Human morality is built-in, not instilled by religion

A recent article in PlOS Biology demonstrates something many scientists and philosophers have long believed: that a sense of justice and morality is built into our brains. We can now actually see our brains engaging in moral thought (something I thought impossible 25 years ago when I was fascinated by the brain but disheartened by how little scientists knew about it). As summarized in “Sense of Justice Built Into the Brain, Imaging Study Shows”:

[T]he brain has built-in mechanisms that trigger an automatic reaction to someone who refuses to share…

[T]he subjects' sense of justice was challenged in a two-player monetary fairness game, and their brain activity was simultaneously measured using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). When bidders made unfair suggestions as to how to share the money, they were often punished by their partners even if it cost them. This reaction to unfairness could be reduced by targeting one specific brain region, the amygdala.

The study is based on the universal human behaviour to react with instant aggression when another person behaves unfairly and in a manner that is not in the best interest of the group….

[S]ubjects were either given the anti-anxiety tranquilliser Oxazepam or a placebo while playing the game. The researchers found that those who had received the drug showed lower amygdala activity and a stronger tendency to accept an unfair distribution of the money – despite the fact that when asked, they still considered the suggestion unfair. In the control group, the tendency to react aggressively and punish the player who had suggested the unfair distribution of money was directly linked to an increase in activity in the amygdala. A gender difference was also observed, with men responding more aggressively to unfair suggestions than women.

Moral norms exist in every human society. And almost all humans — aside from psychopaths — possess a sense of morality. Yet many people falsely conflate religion with morality. In reality, many religious people behave in amoral and immoral ways, while many non-religious people act morally. Religiosity does not predict moral behavior. And moral behavior does not predict religiosity.

A recent Los Angeles Times article summarizes a new study in International Journal for the Psychology of Religion titled “Mean Gods Make Good People: Different Views of God Predict Cheating Behavior”:

In line with many previous studies, [a new study] found no difference between the ethical behavior of believers and nonbelievers. But those who believed in a loving, compassionate God were more likely to cheat than those who believed in an angry, punitive God.

“The take-home message is not whether you believe in God, but what God you believe in,” said Azim Shariff, a psychologist at the University of Oregon. Shariff conducted the study with psychologist Ara Norenzayan, who had been his doctoral advisor at the University of British Columbia.

They administered a math test to 100 undergraduates, advising the students that a computer glitch meant the correct answers would pop up after a few seconds unless they quickly pressed the space bar. The test takers also answered a 14-question survey to determine whether they believed in God, and if so, what traits they ascribed to God.

In other words, people who believe in an angry God cheat the least. But atheists cheat less than those who believe in a loving God. The sample size is small, but it’s yet another study saying there’s basically no link between religiosity and moral behavior.

Posted by James on Sunday, May 08, 2011