Psychological and Social Consequences of Religious (Dis)belief

Psychological and Social Consequences of Religious (Dis)belief


Before I start, I just want to thank the key
people involved in this talk. This is Aiyana Willard. She was a graduate student when I
was a graduate student at the University of British Columbia. If I understand correctly,
she’s coming here as a postdoc next year. Stephanie Kramer’s a graduate student of
mine at the University of Oregon, and of course thank you, Cristine, for organizing this.
It’s great so far. Cristine assigned me this topic [Psychological and social consequences
of religious (dis)belief] to talk about. I wasn’t sure exactly what she wanted, so
I changed it to this [Moral consequences of religious (dis)belief], which is something
I’ve been thinking about a lot recently and running a number of analyses on. Over
dinner, I realized that this was a little irrelevant to what we’re talking about today,
and so I woke up at 5 AM and wrote a new talk. I’m actually going to go with the first
talk, but if anybody’s interested in what the new talk was about, which was about how
stereotypes about Christians being unintelligent and unscientific end up undermining their
interest in science and pushing them out of the field. That’s another topic I can talk
about, either in the question-answer period or you can come find me afterwards. Today
I’m going to talk about this question [“Does God make you good?], because this question
seems like one people are interested in. People have been interested in it for a very long
time. Back in the time of Socrates, we know at least back then they were debating this
question. Twenty-five centuries ago, if we fast-forward to the tail-end of the Enlightenment,
you have common arguments being made. This is Voltaire. He said, “This sublime system
is necessary to man. It is the sacred tie that binds society, the first foundation of
holy equity, the bridle to the wicked, the hope of the just…if God did not exist, it
would be necessary to invent him.” We fast-forward a little further. This is the late great Christopher
Hitchens. I like Christopher Hitchens a lot, but he’s a little off the mark in this statement.
So he says, “We keep on being told that religion, whatever its imperfections, at least
instills morality. On every side, there is conclusive evidence that the contrary is the
case and tat faith causes people to be more mean, more selfish, and perhaps above all,
more stupid.” Now he’s right about this first bit. We keep hearing about this. But
he’s wrong about everything after that. There is not conclusive evidence about religion
making people mean or selfish. There are many, many anecdotes that you can pull to make that
claim. But in terms of there being evidence for this, there is evidence, it doesn’t
lean in that direction, it’s not nearly conclusive. That’s the topic that I’ve
undertaken to try to answer, to try to find an answer to that question—does God make
you good? It’s a nice question, because you have this nice alliteration between “God”
and “good”, and they kind of look like homographs of each other. It’s also a question
that’s fraught with ambiguities. It really matters what you mean by good, and it matters
what you mean by God, and it sort of matters what you mean by make. Let’s focus on this
one right now. I think this is possibly the most important. You do find that if you’re
looking at how religiosity affects how people act morally, there are systematic differences
in between what religious and nonreligious people think is moral. In particular, one
of the recent and popular theories on moral pluralism has been moral foundations theory,
which fractionates our moral concerns into 5 categories. Harm and care, so issues of
compassion, issues about suffering. Justice and fairness, that’s another concern. Concerns
about authority, respecting people who are in authority. Loyalty to the group and purity
and disgust—another concern for what’s moral and what isn’t. If you look at how
this varies across the religious spectrum, you see that the first two there’s agreement
on. There’s not much variance in how much religious people versus nonreligious people
believe that this is an important concern. But on the other 3 is where you see the difference.
