Science Corner: There but for the Grace of God

The new data—among the first to be gathered on moral behavior outside of the lab—confirm what psychologists have long suspected: Religious and nonreligious people are equally prone to immoral acts.

That’s the headline from a new study summarized here. I’m pretty sure the apostle Paul long suspected that conclusion too.

To be clear, I don’t have any a priori objections to this finding. But I do think the final point warrants further investigation. Basically, the morality of each participant’s acts were assessed by the participant relative to their own notion of morality. It seems plausible that religious participants have additional categories of sins associated with the practice of their particular faith, for which the areligious have no equivalent. For example, an orthodox Jewish participant might report driving on the Sabbath as a transgression. It would be interesting, if potentially more difficult, to evaluate everyone’s behavior according to a global definition of morals.

Among other reasons, that would be interesting because of the implications for the evolution of religion. One narrative suggests that religion evolved as a way to enforce morals which are advantageous for the group but not necessarily for the individual. A prohibition on stealing is useful globally even though each person might be better off if they can just take whatever they want or need. That narrative breaks down, though, if religion isn’t actually successful in modifying anyone’s behavior.

Which makes me wonder – is this finding actually evidence in support of the idea that religion is more than just a pragmatic expedient for a simpler era, and may in fact contain revealed truth?

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Andy Walsh

Andy has worn many hats in his life. He knows this is a dreadfully clichéd notion, but since it is also literally true he uses it anyway. Among his current metaphorical hats: husband of one wife, father of two elementary school students, reader of science fiction and science fact, enthusiast of contemporary symphonic music, and chief science officer. Previous metaphorical hats include: comp bio postdoc, molecular biology grad student, InterVarsity chapter president (that one came with a literal hat), music store clerk, house painter, and mosquito trapper. Among his more unique literal hats: British bobby, captain's hats (of varying levels of authenticity) of several specific vessels, a deerstalker from 221B Baker St, and a railroad engineer's cap. His monthly Science in Review is drawn from his weekly Science Corner posts -- Wednesdays, 8am (Eastern) on the Emerging Scholars Network Blog.

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