Science on Religion

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Religion’s effect on moral decisions

Good or EvilThe relationship between religion and morality continues to be hotly contested. In one corner, some have argued that religion poisons everything and distorts moral judgment. In the opposing corner, others have maintained that religion makes people more moral. Wanting to test the relationship between religion and morality empirically, Alan Walker, Jason DeBode (both Auburn University), and James Smither (La Salle University) found nuanced results sure to displease people in both corners.

The authors formed five hypotheses based on symbolic interactionism and extrinsic-intrinsic religiosity. Symbolic interactionism states that people’s self-identity comes largely from the roles they play. For example, the same person could be a parent, child, boss, co-worker, or an athlete. Of course, not all of these roles are equal in any individual’s mind—being a parent would be more important than being a co-worker.

Symbolic interactionism matters for the extrinsic-intrinsic distinction because extrinsically motivated religious people seek religion for something other than religion itself, perhaps social status, friends, or money, while, by contrast, an intrinsic religious person participates in religion for the sake of religion itself. Thus, the reseachers expect that religious identity will play a larger role in self-identity of the intrinsically motivated rather than the extrinsically motivated religious individual. Shifting back to the problem of the relationship between religion and morality, according to symbolic interactionism, someone with intrinsic religiosity will likely follow his or her religion’s moral code whereas a person with extrinsic religiosity likely will not (again, because religion only informs self-identity for intrinsic believers).

With symbolic interaction and the intrinsic-extrinsic distinction in mind, the researchers propose five hypotheses. First, intrinsically motivated people will be less likely to endorse ethically questionable scenarios. Second, extrinsically motivated people will be more likely to endorse ethically questionable scenarios. Third, individuals who sanctify their job will be less likely to endorse ethically questionable scenarios. Fourth, those who have a loving view of God will be less likely to endorse ethically questionable scenarios. Fifth and finally, those who have a punishing view of God will be more likely to endorse ethically questionable scenarios.

To test these hypotheses, the authors surveyed 220 people gathered from an online service. All of the included participants were at least 19 years old, employed for at least a year, worked in the US, and were not atheists. Every participant took the Intrinsic/Extrinsic-Revised Scale, the Views of God scale (measures how much participants agree that God has loving or punishing traits), and the Manifestation of God scale to measure the extent to which participants believe that God is present in their jobs (that is, it measures job sanctification). To test general religiosity, participants answered questions about the frequency of their church attendance, prayer, and how religious they considered themselves.

Lastly, the participants responded to 29 ethically questionable scenarios, indicating how acceptable they found the behavior described in each scenario. For instance, one scenario stated: “A small business received one-fourth of its gross revenue in the form of cash. The owner reported only one-half of the cash receipts for income tax purposes.” Another scenario said: “A company president found that a competitor had made an important scientific discovery, which would sharply reduce profits for his own company. He then hired a key employee of the competitor in an attempt to learn the details of the discovery.”

After running the analyses, the data supported the first two hypotheses: indeed, intrinsic religious persons had less tolerance for the ethically questionable scenarios while extrinsic religious persons had more tolerance. Much to the authors’ surprise, those who sanctified their jobs more readily agreed with the ethically questionable scenarios. Upon further investigation, they discovered why: only people with low-intrinsic or high-extrinsic scores agreed with the ethically questionable scenarios here. In other words, simply seeing one’s job as sanctified is not enough—one must also score low on intrinsic religiosity or high on extrinsic religiosity, and this combination correlates with approving of ethically questionable scenarios. Finally, the data did support the fourth hypothesis (belief in a loving God will not correlate with agreeing with the ethically questionable scenarios) but not the fifth (belief in a punishing God will correlate with agreeing with the ethically questionable scenarios). Interestingly enough, for the fourth hypothesis, a loving God only had a significant correlation for extrinsically-motivated religious people.

The authors conclude that intrinsic religious motivation, extrinsic religious motivation, job sanctification, and a loving view of God all matter when looking at the relationship between religion and moral decision-making. They insist that one needs a nuanced view of religion in order to analyze this relationship. In fact, when they crunched the numbers for general religiosity (which covers religious attendance, prayer, and how religious one considers oneself), higher religiosity positively correlated with accepting the ethically questionable scenarios. Had they only used general religiosity, they would have concluded that religion negatively affects morality. More nuance means more accurate results – but, for better or for worse, the room for adding more nuance to the understanding of religion is nearly limitless.

For more see, “The Effects of Religiosity on Ethical Judgments” in the Journal for Business Ethics.

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