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  • Writer's pictureTeam Nolmë Labs

How does religion influence morality?

Religion has been around for centuries, passed down generation after generation, held closely to people. A binding agent that keeps societies together - once a surety - is slowly beginning to shift as people fail to see the necessity of it. Yet, believers can’t seem to shake the idea that religion is the means for morality, even as complex justice and police systems have cropped up. The big ticket question, then, is “Does morality truly lie within the sole purview of religion? Are religious people truly more moral?”

To fully understand this topic, it is imperative that we understand what the main foundations of morality are. For a long time, the academic circles understood morality to have two main principles: the harm/care principle and the fairness/justice principle. While this seemed to work at the time, not all moral reasoning could be placed under the two categories when it came to religions; there were too many inexplicable elements. To broaden this understanding, Haidt and Graham created three new categories that are now widely accepted: ingroup/loyalty, authority/respect and purity/sanctity.

The fairness/justice principle is about creating an environment where justice is meted according to shared rules created, wherein discrimination is kept low. Harm/care is concerned with the cherishing of others and their protection. Ingroup/loyalty is about standing with your tribe, shunning betrayal. Patriotism is a great example of this sort of moral principle. Authority/respect pertains to giving into authority figures, respecting traditions and the eschewing of subversion or rebellion. Ideas like respecting elders are based largely on this principle. Finally, purity/sanctity has to do with disgust and abhorrence of things, people, actions or foods. For example, a consensual incestuous relationship being perceived immoral stems from this principle.

The Moral Foundations Theory has immensely helped in understanding the differences and similarities that exist between atheists and theists. Both people base their morals off of the harm/care and fairness/justice principles. However, atheists tend to use just those primarily, whereas religious persons utilize the remaining three principles to a greater extent. Essentially, this means that atheists are less likely to concern themselves, morally, with issues of purity. For example, an atheist and theist alike may realize that a sexist (based on fairness) comment is immoral, but an atheist will be far less likely to consider sex (based on purity) immoral.

While it is true that many religious countries fare poorly on aspects like poverty and crime rate, it is also true that the happiest people are, surprisingly, religious people. To Dawkins and Freud (and many others, I’m sure), religious beliefs are delusions or psychological instabilities, and must be cured. It is worth careful deliberation, then, to understand how true this holds exactly. After all, if most of the world believes in religion, some plausible reasons must exist.

Attempts at rationalizing this satisfaction have been made. One such rationale could be that religious people view a deity as a buffer against fearful thoughts of death and mortality, in the form of afterlife. They may view mistakes as less of a problem, perhaps because of the idea that things happen for a reason. But more importantly, Haidt and Graham believe that the cause behind their happiness pertains to the strong moral communities religious individuals share. Group activities like rituals, congregations and other such theological pursuits have a lasting effect on individuals: these are all related to religious presence and not religious belief. In fact, religious conversions often take place because people enjoy the style of worship, or the services offered - nods to social relationships. Research has found congregational group activities and rituals increase morality, devotion to morality, and the psychological immune system, the last of which was discussed earlier. Social relationships like these have been known to lower suicide rates, and being around people with the imbued sense of morality and similar belief helps lock their well being in. Interestingly, when their secular counterparts indulge in such strong communities, happiness levels are similar; moreover, if these groups were based on shared morality, happiness is expected to be the same.

Another aspect that religious people rank higher on is their prosociality or giving nature. It seems as though religious individuals feel a stronger sense of obligation to serve civic duties than atheistic individuals. This could be because of multiple reasons. Belief in Gods that demand charitable behavior such as Allah demanding compulsory charity (2:43) in Islam, or the Bible that says, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” (Acts 20:35) in Christianity, may play a role in this generosity. It can be chalked down to reputational concerns that individuals may have, believing that their philanthropy will provide them a better image - something that even corporations engage in. However, taking precedence, joining strong social collectives that promote selflessness and charitable behaviors are a hefty motivation for this greater munificence. Just as with happiness then, when social groups are the driving force, and not religious belief, this result can be applied to atheists, as well. Secular organizations that encourage similar behaviors and call for greater interdependence are just as charitable as their religious counterparts.

Many people believe that religion and morality go hand in hand, that without religion, morality can not be kept up. How moral are religious people, though? In a study, participants were asked to select as many coins from 10 one dollar coins as they wanted. They were told that the remaining number of coins would be given to the next participant. Three different groups were made. They were all instructed to perform the same task, but preceding it, they were asked to unjumble some sentences. Two of the groups were primed through this technique, while one was the control group. Priming is a technique used to understand if a stimulus implicitly affects the following action. In this particular study, the task of unjumbling was the method used to prime the participants.

The control group was unprimed, the words in their sentences were neutral. The second group was primed by unjumbling 10 sentences, 5 of them with a religious word (e.g. God, spirit, etc). The last group employed the same priming techniques but this time swapped out the religious primes with secular institutional primes (e.g. court, police, etc).

They found that 40% of the participants in the unprimed group left no money for the next person, whereas of the religious group, only 12% did so. Of people that left a fair 5 dollars, 44% did so from the religious group, but only 28% from the unprimed group. Intriguingly, in keeping with the results of religious priming, secular morality primes had a similar effect.

