Science on Religion

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Can we be good without God?

good_without_godThe Book of Proverbs says, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom…” (Proverb 9:10). While “wisdom” remains a term that eludes the grasp of scientists, scientists have “morality” well within their reach. That is, they have devised methods to measure people’s morality. The next question is, “Is the fear of the Lord also the beginning of morality?” A study by psychologist Quentin Atkinson (University of Auckland) and anthropologist Pierrick Bourrat (University of Oxford) finds that, in fact, belief in God does correlate with higher moral standards.

More precisely, Atkinson and Bourrat found that belief in God correlates with a tighter range of morally permissible actions. They also discovered that belief in an afterlife correlates with a stronger belief in the unjustifiability of moral transgressions. Combined, belief in God and an afterlife result in people who hold themselves and others to above average moral standards. Their findings hold for 87 countries, and they controlled for culture, education, frequency of religious attendance, and country of origin.

They devised their study by compiling data from the World Values Survey (WVS). The WVS contains data from 87 countries, providing a convenient way to test the effects of religious belief on morality across cultures. The WVS surveys morality in the following way. First, it asks, “Please tell me for each of the following statements whether you think it can always be justified, never be justified, or something in between.” Second, it lists the following moral scenarios: Claiming government benefits to which you are not entitled, Avoiding a fare on public transport, Cheating on taxes if you have a chance, Someone accepting a bribe in the course of their duties, Taking and driving away a car belonging to someone else (joyriding), Lying in your own interest, Married men/women having an affair, Throwing away litter in a public place, Driving under influence of alcohol, Paying cash for services to avoid taxes, Speeding over the limit in built-up areas, Sex under the legal age of consent, Buying something you knew was stolen, and Failing to report damage you've done accidentally to a parked vehicle.

As for religion, the WVS asks, “Which of these statements comes closest to your beliefs?” and provides the following options: Personal God, Spirit or Life Force, Don't know what to think, and No spirit God or life force. The WVS also inquires about the frequency of the surveyor’s religious attendance, allowing Atkinson and Bourrat to control for that.

Belief in God correlated with greater intensity in the unjustifiability of all 14 of the WVS’s moral scenarios (i.e., more “never justified” responses). Belief in an afterlife correlated with greater intensity in the unjustifiability of 13/14 moral scenarios—for all but littering. One reason for the exclusion of littering could be that less serious moral transgressions do not warrant the wrath of God or punishment in hell. Atkinson and Bourrat also found that those who believe in a personal God have a greater intensity in the unjustifiability of moral transgressions than those who believe in God as a Spirit or Life Force.

Looking beyond correlation and to predictive power, Atkinson’s and Bourrat’s research uncovered a considerable decline in the potency of belief in an afterlife. Belief in an afterlife could only predict the intensity for half of the 14 morality items. By contrast, they could use belief in God to predict 13 of the 14 items. This result led them to conclude that belief in God plays a larger role in weighing the severity of moral trespasses than belief in an afterlife. The immediacy of divine watching may be more of a motivator than the delayed punishment in the afterlife. In either case, religious belief seems to directly impact moral reasoning.

Of course, one should not confuse correlation with causation. Several hypotheses may explain this correlation besides “religious belief causes increased moral standards.” For instance, simply by saying that one believes in God may pressure one into inflating one’s moral stance. Conversely, holding high moral norms may increase one’s chances of believing in God. While Atkinson and Bourrat consider such hypotheses, they ultimately conclude that these alternative hypotheses fail to account for their data adequately. Additionally, they conclude that religion’s knack for building cooperation and trust may have played a substantial role in building large-scale political systems.

So, “Can we be good without God?” That’s really a question for philosophers to debate. At the very least, this research suggests that, “We are better with God.” This does not mean that those who do not believe in God live recklessly immoral lives, but that those who do believe in God act like they answer to a higher power. In all their actions, they feel that God is watching.

For more, see “Beliefs about God, the afterlife, and morality support the role of supernatural policing in human cooperation” in January’s Evolution and Human Behavior.

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0 #1 J. A. Le Fevre 2011-06-03 15:44
I disagree. No philosophers are required. That said, if there is any benefit (to anyone) for being good, science can detect it, measure it, as suggested at the opening of this article. Non-scientist and infamous atheist Sam Harris even asks science to decide on morality in at least one of his skits (showing great wisdom and restraint by excluding himself I might point out). Anyone can, then, learn what is good and what is bad, and can choose to be good. The benefit of religion and faith, as exposed by the study, is in compliance – the odds of choosing ‘good’ improve significantly. /components/com_jcomments/imag es/smiles/rolleyes.gif
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