Science on Religion

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Religion undercuts how others perceive moral deeds, part 1

Collection plateAs noted in a few different studies, religion appears to correlate with moral behavior. While religion’s correlation with morality may be a great boon to the person on the receiving end of a good deed, and perhaps even to the good deed-doer, psychologist Will Gervais (University of Kentucky) suspects that onlookers may not look so favorably upon a religiously motivated moral act. In fact, he conducts six experiments to show how religious motivation lessens the perception of the morality of an action.

Gervais notes that when outsiders judge someone’s moral actions, they distinguish between this person’s actual goal and the net result. That is, someone’s goal could be terrible or neutral even though his or her action is morally good (or vice-versa). Due to this distinction, Gervais hypothesizes that religious motivations confuse perceptions of moral deeds by (a) making unclear the real motivation behind the deed, and (b) opening the possibility that the religious person did not choose to do the moral deed but only did it out of religious obligation.

To test his hypotheses, Gervais conducted a series of six experiments, the first two of which focus on whether religion muddles moral motivation, and the last four of which focus on whether religion alters perceptions of moral responsibility. In the first experiment, 118 American adults recruited via Amazon Mechanical Turk participated. Each participant read a story about Brad who gave money to charity. One version of the story, randomly assigned to participants, went as follows: “Brad stopped for a minute [to think about it / and asked himself, ‘What would Jesus do?’] Brad then decided to give $500 to charitable relief organizations.” The other version of the story made no mention of religious motivation. All participants, regardless of story received, then rated to what degree Brad acted morally and to what degree he deserves praise.

As predicted, survey takers rated Brad, when seen as having a religious motivation, as having acted less morally than the alternate universe Brad where no such mention of religion is made. As Gervais put it, “Experiment 1 demonstrated that even rather strong examples of good deeds are seen as less moral when religiously motivated.”

The second experiment sought to ensure that the added information about motives in and of itself led to others perceiving the morality of an action differently. In other words, it is possible that simply mentioning any motivation whatsoever, whether religious or not, leads perceivers to judge someone’s moral action differently than seeing the action without mention of motivation. To test for this, the second experiment added secular motivations, meaning that participants would be randomly assigned one of three conditions: motivation omitted, religious motivation, and secular motivation. Additionally, the second experiment would include non-moral actions to determine whether knowing the motivation behind them lessened the moral perception of them.

As with the first experiment, Gervais relied on Amazon Mechanical Turk and recruited 337 American adults to participate. Perhaps not surprisingly, only religious motivation reduced perceived morality, whereas secular motivation did not. This remained true regardless of the religious affiliation of the participant. Furthermore, religious motivation reduced the perceived morality of even non-moral actions (again, secular motivation did not).

It appears, then, that knowing someone who is motivated by religion means that most people will interpret his or her actions as not as moral as a secular person’s. Counterintuitively, it may be less moral to be religious.

Gervais has just begun to explore the issue of perceived morality and religion. The next four experiments, presented in part 2, will see whether decreased perceived morality also means decreased perceived responsibility.


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