It’s Official: Religion Doesn’t Make You More Moral

Sep 30, 2014

Image credit: Pascal Deloche/Getty

By Elizabeth Picciuto

Suppose you actually do have an angel over your shoulder telling you the right thing to do. That angel probably wouldn’t tell you anything you didn’t already know. A recent study in Science aimed at uncovering how we experience morality in our everyday lives suggests that religious people are no more moral—or immoral—than non-religious people. Whether or not we believe that divine precepts give us guidance, our behavior is remarkably similar.

The fact that atheists are apparently as moral as believers will be counterintuitive to some. In Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, Dmitri Karamazov famously worries, “But what will become of men then…without God and immortal life? All things are lawful then, they can do what they like?”

In late 2007, when Mitt Romney was still uncertain whether he could win the GOP presidential primary, he made a speech on religion to reassure a leery electorate. His Mormon faith was no reason to reject his candidacy, he argued. What really mattered was that he was religious, and thus had the same moral beliefs as other religious people. “Freedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom,” he said, insinuating that a free but godless people might form an unruly mob. Later in the speech, he added, “Whether it was the cause of abolition, or civil rights, or the right to life itself, no movement of conscience can succeed in America that cannot speak to the convictions of religious people.”

Yet Dmitri Karamazov and Mitt Romney are likely wrong. People who don’t fear that justice will be meted out in an afterlife are apparently no more vicious, cruel, or licentious than a believer.


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27 comments on “It’s Official: Religion Doesn’t Make You More Moral

  • His Mormon faith was no reason to reject his candidacy, he argued.

    Fortunately enough voters recognised that the second “m” in Mormon is silent!

    What really mattered was that he was religious, and thus had the same moral beliefs as other religious people.

    Which looking objectively around the world, only the faith-thinking brain-addled would believe!

    “Freedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom,” he said, insinuating that a free but godless people might form an unruly mob.

    The religious right, usually become unruly mobs when restraints are removed or enforcement lacking!

    Later in the speech, he added, “Whether it was the cause of abolition, or civil rights, or the right to life itself, no movement of conscience can succeed in America that cannot speak to the convictions of religious people.”

    Ah! The convictions of “morally” self confident religious people!

    http://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Kent_Hovind

    Kent Hovind (or, to use his correct academic title, Mr. Kent Hovind) is an Independent Baptist young Earth creationist and convicted felon from Pensacola, Florida. He promoted young Earth creationism and dominionist views in lectures and videos sold through his Creation Science Evangelism organization, and started Dinosaur Adventure Land, a small amusement park in his backyard.

    In November 2006, he was convicted on a variety of tax-related charges, and received a 10-year sentence. Hovind is scheduled for release in summer 2015 [1] but faces further criminal charges before then.

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  • I don’t see how morality received from an external authority can be described as moral – by definition it is amoral. If you absolve yourself of the responsibility to decide for yourself whether an action is morally justifiable then you have no way of knowing whether the external moral arbitrator is telling you what is moral or not.
    Of course this is using the definition of morality as that which promotes the maximum welfare but I know that many religious people define morality as being their gods will so you have to be careful of definitions when you argue these kinds of topics.
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  • There are different kinds of ethical analysis. What you are talking about is what philosophers usually call meta-ethics, the study of the fundamental nature of morality, questions such as can we develop a proof or inductive argument that derives ethics from first principles. That’s a very interesting question, actually IMO much more interesting than this article but kind of a tangent. What this article is talking about is what philosophers usually call normative (or applied or descriptive) ethics: given a “common sense” definition of what is ethical behavior that most people in the society agree upon how do people in that society measure up to the ethical ideal? You can study that even if you think that down deep the logical foundation for ethics is poorly defined or even as Socrates (or Hume) might argue impossible to define.
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  • Whether it was the cause of abolition, or civil rights, or the right
    to life itself, no movement of conscience can succeed in America that
    cannot speak to the convictions of religious people.

    A curiously worded phrase. Certainly true because since most people in the US are religious ANY cause of any kind can only succeed if it speaks to the convictions of at least a majority of religious people. But read literally it declares that religious people need to be persuaded away from their previous stance into a new one in order for a movement of conscience to succeed. Meaning, of course, that for a long time those good religious folks were on the wrong side of the argument.

