The Moral Influence of Religion on Our Behavior

Many of us saw religion as harmless nonsense. Beliefs might lack all supporting evidence but, we thought, if people needed a crutch for consolation, where’s the harm? September 11th changed all that.  — Richard Dawkins

With or without religion, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion. — Stephen Weinberg

A while back, I partly overheard a young couple in the Coffee Shop discussing the influence of religion on our behavior.  The man said something about religion causing the Spanish Inquisition.   But the woman rejected that notion and replied people are horrible to each other even without religion.

And that’s how it went.  The man pointed to the Inquisition, the Crusades, September 11th, and so forth, while the woman kept saying those things could have happened anyway.  They were still going at it when I left.  It seems September 11th changed a lot of things, but it did not end the perennial debate over whether religion on the whole is a good or bad influence on our behavior.

On that issue, two positions have long seemed equally improbable to me: That religion is always good or that religion is always bad.  Yet, I’ve heard people argue both those positions!

What is the truth?

One clue comes from a fairly recent study conducted by two researchers at the University of British Columbia, Azim Shariff and Ara Norenzayan.   They found experimental evidence suggesting that simply thinking about an omniscient, morally concerned deity substantially increases the odds a person will behave altruistically.

At the same time, Brad Bushman of the University of Michigan seems to have found equally valid experimental evidence that suggests thinking about a judgmental, vengeful deity substantially increases the odds someone will behave aggressively against others.

Both studies agree that how someone thinks of deity might significantly influence their behavior.  And if both studies are right, then religion can influence us to do both good and evil.  I suspect that conclusion will jive with most folk’s own observations.

If religion can influence us to do both good and evil, then it would seem just as unfounded to oppose it on the grounds that its influence is necessarily evil as it would seem unfounded to support it on the grounds that its influence is necessarily good.

I began this essay by quoting Dawkins and Weinberg.  Neither person, so far as I know, would argue the influence of religion on our behavior is entirely evil.  Yet, I think both might hold the negatives outweigh the positives.

That’s a view likely to be endlessly debated.  As for myself,  I find the older I get, the more I incline toward the notion that the influence of religion on our behavior is more often evil than good.  But that’s just an intuition, a hunch, and I know it could easily be wrong.

Finally, I would like to note that nothing discussed here directly addresses the questions of (1) what influence religion might have on our well-being, and (2) whether religion is overall good or evil.   Both of those questions are simply beyond the scope of a short essay dealing with the moral influence of religion on our behavior.

8 thoughts on “The Moral Influence of Religion on Our Behavior

  1. Hi Wolfshowl! Welcome to the blog! 🙂

    I think religion is not something we will be able to get rid of anytime soon. Perhaps it would be more practical to find ways to make religion more benign?

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  2. I don’t think the problem is religion, per se, but how it’s misinterpreted and misused by the followers or the leaders of the religon. Zealots, no matter what their faith, are dangerous. The basic tenets of most, if not all, mainstream religions are good. For instance, Christ’s teachings of tolorance and love thy neighbor are good.

    I know people who are devout Christians to try to live a Christ-like life and other devout Christians who are the most un-Christlike people you’d ever meet.

    Religion isn’t the problem. It’s people who take their religion too seriously or use their religion to control others.

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  3. Hey Paul, thanks!

    Is there a way to make a pedophile more benign?
    How about a rapist?
    A murderer?
    Nah, let’s just get rid of it, start all over. I refuse to be accepting of religion. (Now spirituality is a different matter. That’s not about giving control of your life/mind/opinions over to someone else.)

    Someone once said to me “don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.”
    I replied, “I will if the baby is evil.”

    😉

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  4. Rick–Ever read the entire holy books of those religions? Why don’t you read them then get back to us about how they’re perfectly fine and it’s just people who distort them.

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  5. God said, “Let us make man in our own image, in the likeness of ourselves,…” Genesis 1:26

    Religion’s problem, our problem, is that we make God in the image and likeness of ourselves. So, religion, the pursuit of a relationship with God, ends up saddled with all our own shortcomings. This is especially true when we try to take the shortcuts.

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  6. I know people who are devout Christians to try to live a Christ-like life and other devout Christians who are the most un-Christlike people you’d ever meet.

    The problem is how one interprets their religion. For example, I am sure the fundamentalists will agree that they are only doing what their religion is asking of them. They will also likely claim they too are just being Christ-like.

    Religion isn’t the problem. It’s people who take their religion too seriously or use their religion to control others.

    But when we allow religion to exist we allow people to use it to their advantage. We allow them to indoctrinate children. If anyone reading these comments takes their children to Sunday school or teaches their child about scripture then they are enabling the fundamentalists.

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  7. Religion is mindlessness run amok. All religions are about one thing and one thing only: the denial of death. Thus, they are base upon a fundamental lie.

    Lies do not make anything better.

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