Moral discrimination: Whom people care about

Religions also tend to have value frameworks that serve to guide adherents in determining right and wrong. They include the Triple Gems of Jainism, Judaism’s Halacha, Islam’s Sharia, Catholicism’s Canon Law, and Buddhism’s Eightfold Path, among others.31 Moral-based value systems increase in-group solidarity. They also increase the “otherness” of out-groups. As Jon Haidt observed, “morality binds and blinds,32” or as the saying goes, “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.”

Social psychologist Azim Shariff has conducted many studies on the relationship between prosociality and religion. He explains the double-edged sword between in-group loyalty and religiously held values in particular, and he outlines how this effect is slightly different for theists and non-theists. Shariff draws on research demonstrating that theists direct their prosociality more parochially towards in-group members, whereas non-theists tend to be universal in scope. In other words, religious people tend to be more groupish at a local level. Theists are generally happier than non-theists because they feel part of a group, but they also actively, therefore, feel disconnected from the out-group.33

One line of reasoning explains why believers tend to be more discriminatory and why they are also more charitable to causes in their in-group, such as donating to their church. It is a two-sided coin. Theists tend to see those who share their religious views as one group, and atheists and those who do not share their beliefs as another out-group. Whereas non-theists, by contrast, tend to see one big universal constituency of people made up of lots of differences.

Moral motivation: Why and when people act prosocially

One important question concerns how religion changes people’s behavior? In concrete terms, psychologists seek to determine whether religion increases prosociality, which is measured through aspects of behavior such as instances of generosity, cooperation, and honesty. Religious people report more prosocial behavior than non-religious people. A few surveys have supported these claims. Based on the number and amount of charitable donations made by religious folk.3'1 Yet researchers have failed to confirm the effects of religiosity on prosocial behavior in controlled studies.

These experiments actually confirm that people say they are religious and suggest that religiosity increases the need for impression management. In other words, in these surveys, religious participants are engaging in socially desirable responding; they want to be perceived as more generous by others, and so they respond to these surveys as though they are. Other research provides a slightly different interpretation.35 Believers do tend to be more charitable and prosocial than nonbelievers. However, much of this moral goodness is directed towards the religious in-group. These findings are hardly surprising given that religious values are powerful fuel for in-group solidarity.3f>

The motivation to demonstrate prosocial behaviors differs between theists and non-theists. Religious people are more charitable when primed with supernatural agent concepts, including God. This conclusion has been borne out by empirical results in hundreds of studies, obtained using experimental economic games, methods that allow for the exploration of decision-making in controlled social interactions involving opportunities for cooperation, punishment, trust, and generosity. For instance, in one series of studies, participants allocated more money to anonymous strangers when God concepts were implicitly activated than when neutral or no concepts were activated.37

One interpretation of this effect is that believers tend to be more vigilant of the fact that a social monitoring supernatural agent, like God, sees everything they do. Other research has shown that non-theists do not respond to these kinds of religious cues; they do not fret so much when they think that God could be watching them. Nonbelievers do, however, also demonstrate more prosocial behavior when they are primed with concepts relating to social institutions, such as the police and courts.38 In other studies, experimenters found that even when participants were not consciously aware of eyespots, they donated more generously to anonymous strangers.39

Recent research has provided evidence that these supernatural priming effects extend to morally concerned non-agentic forces of karma. For instance, in one series of studies, participants from different religious and spiritual affiliations who believed in karma were more likely to share money with a stranger after thinking about karma than before. These effects were not found for participants

Watched people are nice people, even if they are not consciously aware that they feel they are being surveilled

Figure 8.1 Watched people are nice people, even if they are not consciously aware that they feel they are being surveilled. For example, Buddha Eyes, also known as Wisdom Eyes, are painted on virtually every Buddhist shrine in Nepal. They are a reminder of the omniscience of a Buddha. (Image credit: filmlandscape/

who did not believe in karma.40 These studies suggest that in addition to the fear of supernatural punishment, believers are also motivated to act prosocially to increase the likelihood of future good fortune.

Both religious and non-religious people are motivated to act prosocially by different social cues. For the religious, it is theistic cues of a watchful agent and even cues of karma.41 For the irreligious, it is social institutions. All forms of social surveillance have the potential to punish wrongdoers, whether this is divine intervention, principles of supernatural justice, or an aspect of civil justice. Other research suggests that these effects only serve as a temporary' increase in prosocial behavior, at the least, as long as the person thinks that he or she is under surveillance. This research may well explain the so-called “Sunday Effect” on people’s behavior, such as less pornographic website traffic in religious metropolitan areas on Sundays.42 Alternatively, even shorter duration, increased charitability among Marrakesh shopkeepers when the Muslim call to prayer (adhan) was audible but not when it was inaudible.43 Likewise, secular institutions rely upon periodic reminders of justice, such as police presence and CCTV cameras, to ensure the civil obedience of citizens.44

Another intriguing finding is that non-religious people also view God as a kind of moral surveillance, keeping believers in check. So, disbelief in God signals a lack of monitoring.45 For instance, believers in God are regarded by most as more moral and trustworthy than those who do not believe. A recent Pew survey found that the majority of respondents in almost 40 countries agreed that believing in God is essential to morality.46 Rates of agreement were highest in Central Asia and West Africa, and the lowest in North America and Europe. However, even in the United States, where traditional religious affiliation has declined, the majority of people surveyed (53 percent) agreed that belief was necessary to be a good person.

