The connection between religion and morality has been debated for centuries.1 In a famous dialogue that dates back to the fourth century BCE, Ancient Greek moral philosopher, Socrates, asked: “Is an action morally good because the gods command it, or do the gods command it because it is morally good?"” Many of the founders of the social scientists, including Emile Durkheim, have passionately weighed in on such questions by describing religion as a force that binds groups together and prevents immoral conduct. The idea that religion motivates selfless behavior to benefit others at a personal cost is central in debates about the evolutionary origins of religions. Today, debates about religion and morality continue to dominate academic and popular domains and highlight the complexity and controversy of issues.
Although scholars differ in how they conceptualize the term morality, it is used here in a broad sense to refer to standards or principles about right or wrong conduct. The chapter is organized into three sections. First, we will consider research on the question, where does morality come from? Next, we weigh up evidence about how religion affects moral decisionmaking and behavior in contemporary society. Here, we will discuss the results of social psychological research on prosociality and prosocial behaviors, actions intended to help others, such as honesty, cooperation, and generosity. Finally, we will turn to the contribution of research in the cognitive-evolutionary sciences on questions about the relationship between religion and morality.
: Where does morality come from?
One important question from a cognitive-evolutionary perspective concerns whether, and how, natural moral responses emerge in normally developing humans. As discussed in Chapter 3: Research Questions (Table 3.2), an understanding of ontogeny (how do traits related to morality develop in humans?) provides scientists with a proximate explanation of moral behavior. Correspondingly, one research task is to identify early emerging predispositions and biases towards moral behavior in children to locate the cognitive basis for moral tendencies.