Are theists more moral than non-theists, or is it the other way round? Do theists and non-theists think very differently about ethics?
It used to be easy to argue about these questions because everyone had a story to tell and no-one had any scientific evidence. But nowadays psychologists and others are undertaking scientific studies of religious belief, and have some answers.
Three things I’m not saying
Let’s clear some possible misconceptions before we start.
- This post and these studies are not discussing the logical basis for ethics, which is relevant to the moral argument for the existence of God, but the findings of studies on how people actually behave.
- Neither do these studies say anything direct about the existence of God – the conclusions could be equally true if God exists or if he doesn’t.
- These studies make generalisations based on statistics, but make no claim that everyone behaves the same.
A recent review article
A recent review article in Trends in Cognitive Sciences summarises some of the latest research on ethics and religion. Based on research in the US, it makes the following points.
1. Theists have more social relationships than non-theists
Theists tend to have more and closer relationships, because they generally belong to a religious community.
2. Theists are more charitable, especially to insiders
More close social relationships tends to lead to greater happiness and greater generosity and prosociality (= “voluntary behaviour intended to benefit another”). However this is most likely to be directed towards other members of the group, and can lead to greater prejudice towards outsiders – like atheists, gays or ethnic minorities.
Another study defined this propensity in a little more detail, and concluded that “religion makes you prejudiced but [personal belief in] God doesn’t”.
Atheists have the same tendencies, but less strongly because of their looser social connections.
3. Theists and non-theists have different moral motivations
More moral behaviour can be induced in both groups. Theists are more likely to be moral when thinking about God – belief that God is monitoring their actions adds to societal scrutiny to provide a strong motivation to act unselfishly. Non-theists are not motivated by any ideas of God, but are more likely to behave morally if they have trust in the policing and legal system (factors which can influence theists also).
The theists’ motivation proves the stronger of the two. “Although the drive to appear virtuous to others is all but universal, it is especially pronounced among theists.”
4. Objective and subjective ethics
Theists tend to see morality as objective whereas non-theists tend to see it as subjective. This tends to lead to different assessments of the morality of some actions.
For example, theists and atheists agree that harm and injustice are moral issues, but generally only theists see loyalty to the group, obedience to authority and sexual “purity” as moral issues.
5. Non-theist morality is more utilitarian
Theists tend to be deontological (= morality is about the duty to follow moral rules) whereas non-theists tend to be utilitarian (= the morally right thing to do is what results in the greatest good for the greatest number of people).
6. A common humanity
Regardless of these differences, there is also much in common. Both groups tend to agree about the immorality of torture and unjust harm, and the moral desirability of justice, compassion and reciprocity.
Studies apparently show that, even from infancy, people tend towards prosociality, but have to learn not to behave this way.
A few reflections
Few of these conclusions are surprising. The various attitudes and approaches tend to follow from the basic theistic or non-theistic beliefs. But it is interesting to have them confirmed by studies.
Improved understanding vs crude mockery
Both groups can use these findings in ways that help or hinder the establishment of a peaceful and tolerant society. Each side can try to understand and work with the particular emphases of the other group. Or not. The paper concludes:
the two groups are united in what could be considered ‘core’ intuitive preferences for justice and compassion. Although the two groups may sometimes disagree about which groups or individuals deserve justice or their compassion, these core moral intuitions form the best basis for mutual understanding and intergroup conciliation.
A challenge for christians
Although these conclusions present christianity in a generally favourable light, I believe they also pose a challenge to christians.
They’ll know we are christians by our love?
If christians really are motivated by the love of God, shouldn’t they be less prejudiced and more loving towards outsiders and minorities, including atheists and gays?
Love vs rules
I don’t believe following rules is the essence of christian belief, even if it may be true for other religions. Jesus taught an ethic of loving behaviour, and Paul speaks against following rules – both of which seem closer to utilitarianism, though not the same.
If even children people tend towards prosociality, and have to learn to behave differently, what does that say about the christian doctrine of original sin (a doctrine I don’t necessarily subscribe to in all its forms)?