    And it never ceases to amaze me how faith-heads bring up abolition, as if those in support of slavery weren’t all Christians too.
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  • Hi there,

    I wonder if anyone has had a friend or family member who has joined a religious cult? i have a friend, who used to be a close friend when i was college, but who has since joined a cult. I wont give the name of the cult, as i don’t want to start a flame war.it is one based on eastern mysticism however with a guru who is regarded as divine/semi-divine. Talk about not listening to reason! I wonder if anybody has experience of cult members and their thinking. It is no good giving them a book by Dennett or Dawkins to read, because they already know its wrong before having read it. also, this cult uses a lot of ‘woo-woo’ and talks about science, quantum physics, spiritual evolution etc. It is harder to argue against because they say they are not at all against science, and that science proves their cult beliefs. ie ‘we believe in evolution, but it is the evolution of the soul through karma’ etc. harder to argue against, but still BS.

    I sometimes think the atheists are a bit soft on eastern religions such as buddhism and hinduism, because it is more fashionable and seems less of a threat to secular society. I mean, in a way, non violent meditating buddhists are better than the muslim suicide bombers, as Sam Harris suggests. however, it was good to see Dawkins take on Deepak Chopra.

    the central thesis, that I can see, which is the main difference between rational people and non-rational people, at least my friend in this cult, is the belief in a kind of spiritual reality. the rest of the craziness seems to follow this.
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  • I dislike the use of the word Moral versus Ethics. Moral suggests there is some kind of decency and righteousness involved and it’s use towards human sexuality and nudity is distorted and breeds hypocrisy and double lives rendering such morality nothing more than a cover for what would be considered deviancy.

    Where as Ethics is the use of reasoning to arrive at the correct course of action. Based on the best interest for everyone. Since people share this planet, it is in their interest to be ethical in their behavior. Which means predetermining if their actions will be harmful and if it is ethically justified such as in the case of self defense.

    Why does religion and the fear of gods work so well to control people ? To unite and to divide ?
    People who have nothing wrong with how their brain is wired normally do not need the fear of gods to tell them right from wrong. Even those who have a psychopathic brain can have some restraint in their own interest.

    http://www.smithsonianmag.com/ist/?next=/science-nature/the-neuroscientist-who-discovered-he-was-a-psychopath-180947814/

    I would like them to compare the brains of popes and bishops and priests as well as other so called holy and moral people to see if they too have a psychopathic brain because you have to have some kind of brain damage to lie about something that has affected people in the most negative ways…
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  • OP :

    In Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, Dmitri Karamazov famously worries, “But what will become of men then…without God and immortal life? All things are lawful then, they can do what they like?”

    A character in a book expresses a concern, and suddenly it’s interpreted as the author’s point of view. That seems quite absurd to me, quite apart from the absurd concern of the character involved. And as for the absurd religious views of Mitt Romney, well the less said the better.

    His God flooded the world and killed nearly everyone off, His son threatens me with the lake of fire for not believing in Him. Not much to worship or even admire in the morality of those two. Oh and didn’t the Holy Ghost impregnate a young married girl ?

    Christians can keep their “objective” morality.
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  • His Mormon faith was no reason to reject his candidacy, he argued.

    Fortunately enough voters recognised that the second “m” in Mormon is silent!

    My first good chuckle of the day. Thanks, A4D!
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  • Comparing morality/ethics of the religious to non-believers sets the wrong bar. Religions are predominantly divisive and exclusionary. That in-group mentality alone leads to varying degrees of prejudice and intolerance, what we agree today as unethical traits. Religions further prescribe “proper” behavior dictated from absolute authority, a form of despotism Christopher Hitchens called “a celestial North Korea”. The unquestioned beliefs often lead to defense of one’s deity no matter the issue, beyond all reason, at the detriment of necessary, constructive moral/ethical discussions.
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  • 19
    Robert says:

    That seems the larger point here, that the religious insist on an objective morality, however flimsy the notion. So much else falls out of this, the “need” for an objective arbiter, the “need” for ruthless justice for those who either fail to adhere to artificial, confused, self-contradictory standards that often call for and reward otherwise immoral behaviors, or simply fail to recognize these standards as pertinent. The “need” to convert others to a line of often irrational belief, instead of a line of thought. The religious have no need of ethics or morals, except to declaim that their belief subsumes them. I have personally seen more instances of purportedly religious people using their beliefs as crutches, as get-out-of-jail-free cards, as justifications of the most immoral and reprehensible behaviors imaginable, in this world, because they are somehow preparing for the next one. When I pick up a hitchhiker in Virginia on the way to the West Coast, I’m less concerned by what they think they will be doing in California that I am with their judgement they need to punish me because of the way I’m driving.
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  • “But what will become of men then…without God and immortal life? All things are lawful then, they can do what they like?”

