How does religion impact moral decision-making and behavior in contemporary society?
Holding questions about the ultimate origins of morality aside for now, another related question concerns how people reason in terms of what is right and wrong in contemporary society'. Insights from moral philosophy and research in social psychology highlight the similarities and differences between theists and non-theists in the world today, and we review this research next. While a few studies have been conducted cross-culturally,17 one limitation to keep in mind is that most research is in the modern western world. Comparisons between the two groups are divided into four key aspects in this section: (1) where people derive moral guidance, (2) what people care about, (3) whom people care about, and (4) why and when people act prosocially.
Metaethics: where people derive moral guidance
At the start of this chapter, we reviewed research suggesting that the fundamental building blocks of morality' are part of our evolutionary heritage as a social species. Fundamental moral inclinations are deeply embedded in our evolved psychology' and flourish naturally in the absence of religious indoctrination. As scholars such as Bloom have proposed, full-blown morality is ultimately a synthesis of the biological, cognitive, and cultural. Evolutionary processes and cognitive processing conspire to produce the fundamental building blocks of moral judgment. Yet fully developed morality is a combination of biological predispositions concerning aspects of human behavior, such as feeling the pain of others, and cultural traditions, including religious socialization. These predispositions conspire with early inclinations to shape our sense of what is right and wrong, along with learned experience and critical reflection. It is more likely that religious indoctrination concerning judgments of right and wrong co-evolved with these moral tendencies, emphasizing some rather than others, rather than contradicting them.
At the start of this chapter, we reviewed research suggesting that the fundamental building blocks of morality are part of our evolutionary heritage as a social species. Fundamental moral inclinations are deeply embedded in our evolved psychology and flourish naturally in the absence of religious indoctrination. As scholars such as Bloom have proposed, full-blown morality is ultimately a synthesis of the biological, cognitive, and cultural. In fundamental ways then, we would expect theists and non-theists to be morally similar. Indeed, this is the case. They seem to share core preferences for justice and compassion. For instance, all world religions agree on some basic principles regarding harm, and non-religious people tend to have similar ideas about harm and justice, such as the basic idea that torture or killing an innocent person is wrong. The philosopher Peter Singer points out the similarity in religious and non-religious dogma and philosophical writings, such as the notion of impartiality'. This principle is found in many diverse religious and philosophical systems of morality from the golden rule in Christianity (i.e. do unto others as you would have done unto you) to the teachings of the renowned Chinese philosopher Confucius, and the political philosopher John Rawls’s landmark theory of justice.
Nevertheless, theists and non-theists derive socialization and moral guidance from different sources, and in other ways, they differ. Most notably, theists and non-theists often use different criteria to determine which actions are immoral. The source of moral guidance and criteria used to establish moral judgment is commonly referred to as a metaethical style. Theists are often guided in their moral principles according to religious ethics, such as codes of conduct that are stipulated in holy books such as the Bible and Qur’an, oral and written traditions, and religious teachers. Many religious traditions have rules that reward obedience, such as the promise of seventy-two virgins in Islam. Many traditions also have punitive consequences for those who do not abide by and enforce religious codes of ethics, such as the Christian idea of the torment of hell.
Religious dogma tends to facilitate a type of rule-based objectivist morality, which stipulates that there is one right or wrong action, such as it is always wrong to commit adulter)' or kill. This rule-based objectivist morality is known in philosophy as deontological reasoning. Thus, religious people tend to believe that if two people differ on a moral issue, only one person can be right.18 For believers, God is both the author of morality and the arbiter of justice. Thus, the sense of what is right is typically based on divine command, not only on consequences based on benefits or harm.19 Although often religions share secular value frameworks, and as such, do consider things like the consequences of actions.
New atheists have claimed that this rule-based deontological style of reasoning based on ancient dogma deems religious ethics ill-equipped to determine moral values. They often draw upon the arguments of classic western thinkers such as Socrates who discussed the relationship between Greek gods and piety. The fundamental dilemma proposed is whether God’s commandments are moral because he commands them or because they are moral. Whatever the answer, critics maintain that religion is an ineffective system to determine what is right. They point to problems with relativism, such as knowing which God is correct when two conflict in their moral stipulations.
There are also difficulties in interpreting scripture, such as making sense of moral commandments when they are taken out of cultural and historical context. For example, consider the custom of disgracing men with long hair in ancient Mediterranean cultures because it was a symbol of being subordinate to women (I Corinthians 11:14). Another primary criticism is that some moral commandments in religious texts seem to go against our most basic sensibilities. Consider the prescription to cut off the hand of a woman who seizes an attacker’s genitals in defense of her husband (Deuteronomy 25:11—12),20 or the advice for parents of a wayward son to bring him to the local elders to be stoned to death (Deuteronomy 21:18—21).
As the philosopher Ryan Falcioni summarizes it, on account of new atheists, religion is viewed as, at best, giving people bad reasons for doing good things, and at worst, bad reasons for doing bad things. 1 The late Christopher Hitchens, author of the book God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything,~~ contends that there is no single act of moral goodness performed by a religious person that an irreligious person would not likewise perform, but without the reference to God. Hitchens, like Richard Dawkins, evolutionary biologist, and author of The God Delusion,23 argues that religion motivates and justifies certain evils; it enables perpetrators to commit actions with a sense of righteousness that comes from assumed divine approval. According to these authors, religion adds justification to immoral acts.24
Theists are also less likely than non-theists to judge moral decisions as subjective or culturally relative, i.e. dependent upon context. This tendency is so strong that exposing most people to reminders of religion makes them perceive morality as more objective."'1 By contrast, the less religious people are, the more comfortable they are with ignoring abstract moral rules and basing decisions on consequences (consequentialism), especially based on principles of utilitarianism (the outcome that provides the most benefit to the largest number of people). The secular humanists herald consequentialism as a better system for determining what is right and wrong.