It’s the difference you’d expect if you’re familiar with research on political conservatism
and moral foundations. These results exist after you control for political conservatism,
and in many cases they’re actually stronger than the political conservative differences
between conservatives and liberals. There is disagreement on what it is to be moral
between these groups. Nonreligious people also—this is work by Jared Piazza—tend
to base their morals on utilitarian consequentialism. So what are the benefits and costs that happen
based on the action that you should or should not enact. They’ll be more likely than religious
people to agree to a statement like this: Should you break a promise if it may lead
to a greater good or prevent further suffering? They’ll say yes, if it’s going to create
greater good, sure let’s do that. Religious people are going to be much more deontic with
this. They’re going to feel that they should not break the rule, even if the consequence
of not breaking the rule is greater suffering. There are these important foundational meta-ethical
differences. But there are areas of agreement. Those are areas in which we can make direct
comparisons. Things like generosity or not cheating, charity, helping, or volunteerism.
These are all situations that are not pitting 2 different moral foundations, say freedom
vs. equality or justice vs. mercy, against each other. Instead you’re pitting selfish
behavior against non-selfish behavior, or what you could call prosociality vs. antisocial
selfishness. It’s on this measure, prosociality, this constellation of moral behaviors that
we can actually look at differences across the religious spectrum. So we conducted a
meta-analysis of as many of the studies as we could find that’s been done on this.
We pulled this all together. This includes 31 studies, over about 4 decades, with almost
31,000 participants. We included studies if they had people reporting their religiosity
and if they had some measure, either a self-report measure or a behavioral measure, of that constellation
of moral behaviors that we talked about before—prosociality. The reason that we split these apart is because
there are limits to some of these measures. So self-report measures, I think most of you
guys are going to be familiar with the limitations of asking people how moral they are. Here’s
an example. So this is a common self-report measure. This is the satisfaction of life
scale, and if you say that the conditions of my life are excellent, that you’re satisfied
with your life, I will generally take your word for that. Imagine if you switched this
to the satisfaction with yourself scale, and then you made a claim that I’m a good mother,
I’m not racist, I’m charitable and a moral-abiding person. Those are situations where maybe I
don’t want to take your word as much because you could be self-inflating. You could be
overemphasizing how good you are compared to how good you actually are. So, we also
included behavioral measures, and we made a distinction between these. Behavioral measures
are measures that social psychologists and experimental economists have concocted to
measure actual behavior in which there’s a direct cost for the participant to actually
demonstrate that they are pro-social in this situation. One of these examples is they create
a spontaneous helping situations. Someone will drop a bunch of papers accidentally,
and they’ll see how many participants in the study actually pick them up. Other examples
are economic games. A common one is the Dictator Game. A lot of you will have heard of this
Dictator Game. Basically it’s very simple. You take 2 participants into your lab room.
You put them into separate rooms. They don’t meet each other, they don’t have reputational
concern with each other, and then you give one of them $10. You give the other one, the
receiver, nothing. Then you say to the dictator, the person who got the $10, you can dictate
how much each of you gets. The other person got nothing; do you want to split the $10
that you have? So you could split it 50-50, which would be the equitable thing to do since
you were both randomly put into these roles. You could be more selfish. You could only
give them $1, or you could do what most people in the game do, which is to give them nothing
and keep the $10 themselves. So these are examples of behavioral measures. When we put
all these together…let me just orient you to this graph. This is a forest plot of the
31 studies that I was talking about. When the squares and the lines go towards that
side, that indicates that there’s a negative association between religiosity and pro-social
behaviors. So religious people in that study ended up being less pro-social than the nonreligious
people. On the other hand, if it’s passing that line, that means it’s significantly
more pro-social for religious people. There’s a positive relationship between religiosity
and pro-sociality. So what you can see here is there is small but consistent positive
relationship, in terms of pro-sociality with religious people. If you were to break it
down between these self-report measures, these behavioral measures, there you see a difference.
There are the self-report measures. It’s a correlation of about .2, in terms of the
self-report measures—questions about how much do you volunteer, how much do you give
to charity. And if you look at the behavioral measures, they’re actually 0. There’s
no hint of an effect. There’s actually a substantial difference between what is reported
when you’re asked how pro-social you are and, when you test in the lab, how pro-social
religious people actually demonstrate they are. So there are a couple reasons that could
explain this discrepancy, as far as I can think of. One, is the one that might immediately
be most obvious, that the self-reports aren’t actually accurate. You should trust the behavioral
measures over the self-reports. What’s happening here is that religious people are inflating
reports of their actual prosocial behavior. Everybody tends to inflate these. The expectation
is that maybe religious people are fudging a little bit more than nonreligious people.