A greater willingness to be prosocial is seen when both religious and secular concepts were stimulated. One reason for this difference between unprimed and religiously primed groups may be because agents like God and prophet are related to charitable and generous behaviors. Overall, this shows that moral priming had a huge effect as it reminded people of a watchful agent. A fear of surveillance then, could be a major reason for morality, both within atheistic groups, as well as religious groups.

In another experiment, Bering found that mentioning the presence of a ghost made people cheat less. So belief in a supernatural agent watching, curbs cheating behavior. Bateson found that putting a pair of eyes on a donation box increased charity. This is all because people are hyper aware of their surroundings and being watched provides them with a desire to behave their best.

According to Morgan, social control may be exerted at a greater level when there is a religious orientation. The more a person is prayerful, the less angry, upset, hateful they become, and instead, listen more, are friendlier, comfort people more, and more cooperative. However, other research also shows that religious people are prejudiced and intolerant. These opposing views can be better understood if we thought of the distinction between religious devotion and a dogmatic, doctrinal orientation respectively. It is religious devotion then, and not a forceful orientation to religion that makes religious people nicer human beings. Adding to the positive impact of religion, studies show that the greater the religiosity and prayer time, the more charitable a person is. Another reason for prosociality in religious people are their rituals. Their rituals tend to take up a big chunk of their time, and often, their extremities count towards their generosity. For example, A Hindu ritual that involved painful body-piercings ended up increasing charity. Punishing gods may also be the reason for their increased moral behavior as they fear the judgement, and penalties that may come about with disobeying their God.

Interestingly enough though, god primes tend to be ephemeral. A researcher tracked the traffic on pornography websites during a week. It was noted that on Sundays (when Sunday service takes place), traffic to these adult websites went down, but the rest of the week had no such effects. Similarly, when the Aadhan (the Muslim call for prayer) was heard in Moroccan alleys, there was a spike in charity giving. However, these are short term effects, so short in fact, that 20 minutes later, the charity level in those lanes was back to normal.

Essentially, it is both god primes and inner beliefs or dispositions that are able to explain the increase in prosocial behavior. People engage in prosocial behavior because they either think they’re being watched by people or when they believe they’re being watched by some other supernatural agent. When someone gets reminded of God or other religious primes, they start to be high on volunteerism, honesty and anonymous generosity. One thing is for certain, moral behavior is increased by religion.

A few weeks ago, I asked my devout Muslim mother a hypothetical question: would she rather entrust her baby with a gay person, or an atheist? To my immense surprise, she selected the former, her explanation being that atheists would no doubt be amoral and couldn’t possibly be trusted under any circumstances. After all, they don’t hold themselves accountable to a greater being.

According to data, 22 surveyed countries majorly subscribe to this concept. In India, 70% of people believe that religion and morality go hand in hand. Atheists are one of the least liked groups in the world, and this prejudice is lesser spoken of. The reason for this dislike of atheists is because they’re distrusted. People prefer not to vote for an atheist candidate as their representative, nor do they approve their children’s spouses being atheists.

In a series of studies, participants were asked to fill out the identity of a person who had been described in a morally offending position. One of the studies recounted the man to be stealing money when no one was watching. Most people selected the person to be either a rapist or an atheist, over a Christian or a Muslim. Rapists are a universally untrustworthy group, however, atheists were categorized with almost the same level of distrust as rapists.

Historically, religions have bound communities together, engendering mutual cooperation and sustained stability. The functionality of religions is broad, but mainly it is meant to inculcate reciprocal altruism and inclusive fitness. When societies were smaller and close-knit groups, they used religions as a way to keep people in check and expel chaos. However, as societies have grown exponentially in size, the same bonds are not possible to be had with everyone. We have always used trustworthiness as a measure of appraisal of people. In smaller societies, it was easy to know whom to trust., However, in enlarged societies, this isn’t possible. Hence, many religious people end up using religiosity as a proxy for trustworthiness. When they see a non-religious person, they automatically presume that no religion means no morality, and no morality means no trust. This is a huge reason for why people distrust atheists. They feel as though atheists aren’t bound by any deity and couldn’t possibly be as moral as someone with supernatural surveillance is. Additionally, people specifically feel as though atheists are not caring individuals. Under the harm/care principle, an important principle for atheists, it is true that atheists are the least harmful individuals. However, their lack of prosociality leads to their negative perception in the care department.

Although I have been unable to provide an exhaustive view of religion and morality, one can draw certain conclusions. Religiousness does not necessarily mean higher morality at all times, but it does point to some ways of inculcating a better moral society through secular functions only. Western societies are increasingly moving towards non religious communities that do indeed function morally according to the foundations of morality. Is religion necessary for morality? The research seems to point to a strong no. But, religion certainly helps boost morality. Perhaps the take-away here should be that enhancing public religiosity may raise awareness of morality in a society.


Aisha Shaikh (she/her) is a Mental Health Advocate and Social Media Coordinator at Nolmë Labs. She hopes to conduct research on topics like morality, religion, and gender. In her spare time, you'll find her sewing, playing board games, or binging a good old Netflix show.

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