The late Christopher Hitchens famously wrote that religion poisons everything. One aspect of this sort of conclusion is the claim that religious people do more harm than good. As Stephen Weinberg once said:
With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil—that takes religion.
So, does religion help people behave better or worse?
Science on religion
One of my favourite blogs is Science on Religion, in which staff and students at Boston University’s Religion and Science program present “news and views relating to the scientific study of religion”. Here you can get all sorts of factual information on religious belief, instead of uninformed opinion.
Does religion help people behave well?
Science on religion has reported on several studies that provide some answers:
Generosity in giving
Not conservatives, but religious people, more charitable reports on US studies that show that people who attend religious services regularly give far more to charities, both secular and religious ones, than do those who don’t. The important factor seems to be attendance, not the actual belief.
Non-religious people who attend civic meetings regularly give as much to secular charities as do religious people, but the religious attenders give far more to religious charities as well.
Studies reported in Does religion make us moral? show that, in the USA at any rate:
Religion does actually seem to make people more altruistic and generous. Religious people give more to charities than non-religious people, including secular charities. …. Meanwhile, lab experiments show that participating in religious rituals primes people to be more generous and caring toward one another.
However it isn’t all good news. Religious participation has some detrimental effects, for example it often inspires people to be prejudiced against outsiders and minorities, although this effect is diminishing in the USA, and it only applies to some forms of religiosity:
Religiosity that emphasized external rewards and social acceptance was associated with negative feelings toward members of other races, while religiousness that was focused on internal, subjective goals wasn’t.
This suggests to me that christians who believe they are responding to God’s freely-given love for us would behave well, while those who attend church out of social conformity would not.
Does religion turn people into haters?
These conclusions are supported by Polish, Iranian and US studies reported in Does religion turn people into haters?, which investigated three different forms of religiosity:
- intrinsic religiosity, where belief and behaviour is “internal and self directed”; such people are “often described as taking their religious beliefs seriously as ends in themselves.”
- extrinsic religiosity, where religious behaviour is directed toward non-religious ends such as wanting to fit into the community.
- quest religiosity, spiritual seeking separate from formal religion.
All three studies found that, if provoked, people were more likely to support violence against their perceived enemies – except the intrinsically religious (and this included Muslims as well as Christians), who were more likely to be less hostile and suspicious towards outsiders.
One of the studies explained these results by observing that when placed under threat, people responded according to the values they felt were most important. For intrinsic believers, these were the ethical values of compassion and kindness, whereas for the extrinsically religious, the strongest values are those of protecting their tribe or social group. The report concludes:
This imbalanced dynamic ensures that religion’s role in human affairs will continue to be as complicated and problematic as it always has been. The only difference is that now we might remove some of the blame from “religion” and put it where it belongs: on the laps of religious people who don’t understand, or willfully ignore, the ethical teachings of the traditions they so earnestly espouse.
Heartfelt religious belief encourages compassionate behaviour, but external religious observance is less likely to.
Belief vs unbelief – a more detailed assessment, with references.
Photo: Salvation Army