There’s another explanation, which is that the behavioral task should not be tested.
These are not actually reflective of any real differences that might exist outside of the
lab. There may actually be a pro-social religious advantage that we’re not tapping into with
these artificial tasks that we’re looking at. I think both of these are true to some
degree. Let’s start with the first one. There has been a bunch of work showing that
religious people do score higher on measures of social desirable responding. They tend
to indicate that they’re better than they actually are, more than do nonreligious people.
There have been a couple meta-analyses recently. This one demonstrated that strongly. It makes
the case that religious people tend to be self-enhancing. This paper actually makes
it really interesting argument. If you could think of the intuitive explanation, the one
that may have occurred to you guys is something like religion might make people more self-enhance.
Or there could be some sort of personality factor that makes you both religious or self-enhancing.
These guys argue something separate. They argue something more like this, that it’s
actually self-enhancement, the tendency to enhance yourself, that makes you more religious.
They say that there is something called the self-enhancing personality and that, and I
quote, “people strategically use an ingenious array of means to satisfy the self-enhancement
motive…Religion is a prevalent and important such aspect. People…will be likely to capitalize
on it for satisfying the self-enhancement motive.” So people who are going to want
to aggrandize themselves find a way to do so in religion. They present a bunch of compelling
evidence for that. I’m convinced about this to some degree. Another point that needs to
be taken into account—this is not incompatible with that—is if you ask people if they’re
religious and if you ask them how pro-social they are, it’s not that they may only be
inflating how much they’re pro-social. They may also be inflating how much they say they
are religious. We can’t get super accurate, implicit measures of what people actually
believe, but we can see if people inflate their religious attendance compared to how
much they actually do attend religious services. So this is a recent study. What they did was
they asked people how much they attend, but they asked people in 2 separate ways. They
randomly assigned people to be actually asked in person; face-to-face to somebody to whom
they’re going to have to respond, or online where you’re not actually talking to anybody.
The assumption is that people are actually going to be more honest when they’re revealing
this online, but when they’re confronted with a person they’re going to hedge a bit.
That’s what they found. So when you look at what people say when asked online, you
have about 31% saying that they go weekly or more. When they’re asked by telephone,
that number increases to 36% and the percentage of people who say they never go actually falls
from 43% down to 30%. So they’re less willing to admit when they’re actually directly
talking to somebody “Oh, I don’t go to church.” There have been a number of studies
like this. One of my favorites is from the 90s, where they actually just did a head count
of everybody who said they went to church last Sunday and compared that to actually
the number of people who were there. They did this across the United States. This is
for a few of the cities. When you actually ask people how many of you went to church
last Sunday, these are the rates you get. When you actually count how many people showed
up, it’s much lower. In some places, it’s less than half as much. So people do seem
to be inflating their actual religious attendance. What that means is that when we’re measuring
what might be a relationship between religiosity and prosociality, we might actually be measuring
a relationship between your tendency to inflate how much you go to church and your tendency
to inflate how much prosocial behavior you enact in. So really what you’re doing is
you’re just finding that people who fudge on one thing fudge on the other. I guess that’s
interesting. Let’s tackle the other possibility, that our behavioral tasks are not actually
telling us what we want them to be telling us. Here, I think it’s good to consider
the situations in which religious people might actually in the real world have a prosocial
advantage. It’s not in these cold, sterile lab rooms when that would emerge. It’s when
they’re actually enmeshed in the community, or thinking about their religious beliefs,
that are actually getting them to engage in prosocial behavior. So it doesn’t look so
much like this, a cold, sterile lab room, but more like this. When you’re reminded
of religion, when you’re thinking of religion, that’s the situation religious people might
actually be more prosocial. There have been a number of studies that have recently tried
to create that religious situation by reminding people in the moment of their religiosity,
arousing those thoughts and seeing how that affects their prosocial behavior. It’s used
a number of priming techniques. They will in various ways—explicit, obvious, and implicit—arouse
thinking of religiosity in the lab, in the moment. Field studies have done this with
environmental prime. So they’ll do experiments outside of churches to see how that affects
people compared to outside of other buildings. I’ll just give you 1 example of this. This
is an early study that we ran. This used an implicit priming technique with scrambled
sentences. For those of you guys who don’t know how this implicit priming technique works,
basically you get a bunch of sentences or word scrambles like this. You cross out 1
word, and then you rearrange the remaining 4 words to make a sensical sentence. You change
that to “he tied his shoes”. That’s something you would see in the control condition.
