Are Religious People More Moral Because They Fear God's Punishment?
Is religion necessary for morality? The answer is almost certainly "no". But slightly to the chagrin of passionate atheists, religious people do seem to behave more morally than irreligious people. Through population level surveys and laboratory studies designed to gauge prosocial behavior, psychologists have found a robust link between religiosity and salubrious actions like helping, sharing, donating, co-operating, and volunteering.
Not to be upstaged in this foundational philosophical feud, the irreligious have fired back, arguing that religious morality arises not from altruism, but from selfishness. In this viewpoint, religious followers are more inclined to do good because they are tempted by divine rewards and threatened with divine punishments
Turns out, atheists may have a point.
Psychologists James Saleam and Ahmed Moustafa of Western Sydney University scoured the psychological literature in search of evidence for and against this controversial contention. They just published their findings in the journal Frontiers in Psychology,
Saleam and Moustafa begin by acknowledging that the balance of empirical evidence shows that religious people do tend to behave more prosocially than irreligious people. However, they note that the evidence is rarely accompanied by explanations.
"If there is a link between religious belief and prosociality, then there must be an underlying reason for this," they write.
The attempt to uncover this reason has led a small number of psychologists to focus on two intertwining ideas, the "supernatural monitoring hypothesis" and the "supernatural punishment hypothesis". Taken together, the notions suggest that religious people behave more prosocially because they feel they are being watched by divine entities and that their actions will be punished or rewarded by those entities.
A number of studies support this controversial idea. In one, religious people primed with notions of salvation and Heaven were more generous when participating in the Dictator game, a classic psychology experiment in which one subject gets to decide how much money to share with another subject. In another study focused on the Muslim population, subjects who read passages of the Qur'an related to divine punishment showed more prosocial actions than subjects who read more neutral passages focused on Allah's mercy. In a third study conducted in Canada, participants who viewed God as "forgiving" and "gentle" were more likely to cheat on a math test than subjects who viewed God as "vengeful" and "terrifying".
It will take a significant number of studies conducted across the world to truly evince the link between moral behavior and religious incentives. After all, human belief is just as diverse and nuanced as human beings. To say that all believers are more moral than nonbelievers out of fear and selfishness is a gross oversimplification.
"It is unlikely that any single hypothesis will provide a comprehensive account of the religion-prosociality link," Saleam and Moustafa write, "...but now there is a growing body of empirical literature supporting the notion that... divine incentives do influence prosociality."
Source: Saleam J and Moustafa AA (2016) The Influence of Divine Rewards and Punishments on Religious Prosociality. Front. Psychol. 7:1149. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2016.01149