In his 2020 Christmas Day address, Pope Francis urged world leaders to make coronavirus vaccines easily accessible to those in need, and encouraged people to extend kindness and understanding to others, “even though they do not belong to my family, my ethnic group or my religion.” This kind of altruistic leadership is what prompts many to believe that religion helps make us good and moral. Indeed, nearly half of the world’s population believes that faith in God is necessary to be a good person. This belief crosscuts major aspects of culture; in the English language, for example, we even use words like “saintly” and “angelic” as common synonyms for “moral” and “righteous.”
At the same time, many acknowledge that religion has had a hand in the world’s greatest misdeeds. Terrible wars have been fought on the basis of faith, and the rights and liberties of many are curbed in the name of religious freedom. Terrorist groups like ISIS in the Middle East and far-right extremists in the U.S. appeal to religious values to radicalize recruits and enact violence. Religion is routinely used to justify discrimination, as when a Colorado bakery refused to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple, or when Hobby Lobby denied its employees health coverage for contraception. This past year, an internal investigation from the Vatican revealed that higher-ups in the Catholic church—which some speculate includes the current pope—turned a blind eye to reports of an ex-Cardinal’s sexual abuse of children and seminaries.
So which is it? Does religion make us good or bad? From Aristotle and Avicenna to Dawkins and Dennett, philosophers and public intellectuals have been battling it out on either side of this debate for centuries. Psychologists, too, have sought to figure out the role of religion in our behavior, values, and actions. One of the earliest empirical exercises in psychology—the famous “Good Samaritan” study, which tested whether seminary students would stop to help a fallen stranger on their way to give a sermon—suggested that religious lessons had no effect on moral behavior. Psychologists continue to search for the “true” effect of religion on morality, claiming that religion compels people to be either self-serving sinners or God-fearing do-gooders.
Instead of asking whether religion makes us good or bad, perhaps we should be asking when and how religion makes us both good and bad.
But instead of asking whether religion makes us good or bad, perhaps we should be asking when and how religion makes us both good and bad. In our latest paper, my collaborators and I scrutinized past research and developed a framework to understand how religion can encourage a wide array of both moral and immoral behaviors.
According to our framework, different aspects of religion motivate one of three moral characters: the Cooperator, the Crusader, and the Complicit. We noticed that findings from prior work on this topic fell into a predictable pattern: religion motivated behavior that benefitted either 1) others indiscriminately, 2) one’s own group over outsiders, or 3) oneself at the expense of all others. Each of the characters in our framework correspond to one of these categories of behavior. Cooperators act unselfishly to help others, crusaders bond with their religious community by harming outgroups, and the complicit use their faith to excuse selfishness. These archetypes reveal how religion can influence behavior in interesting and sometimes unexpected ways.
Cooperators: when religion makes us kind
When people argue that religion is necessary for morality, they are thinking of the ways that religion can make us cooperators. Cooperators forego personal advantages and put the needs of others above their own. Religious ascetics like Mahatma Gandhi, who denied himself even the most basic of human needs like food and shelter to advocate for others, are prime examples of cooperators. But for the average believer, even small self-sacrifices (like donating to charity or helping a stranger) fall into this category.
Cooperators are motivated by religious reverence—the beliefs and practices that reward cooperation and punish selfishness.
Cooperators are motivated by religious reverence—the beliefs and practices that reward cooperation and punish selfishness. For instance, research suggests that believing in powerful gods who punish bad behavior can make people behave in more honest and generous ways. In one set of studies, participants answered questions about their views of God before completing a tedious, computer-based math task. The task was rigged, however, so that a “glitch” in the software flashed the answer on screen a few seconds after each question appeared. Participants were told about the glitch and were instructed to hit the spacebar as soon as the question appeared to stop the answer from being displayed and avoid cheating. Analyses revealed that the more participants believed God was punitive, the fewer questions they cheated on in the math task.
But punishment isn’t the only motivator for good behavior: belief in divine rewards can also motivate beneficence. Survey studies with Christian participants found that those who viewed God as benevolent also self-reported greater involvement in volunteer work outside of their religious communities.