In the condition we’re actually trying to arouse thoughts of religion, you embed keywords
in some of the sentences. So here, you can try this if you want, what would it be? You
drop “eradicate” and you can make “she felt the spirit”. In one of the studies,
we’ll talk about this later, in one of the conditions rather, we included a third condition
where we actually instead of priming god, we primed secular institutions of justice.
So they went to court. Then we had them play the Dictator Game, the anonymous Dictator
Game that I mentioned before. These are the results. This is just comparing in the control
condition, non-theists compared to theists. You see there is a bit of a directional difference,
but there’s no significant difference between these 2, which is consistent with what we
found in the meta-analysis. This is a behavioral task. You don’t see a difference based on
religiosity. But our question is what happens when you put them in the priming situation.
Here’s what they found in the first study. When people are just in the control condition,
no religion is aroused, out of $10 people share on average just under $2 with the other
person. So they’re pretty selfish. When you prime religion, that shoots up almost
to that $5 level of equity. In the other condition—this was with community members who tend to be
a little more generous in control conditions than students—it was still pretty low, and
you still saw the same increase. So in this case you see that religious priming does increase
generosity. Now you say, well this is an artificial task itself in the lab. This is not how people
come across religion in their real lives. I think that we’re actually primed all the
time with religion. This is the view out the window of my apartment in Eugene, Oregon.
That’s a church with some hieroglyphics on it. That’s what I stare at every day
when I look out the window. A couple of years ago, I was teaching at Abu Dhabi, and this
was the view outside of my window there. There’s one mosque, but you can also see another mosque
over there and another mosque over there. So there were 3 mosques that were directly
outside of my window. For any of you who have spent any time in Muslim-majority countries,
you’ll know that the most beautiful and hard-to-ignore reminder of religion is the
call to prayer, which goes off 5 times a day and blared across the entire city. A number
of researchers have actually used that call to prayer as a naturally occurring religious
prime and found consistent results with what we saw. Mark Aveyard, who’s in the UAE,
showed that when the call to prayer was playing in the background, people were less likely
to cheat on this task that may be tempting to cheat on. Eric Duhaime has this unpublished
study where he actually went to Morocco, to Marrakech, and had people play a Dictator
Game-type task with shopkeepers there. He then measured when the call to prayers were
going on in the background and when it wasn’t. What he found was that when it wasn’t happening,
the shopkeepers were reasonably likely—about 60% of the time—they engaged in the fully
selfless option in the Dictator Game. They gave all the money to the charitable recipient.
When the call to prayer was going, this went up to 100%. Every single one of the shopkeepers,
when that was happening, gave all the money away. So it had this profound prosocial effect.
In America, a couple of economists have actually looked at a naturally occurring prime in just
the day of Sunday. Just it being Sunday to a lot of people activates religious thinking.