Other polls suggest that theists are deeply mistrustful of atheists, and even atheists implicitly view theists as more trustworthy. For example, they see acts such as serial murder and incest as more representative of atheists than members of religious groups.47 Furthennore, the religiously affiliated may view a particular religious affiliation as a precondition for morality. Believers are likely to trust only those who share their specific religious beliefs. Another recent survey by the Pew Research Centre found that half of Americans say that it is important for a President to share their religious beliefs.4* It is by no accident that almost all U.S. presidents have been Christians, the dominant religion in the country.4

In sum, religion impacts moral decision-making in many important ways. Although theists and non-theists agree on some basic principles regarding harm and justice, they differ according to where they derive their moral guidance, their metaethical style of reasoning about morality, and what moral issues they care about. It is difficult to say with certainty whether theists are more prosocial than non-theists. Theists report higher levels of prosociality than nonbelievers, engage in more charitable behavior that tends to be directed towards other members of their religious group. Both religious and non-religious people are at least temporarily motivated to act prosocially based on the perception that they are being surveyed by a third party and can be punished for their behavior.

Key points

  • • Theists and non-theists share some core moral preferences such as justice and compassion.
  • • Theists and non-theists differ in key aspects of morality.
  • • Theists are more likely to employ deontological reasoning in their moral decision-making, apply a more extensive array of values such as respect for authority and purity in their morals, and act prosocially towards others who belong to their religious group—especially when they think that God is watching them.
  • • Non-theists are more likely to make moral decisions based on con- sequentialist principles, apply values concerning harm and fairness in moral decision-making, act prosocially towards other people—especially when they think that social institutions such as the police are monitoring them.

Case study: To what extent are religious beliefs responsible for Laney’s actions?


Questions about the role of religion in morality are apparent in legal debates over whether, and to what extent, beliefs influence those convicted of wrongdoing. On Mother’s Day 2003, a Texas woman, Deanna Laney, stoned two of her children to death and seriously injured a third. She pleaded guilty by insanity to the killings of her sons; eight-year-old and six-year-old and causing severe injury to her 14-month-old.50

The Laney family were active members of the church community and Ms. Laney sang in the choir. A year earlier, she had told fellow churchgoers that the world was coming to an end and that God had told her to get her house in order. During the investigation, Laney explained to psychiatrists that she was driven to kill by a message from God and that they would rise again from the dead. In an interview, she said, “I felt like I obeyed God, and I believe there will be good out of this ... I feel like he will reveal his power, and they will be raised up. They will become alive again.51

Laney said she understood God’s will after watching one of her sons playing in her home. He turned to his mother and was holding a spear. After tripping over a stone in her garden, she said she understood that she was going to have to kill them by stoning. One doctor told the court that Laney had separated psychologically from the horror of her actions and felt that she was simply a woman on a divine mission carrying out the Lord’s will.

Laney pleaded insanity in the killings. Five mental health experts were consulted on the case: two each by the prosecution and defense, and one by the judge. They concluded that she suffered from psychotic delusions and was unable to know right from wrong at the time of the killings.

Laney was committed to a State Hospital for eight years until her release in May 2012. She is subject to a list of conditions, including no unsupervised contact with minors and regular drug tests, to ensure that she takes the required medication.52


  • • Imagine that you are the judge in this case. Based on the evidence above, and in your role as judge, write a one-page letter to the court, providing your decision on the four aspects of this case and justifying each response.
  • 1. Is Laney guilty of murder? (Yes/No/Unsure)
  • 2. Should she go to prison or be treated in a state hospital? (Yes/No/ Unsure)
  • 3. To what extent do Laney’s religious beliefs explain her actions? (5=Completely, 4=Very, 3=Unsure, 2=Somewhat, 1=Not at all).
  • 4. To what extent are Laney’s religious beliefs responsible for her actions? (5=Completely, 4=Very, 3=Unsure, 2=Somewhat, 1 =Not at all).
  • • Compare your justification for the rating in question 3 to another student who has answered differently and discuss your reasons.
  • • Compare your justification for the rating in question 4 to another student who has answered differently and discuss your reasons.