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Religion undercuts how others perceive moral deeds, part 2

Homeless helpIn part 1 of this two-part article, psychologist Will Gervais (University of Kentucky) discovered that people perceive a moral act as less moral if they know the person doing the act was motivated by religion. In fact, this finding extends to non-moral acts as well – if you say the reason behind someone’s action, whether moral or not, is religion, people will regard that action as less moral than if it had a secular motivation or an unknown motivation. Not satisfied with stopping at this finding, Gervais next wants to see whether religious motivation also decreases perceived responsibility in addition to perceived morality.

To do this, he recruited 168 American adult participants from Amazon Mechanical Turk to read a story about Brad. Unlike in the previous two experiments (see part 1 for details), experiment 3 had Brad stop and think before doing his good deed. As with experiment 2, there were three conditions: neutral (it’s not mentioned what exactly Brad thinks), religious (Brad thinks about his religious beliefs), and secular (Brad thinks about his secular worldview). Furthermore, experiment 3 explicitly asked its participants to rate to what degree (a) Brad’s action came from Brad’s intent or as a side effect of something else, and (b) Brad was responsible for his actions.

As with the first two experiments, religious affiliation had no statistically significant effect on the participants’ responses. For both intention and responsibility, participants considered the religiously motivated Brad to be less intentional and responsible. Neither the secular nor the neutral condition experienced the same effect. As Gervais puts it, “If the man thought about his religious beliefs, participants viewed his benevolent actions as less of an intended goal, and viewed him as less responsible for his good deeds, compared to if he simply thought, or thought about his secular worldview.”

The next step for Gervais was to try to determine the cause for why religious motivations detract from the perceived goodness of moral deeds. In a fourth experiment, he tested the idea that people view religion as an extrinsic motivation to morality (that is, morality is not done for its own sake, but for the sake of religion) as opposed to an intrinsic motivation. Once again, he recruited 171 American adults from Amazon Mechanical Turk. Experiment four only slightly tweaked the third experiment, by including the notions of extrinsic and intrinsic motivation.

Following the first three experiments, participants’ religious affiliation made no difference as to whether they considered Brad’s religious motivation detrimental to the goodness of his actions. Likewise, experiment four continued the trend of religion undercutting the perception of moral deeds, only now Gervais could eliminate intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation as an explanation because it failed to explain the data.

Going back to the drawing board, Gervais thought about his approach: religion had thus far been presented to survey takers as something explicitly separate from the good deed. As such, in experiment 5, Gervais tries a different approach by having the good doer’s religious motivation solely lie in the background. That is, the story participants would read would tell of this person’s religious upbringing, and then later, when they do their good deed, the person will act immediately and instinctively, without pausing to think about religion.

As usual, to test his hypothesis, Gervais recruited 183 American adults via Amazon Mechanical Turk. No surprise at this point that the religious affiliation of the participants had no effect on their responses. Instead, the surprise in experiment 5 was that “that religiously motivated actors are seen as less responsible for their good deeds than are actors performing the identical good deeds for other reasons.” Again, this time religion merely served as a background story and was not mentioned during the actual deed. Despite this, religious motivation still managed to tarnish the perception of one’s moral acts.

In one last experiment, Gervais hypothesized that perceived responsibility explains the negative correlation between religious motivation and perceived morality. In other words, the reason why religion reduces perceived morality is because the religiously motivated person is seen as being less responsibility for his or her actions. Gervais recruited 114 American adults from Amazon Mechanical Turk. As per usual, participants’ religious affiliation had no statistically significant relationship with their answers. And indeed! Hitting upon positive results, the sixth and final experiment confirmed Gervais’s hypothesis that responsibility links religious motivation with a reduction in perceived morality.

Contrary to popular belief, religion makes an act (even a non-moral act) less moral, at least in the eye of most onlookers. Religion, from a third party perspective, makes a person less responsible for their deeds, and so such a person does not deserve full credit for when they behave morally. Fortunately, many religious people claim not to want credit for their good deeds anyway.

For more, see “Good for God? Religious motivation reduces perceived responsibility for, and morality of, good deeds” in the Journal of Experimental Psychology.


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