asserted ‘moral superiority’, and accept the distinct possibility they are no better than the rest of us non-believers and, overall, religion doesn’t play as much a role, if any, in goodness and morality as they would like to believe?

If people are good only because they fear punishment, and hope for reward, then we are a sorry lot indeed.
Albert Einstein (1879-1955)


  1. Ed Hollison

    I just came across this post flipping around my WordPress reader. I’m a person of faith, an economist, and a blogger, so as you’d imagine it resonated with me.

    I’m sympathetic to the argument, which might surprise you considering I actually believe in God. However, there are some issues with the studies. Mostly this is related to the fact that non-religious people and societies tend to have characteristics that also correlate with low incidence of crime and other evidence of immoral behavior. In other words, it is hard to prove one way or another a causal relationship between religiousness and moral behavior, because there are many secondary factors.

    So, for instance, it could be that religious people in the US end up in prison at higher rates because religious people in this country are more likely to be poor and black. Given that there are studies showing rich white kids and poor black kids use drugs at similar rates but are incarcerated for drug crimes at very different rates, it might be hard to conclude that religious belief is actually causing illegal behavior.

    Same with countries. The countries where people don’t believe in God at high rates are mostly in Europe (I suppose Japan too?), and are generally rich. It could be that wealth and income are the real drivers of what we’d call immoral behavior. Perhaps economic desperation rather than actual belief is what is driving these outcomes in these places. Hard to say.

    Now, as for what I actually think… I think reported religious belief is probably a poor measure of a person’s actual degree of religious belief. This is actually a theme that appears over and over again in religious texts, that you can’t tell what’s truly in someone’s heart, and even an individual him or herself can not truly know the state of their own soul. They can only try and be the best person they can, while praying for faith and to continue being good. In fact, in my personal experience, usually when a person brags about his or her religious fervor or their level of spirituality, that may in fact be an indicator that they lack those qualities.

    I believe in God and consider myself a Baha’i, but even I hesitate when someone asks if I’m religious, mostly because I hesitate to be associated with other religious people. The old-world style of religious belief and practice, the kind that pits science against faith and promotes narrow-minded, provincial thinking, is no longer relevant for the age we live in. Either a new style of religion — one characterized by humility, a respect for science, and open-mindedness — will emerge and become the norm, or religion will essentially die out. I’m hoping the former.


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