Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Morality with God (But Don't Blame God)

Well, the data is in. The research has been done. It has also been published but most people won't see it unless they read the right books or articles. It may drift through into "memes" or highbrow conversations, but will the information hit mainstream and become common knowledge? We'll see.

But we now know, not just surmise, that religion affects morality. The links are clear. The facts are nevertheless shocking.

As the professor introduced it, he said "..but you won't like it," and in my case he was wrong. I loved it. It explained so much.

You see, they have conclusively proven with repeated studies, on a variety of people, right around the world, that religion powerfully and directly affects morality. That's not the part I love.

They've broken it down, and they know why. But even that's not the best bit.

It is not that it affects their morality for the better. 

Before some of you get too excited, it's not that it affects it for the worst either. Both are true.

I wish all of you could watch these lectures and read the associated reports, but I know you won't, so I'll now attempt to explain it as succinctly as I can. I'm not very good at succinct, so please cut me some slack here.

First they broke religion down into 3 key areas:

1. Religious belief.
2. Religious practice.
3. Religious experience.

Religious belief, by all accounts, doesn't affect much at all. That is to say, which religion you follow, and what the specific beliefs of that religion are, really play no important part in your overall morality. And, the simple fact that you have any belief at all, or none, or just a little vague belief, has no real bearing on it either. Just having a belief, any belief, of any level, or none, does not really affect a person's morality.

This is important. I hope it's obvious why, and if it isn't, you need to study this more yourself.

Religious experience even, the most powerful, or the absence of any, has almost zero impact.

But religious practice, that is to say sharing your religion with others, attending places of worship, and being part of a religious community, with all the associated social and instructive aspects of that, has a massive effect.

As we are a very social creature, I expected it to have some effect, this is not all that surprising, but I was not expecting it to be THE effect, and I certainly wasn't expecting to hear that religious beliefs have hardly any effect at all. But, as I said, and wish to re-iterate, this is not the opinion of one researcher, of from one study. This is solid evidence from multiple and varied research, internationally.

What this means is that one's peers and teachers, regardless of who they are, and regardless of what we think, direct (control?) our behaviour far more than any concept of divinity we may or may not have.

I really think you should mull that over for a bit. It explains peer pressure. It explains cultural influence (cultural contamination, if you like). It explains a lot.

Unfortunately, it explains two things equally well.

It explains why charity is associated with churches.
It explains why people become suicide bombers.

The subtle and not so subtle pressures from your religious community can be a force of good or a force of evil. It can go either way.

I could go on about this at considerable length, but a) I'm not the expert, I'm just reporting, and b) I'm sure a discussion will ensue anyway.

There it is. Make of it what you will. Clearly, interpretation is the key here.

I know what Dennis is going to say. He'll quote Shakespeare.

18 comments:

  1. Very interesting blog and findings. It makes those of us who lead religious organizations highly responsible for the way we lead. As I am on the last 15 years of my life as such a leader I need to make sure I finish well.

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    1. Power to you for taking that resp[onsibility seriously.

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  2. Hmmm. As My Beloved is working toward being a religious leader. . . I will forward this to him.

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  4. As a Christian, one of the things that has been a teaching, of Jesus, is our thought lives. It has been taking this teaching casually that has caused Christian leaders to do bad things and hurt their credibility to people they teach. Jesus said,

    “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart." Matthew 5:27-28

    In his "Sermon on the Mount" Jesus repeatedly talked about our thought lives. Too many Christians have not taken this seriously. Jesus used other examples of murder and divorce in Matt 5:21-32. When we take our thought (2 Corinthians 10:5) lives seriously we are far less likely to sin. But too many Christians and leaders have not. Thinking our thoughts are private and they don't effect our actions. The Bible teaches God knows our thoughts. When we don't take them seriously and don't change them then eventually there is real danger of us acting out on those thoughts. Some critics of Christianity have accused Jesus of being a "thought police". However it also makes sense that if we took charge of our thought lives we are less likely to do evil.

    This is how I hope and plan to finish well. :)

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    1. Same as the Buddhist right-mindfulness (I'm just saving our resident Buddhist some typing here).

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  5. How then, does this impact when the morality of agnostics and atheists come into play?

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    1. I suppose that either of these could adopt a similar plan and take charge of their thoughts for different reasons and probably have similar results. There really isn't anything supernatural about this teaching. It is just practical.

      But having said that, Christians should know this, it should be something they are taught by reading the Bible or by teachers. In other words, for them there is less of an excuse for bad behavior.

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    2. Glad you asked, they did cover this. Depends on where he lives and his social circles. If he lives in a location where the population is mostly atheist, or he deliberately mixes only with other atheists, then that is the basis of his community, and they play the biggest role in how his morality develops. If he's a little lone, lost island of atheism, he either has to figure it all out by himself, or be influenced by whatever community he has. This is how religion in culture (for better or worse) affects the non-believers in that culture.

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    3. Yup I think I agree Melanie.

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  6. Cuba, and the former countries under the USSR regime - as moral as anyone but religion was not only forbidden, it was considered the refuge of the simple minded.
    I believe, regardless of studies, that humanity creates its own morality. Absolutely, some follow religion but I feel it has more to do with individuals believing they are not capable of true morality without a guidedog and a map. Or the early civilizations, the ones that existed prior to "religion", are we to believe them to have been immoral? Then, by extension, by whose definition of morality? I think the concept is too fluid to be identified through studies of any sort. It would be necessary to see what types of "morality" were used as the measure.

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    1. At no point did it suggest that the morality arose as a result of religious belief. Quite the contrary. It suggested that indeed, humanity creates its own morality, within the community. Any community. But religious people tend to find community within their religion. That's the point.

      And yes, obviously morality differs. But whatever is the "norm", morally within your community is what you see as normal.

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  7. So, morality is the creation of tribe. Religion is just a common denominator, as would be language or culture. This is going to become more of an area of interest as we become increasingly more mobile and as a result, insulated from old concept of community.

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    1. Really! I can't get enough of this stuff, and the more I find the more I want.

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  8. The concept or changing definitions of morality fascinates me. What was considered immoral just 50 years ago, is now accepted without so much of a blink. I think it may have more to do with the change to society - pulling away from religious doctrine toward more logical, rational, trains of thought.

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    1. Just keep your fingers crossed it keeps going in that direction. If you look at the whole history of human attitudes towards morality it has often been two steps forward and one back, and it could easily turn backwards if the religious right can wield enough influence. Look what happened in the Middle East.

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  9. Or some areas of the United States...

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    1. I try hard not to mention that, but yeah.

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