Crusaders: when religion makes us cruel
Though a large body of past research shows how religion can prompt us toward saintlike behaviors, our review found that it has neglected the ways that religion can also turn us into sinners. Highly religious people tend to be more intolerant of people with different ideologies and ethnicities, and report greater aggression and revenge-seeking than nonbelievers. Instead of showing group commitment through self-sacrifice like cooperators, crusaders—just like the Catholic Crusaders of the eleventh through thirteenth centuries—reify their religious communities by harming others. Crusaders are motivated by religious tribalism: the aspects of religion that bind people into tight-knit but noninclusive communities. Religious groups like the Westboro Baptist Church, who preach hate and vitriol against nonbelievers (and especially the LGBTQ+ community), exemplify the same hostile group loyalty that characterizes crusaders.
Crusaders are motivated by religious tribalism: the aspects of religion that bind people into tight-knit but noninclusive communities.
Some religious beliefs can directly motivate outgroup aggression. For example, believing in a God that commands violence against heretics could encourage people to be violent. In one study, participants read a parable about a group of Israelites who sought retribution after a mob murdered a man’s wife. Half the participants were told that this story came from the Bible, and the other half were told it came from an ancient scroll. Within each condition, half of the participants also read that God commanded retaliation against the mob. Participants then completed a secondary task in which they and their “partners”—in actuality a computer program—competed to press a button as fast as possible in a series of 25 trials. The loser received a sound blast as punishment, the noise level of which was predetermined by the winner. Participants doled out louder sound blasts more frequently when the passage they read came from the Bible or mentioned God, suggesting that violence sanctioned by God or scripture can increase aggression.
Complicit: when religion gives us a bad-behavior pass
Crusaders cause harm on behalf of their religious communities, but some aspects of religion can encourage people to act selfishly even toward their own ingroup. The complicit justify their moral indiscretions by appealing to religious absolution—the aspects of religion that absolve people of moral blame. Think about celebrity televangelists and megapastors who preach the prosperity gospel to con people out of money and use their status as religious leaders to defend their corruption.
But the complicit need not suffer from greed at such a large scale; everyday theists can become complicit if they use their religion to escape moral responsibility. In the same cheating study described above that showed how believing in a punitive God can make people cooperators, participants who instead believed in a loving, forgiving God were more likely to cheat, presumably because they believed their misdeed would be forgiven.
The complicit justify their moral indiscretions by appealing to religious absolution—the aspects of religion that absolve people of moral blame.
Another line of research suggests that believing God personally intervenes on your behalf makes you more likely to perpetrate passive moral offenses, like failing to return an overdue library book or keeping extra change from the cashier. Participants in one such study rated the permissibility of a series of self-serving but potentially immoral actions, like pocketing a wallet found on the sidewalk or falsifying information on a resume to get a coveted job. They then rated the extent to which they believed God would directly intervene to help people in different scenarios, such as when a person of faith is terminally ill or struggling to pay rent. The more participants believed in an intervening God, the more lenient their moral judgments were.
The complicit also use their religious identities to escape condemnation. Religious people are seen as more trustworthy than nonreligious people, which allows believers to use their religious affiliation to mask their moral failings. In one field study, researchers found that cars with religious decorations (e.g., bumper stickers, dashboard figurines, etc.) parked on or across the boundary lines of their parking spots more often than cars with secular or no decorations, suggesting that signaling goodness through one’s faith may reduce the effort one makes to signal it through one’s actions.
Complicated: when religion makes us both good and bad
Though the boundaries between these characters seem stark, they are much blurrier in practice. Many religions inspire all three characters, and research needs to explore how these opposing forces combine to impact people’s morals. Religion has always been a powerful influence on human thoughts and actions, and it will continue to influence human behavior for many centuries. But this influence is not uniformly good nor evil. This taxonomy of religious moral character clarifies how and why different aspects of religion cultivate such contradictory moral motivations. How these elements influence moral behavior in tandem with one another is still an open question. But by synthesizing past research on the age-old debate over religion and morality, our work proposes a preliminary (albeit unsatisfying) answer: it’s complicated.
Acknowledgement: I am grateful to my collaborators Joshua Conrad Jackson and Kurt Gray for their contributions to this research.