    yes of course. when deciding if one should pay for goods or try and steal them, the decision will always be made based on how much it would annoy god. indeed most shops have warnings on the entrance that god is surveying its customers and thieves will be told off in the afterlife. equally, acts of violence. we all love to see other beings suffer and who doesn’t want to walk up to a complete stranger and beat the crap out of them? but apparently it’s “not very christian” so we do as we’re told for fear of getting a bit of violation in hell in the future.

    maybe we need to realise that being religiogus doesn’t make you moral, it helps you learn how to act moral. becasue most people are beleivers of some sort, they’re happy to maintain cognative dissonance about what morality really is, such as when to be outraged at an act of paedophillia and when to accept it’s “part of their culture”

    I think it’s also important to remember that most religious people are fairly moral, on account of them being people, not religious. Romney ingratiating himself to xtians because he believes in a racist god invented by a conman should be hijacked by the church of satan all the more, if freedom requires religion then praise satan for freedom i say.

    I think if we need to find a correlation between morality or the lack of it and religion, we need look not at those people who agree to follow but the religious leaders. they are above their own laws and until recently well hidden from secular law too. I would never think someone is imoral for being religious but if they told me they like to dress up once a week and tell everyone else how to behave, I tend to think they’re some sort of wierdo. RC, CofE, KKK, all the same to me
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  • I think the correlation has already been found. Economics can shed some light on this.

    Many people naturally think of the world as a zero sum environment. it’s an important and useful code of practice we acquired genetically from our bacteria ancestors. Something for someone else implies less for themselves. E.g. The psychological preference that some people must to go to hell to make sufficient room in heaven for the truly righteous.

    Zero sum thinking stems from a relative inability to perceive the hidden aspects of opportunity cost. Basically the event alternatives in the many worlds theory of multiverse which, as the likes of Feynman pointed out, actually matter to our actual universe yet are inconveniently situated in other parallel universes and so are relatively inaccessible to those lacking sufficient imagination. Zero sum psychology implies that the obvious strategy is to form or join a mutually beneficial alignment as a predatory coalition to distinguish and exploit others in order to take their stuff, or to at least put others at some relative resource disadvantage. (Typically including male access to reproductively available females.)

    Aside from sex another key economics concept is time preference. i.e. discount rate. I read something recently, probably yet another pop science book, that there is a very significant predictive psychological or personality factor that reliably distinguishes atheists from believers: That atheists tend to have a distinctly lower time preference from those who prefer to believe in wishful fantasies. Atheists not only don’t expect to have their cake and eat it but also are significantly more comfortable with deferring consumption instincts by making savings and productive investments to produce something in order to have a bigger cake on a later occasion. And then to eat it or provide more cake to others.

    The outcome may be similar but there is a fundamental difference between undertaking hard work to achieve an objective and undertaking hard work because god commands suffering and toil in penance for the fall from paradise.

    Time preference is also based on willpower and self-control. It has recently been established that religious practices incorporate a great deal of ritual content with the likely effect of mitigating relatively poor levels of self-control. E.g. It’s hard to compel oneself to keep believing obvious nonsense without continual social proof reinforcement, commitment via public prayer etc. where one would look foolish and inconsistent if one did not continue to profess believer. (Evolutionary basis of cognitive dissonance.)

    Religious rituals may make some contribution to equalising the degree of morality exhibited by atheists and believers. The idea being that religion is not just evil exploitation or harmless fantasy but also allows religious people to partially catch up with atheist morality. Reason presumably being that without at least some reasonable moral basis religious cults would inevitably die out for the same reason that exploitative economic cartels typically fall apart in time – owing to the inevitable attractions of secret defection by the most opportunistic members with a low sense of community and poor self-control. The kinds of people who form cartels to exploit others are also the kinds of people who seek to opportunistically defect from cartels.

