Science on Religion

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Why moral religion?

Nice guy BibleAlthough Westerners commonly believe that religion has an inherently moral component to it, a brief look at history reveals the opposite: far from being common, moral religions are the exception, not the rule. Most religions have or had spirituality without morality. This leads to an interesting question: Why moral religions? In other words, why did moral religions evolve? Anthropologists Nicolas Baumard (Oxford and University of Pennsylvania) and Pascal Boyer (Washington University, St. Louis) answer that moral religions appeal to a proportionality-based morality, a type of morality ingrained by evolution.

The researchers suggest that what separates non-moral religions (they list ancient Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Aztec, Chinese, and Hindu deities as examples) from moral religions (they list Jainism, Orphism, Second-Temple Judaism, and Christianity as examples) is that the deities in the latter have a particular view of morality. Specifically, these deities prescribe what the researchers call “proportionality-based morality.” Proportionality-based morality states that one should treat others as one oneself would like to be treated. From this principle, the anthropologists believe, stems the morality found across the moral religions.

Additionally, they claim that the moral religions posit an intrinsically fair universe: the just receive rewards while the wicked punishments. Importantly, because of the principle of proportionality, the just receive rewards in proportion to their justice, and likewise the wicked receive punishment appropriate to their degree of wickedness. In order to prevent divine punishment, some religions teach that one can inflict suffering on oneself instead. That is, punishing oneself in this life, means less punishment in the afterlife (everything works out proportionally in the end). Likewise, religions revere those who do not act justly simply in proportion but go beyond the minimum call of duty (for example, giving to charity).

Baudmard and Boyer believe that the principle of proportionality stems from evolution for three reasons. First, in social exchanges, people prefer that goods be distributed in proportion to how much people contributed to the production of those goods. In economic games where people could play the role of dictator with absolute control over distribution, the dictator still adjusted distribution in proportion to contribution. There thus appears to be an ingrained preference for the principle of proportionality. Second, studies have shown that the more costly an action, the less people will require or demand that one perform that action. In other words, cost-benefit analysis follows the principle of proportionality, again suggesting a natural preference for it. Finally, turning to the subject of punishment, studies indicate that people, when asked to dole out a fair punishment, consider only the harm and intentionality of the perpetrator, ignoring punishments that would deter repeat crimes. Similarly, when a perpetrator has to pay back the victim for the injustices committed, people focus on whether the compensation fits the crime.

The evolutionarily ingrained principle of proportionality transfers to religion and prospers because religion expresses the principle so eloquently (“do unto others what you would have them do unto you”). Religion also ensures that the principle of proportionality functions as a cosmic law: no one escapes it. Things may seem unfair now, but all will be equal in the afterlife. In religion, a harmony emerges between universal intuitions (the principle of proportionality) and cultural representation (wise sayings), leading to an ease of cultural transmission. Propagating the principle of proportionality through religion has a snowball effect: now that people’s moral intuitions find ready expressions, further moral principles based on the same principle also find easy expression and transmission.

In effect, according to Baumard and Boyer, religion simply expresses what universally evolved in the human mind: the principle of proportionality. They believe that the peoples of non-moral religions also adhere to the principle of proportionality (they simply do not have religion to express it), and consequently, they think that morality is really everywhere the same. While a universally agreed upon morality would be nice, over time, cultures’ moralities have evolved.

For more see, “Explaining moral religions” in the journal Trends in Cognitive Science.

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