What they found was that when you have a website which is prompting people to give to charity,
on Sundays, you have religious people giving a lot more than nonreligious people. But on
every day except Sunday, there is no difference. And so that’s actually, again, that’s
consistent with what we saw before, right? So when there’s no prime, when you’re
just in a control condition, there’s no difference between religious people and nonreligious
people, only when religion is activated do you see this difference. We ran another meta-analysis
where we took 25 of these priming studies. They had to be assigned to either a control
condition or a priming condition, and there had to be again either a behavioral or self-report
measure of prosociality. All but 2 of these were behavioral measures. So there were 25
studies, just under 5,000 participants. What you find is that there is this significant
effect where priming people with religion increases their prosocial behavior. Now, a
subset
of these studies, 11 of them, actually broke people down between religious people and nonreligious
or less religious people. And so you can actually look at the difference in how these primes
affect them. What you find is that the primes do affect religious people, but they have
no effect on nonreligious people, which is kind of what you expect. There’s this interaction
between the religious personality, or the religious disposition, and the religious situation.
This is actually in that study that I mentioned before; it’s what we found there as well.
So if you just look at in the control condition between our theistic and our non-theistic
subjects, in the control condition they again didn’t differ. When there was the religious
prime, you do see that it affects the religious people, but it does not affect the non-theists
in this situation. But you recall that I mentioned that there was this prime of secular institutions,
and you see what happens there is that it actually increases how much people give in
both cases. And so that’s a particularly effective way of stimulating prosocial behavior.
Some of you are probably thinking that this may explain a question you have in the back
of your head, which is that hold on, some of the least religious places in the world
are some of the most cooperative and prosperous places. I think this gives an explanation
as to why. There are these different institutions that, when they emerge, they can regulate
cooperation, they can encourage people to act prosocially and not cheat, so that religion
no longer has to. In a way, these take the place of those religious institutions that
were previously responsible for encouraging prosociality. I think that’s why if you—this
is what you could call a secular alternative for what was previously done—I think why
you see that one of the strongest negative predictors of religiosity across countries
is the presence and trust in these reliable secular institutions in the rule of law. So
you see it’s a very very actually stark relationship there where, the higher the trust
in the rule of law, the less religious you are. So let’s recap then. Does god make
you good? Let’s go back to the original question. Well yes, you have to admit that
it really does, at least temporarily. It acts in the same way that food acts with satiety.
You eat, but then you get hungry again. It has to be constantly refreshed so as you keep
remembering to be pro-social. But do you need god to be good? The answer here is clearly
that no, that’s not the case, so long as you have something else. There are other routes
to pro-social behavior. That’s all I want to say.

5 Replies to “Psychological and Social Consequences of Religious (Dis)belief”

  1. 1 Sky Daddy (do gods exist is not of concern, how gods exist as human heritage, cultural relics is.)
    2 Authority (introduced at the family level, extending through societies — family, clan, tribe, state, nation)
    3 Rules (value constructs from authoritarian claims)
    Ignored, and thus not considered; heritage related group psychology and, importantly to Authority, which is self-serving, biased and divisive, and thus reflected in the rules of social authority.

    Also ignored is individual behavior or responses to stimuli of the internal and external environments (often expressed in American heritage as the rugged individual) — Man’s Inherent Dichotomy — the relationship between the psychology of the individual and the stimuli of the social-group psychology on the psychology of the rugged, socially conflicted, eusocial individual and self-authority, which is connected with claims of Free Will at the individual level by group psychology.

    Heredity, bio-psychological genetic evolution, is to be distinguished from heritage, the conveyed flawed familial/cultural memory, misunderstood, misconstructed misinterpretations, biased and divisive; the metaphysical and empiricism of man’s bio-psychological, evolutionary adaptations and communicated relics. Sky Daddy is an authority figure of man’s heritage and reflective of Man's Inherent Dichotomy.

    "In the distant future I see open fields for far more important researches. Psychology will be based on a new foundation, that of the necessary acquirement of each mental power and capacity by gradation. Light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history." Charles Darwin

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