    As the famous economic philosopher Marx once said: I wouldn’t want to join the kind of club that would be willing to have me as a member.
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  • . PeteH. Time preference is also based on willpower and self-control. It has recently been established that religious practices incorporate a great deal of ritual content with the likely effect of mitigating relatively poor levels of self-control

    That’s an interesting observation. Perhaps it goes part way in explaining why jails are full of true believers, not that they perceive themselves as wrong doers in many cases. ( the devil made me do it escape clause).
    What of countries that have a low level of religiousity? It could follow that those a better social networks are less likely to succumb to impulsivity?
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  • Suppose you actually do have an angel over your shoulder telling you the right thing to do. That angel probably wouldn’t tell you anything you didn’t already know.

    Indeed and confirming this is the fact that those who claim to have an infallible “angel hot-line”, – as with their stance on Galileo and Darwin, are being dragged along decades or centuries behind the rest of the population!

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-29495835

    Pope Francis and more than 200 senior bishops are meeting at the Vatican to discuss some of the most controversial issues affecting the Catholic Church.

    They will be joined by lay Catholics to debate abortion, contraception, homosexuality and divorce.

    They are of course, only “controversial issues” in the confused minds of meddling theocrats and their non-thinking spoon-fed followers.

    Most ordinary independent folk, worked out these issues years ago!

    The extraordinary synod lasts two weeks and a follow-up meeting will be held next year.

    Pope Francis said on Saturday that he wanted bishops to really listen to the Catholic community.

    He said he hoped they would have a “sincere, open and fraternal” discussion that would respond to the “epochal changes” that families were living through.

    Last year, a global survey launched by Pope Francis suggested that the majority of Catholics reject Church teaching on issues such as sex and contraception.

    As one of the world’s oldest religious institutions, the Catholic Church is in no hurry to change its teachings, says the BBC’s religious affairs correspondent Caroline Wyatt in Rome.

    No-one should expect rapid results from this Synod, but many Catholics are hoping that it will bring some change, our correspondent adds.

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-29493895

    In Vatican terminology, the closed-door session is called an “extraordinary synod”, and the current Pope’s historical legacy could well depend on its perceived success or failure.

    The conference agenda was drawn up after an unprecedented opinion survey of the faithful, ordered by Pope Francis last year, to find out why Rome’s teachings are increasingly being rejected or ignored.

    A ban on artificial contraception decreed by Pope Paul VI in his Humanae Vitae encyclical in 1968 has been routinely disregarded by Catholic couples for years.

    If they want to know why intelligent people ignore their silly inflexible dogmas, – they could ask atheists, but that is probably taking rationality too far too quickly for an institution which modernises its views on a geological time-scale!
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  • Alan4discussion Oct 5, 2014 at 7:52 am

    . . .. … an unprecedented opinion survey of the faithful, ordered by Pope Francis last year, to find out why Rome’s teachings are increasingly being rejected or ignored.

    BTW: The media are probably going to invent lots of space-filling copy, milking this as a “big issue”!
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  • It’s Official: Religion Doesn’t Make You More Moral
    It certainly didn’t make these people more moral!

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-china-29581195

    A Chinese court has sentenced five cult members for beating a woman to death at a McDonald’s restaurant in Shandong province last May.

    Two members were given death sentences, one was given a life sentence, and two were given 10 and seven-year jail terms.

    The victim was allegedly killed after she refused to give her phone number to the members, who tried to recruit her.

    The Church of the Almighty God cult is banned in China.

    Ooooo! Religious discrimination!!! ??

    However, it claims to have millions of members.

    This makes Jehovas’ Witnesses look positively tame!

    Ms Wu was waiting in the restaurant with her seven-year-old son when she refused to give her phone number. The cult members then beat her to death, while screaming at other diners to keep away or face the same fate.

    Interviewed in prison later, Zhang Lidong showed no remorse.

    He said: “I beat her with all my might and stamped on her too. She was a demon. We had to destroy her.”

    The public face of the Church of the Almighty God is a website full of uplifting hymns and homilies. But its core belief is that God has returned to earth as a Chinese woman to wreak the apocalypse.

    There’s an experience of religious morality for a 7 year old!!

    Since the killing, Chinese authorities say they have detained hundreds of members of the cult.

    The only person who claims direct contact with this god is a former physics teacher, Zhao Weishan, who founded the cult 25 years ago and has since fled to the United States, correspondents say.

    Where else would nutty cultists go to expect a warm welcome???

    A quick MacDonald’s anyone in the USA???
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