Does religion make us moral?

Connor Wood


The scriptures of the world’s great religious traditions are chock-full of moral teachings. Believers are encouraged to treat each other as neighbors, to be kind to strangers, and to help the poor. But religious people aren’t always more moral or righteous than nonbelievers – indeed, religions have inspired wars, inquisitions, and seemingly endless prejudice. So is religion morally good or bad? Yale psychologist Paul Bloom thinks the answer is both. And the moral effects of religion stem from what religious people do together…not necessarily what they believe.

Paul Bloom is a noted cognitive scientist whose work has focused on morality, the development of social abilities in children, and the evolution of religion. In 2005 he published a well-received article in The Atlantic that suggested that belief in God and other supernatural spirits was the accidental by-product of cognitive predispositions to see order and purpose in the world. Bloom asserts that people basically come hardwired to sense invisible presences and spirits in their environment. So he’s not exactly a raging Bible-thumper – in fact, he’s a self-described atheist.

It might seem surprising, then, that Bloom has recently published a paper in the Annual Review of Psychology detailing, in part, all the good that religion can do. Religion, Bloom points out, does actually seem to make people more altruistic and generous. Religious people give more to charities than non-religious people, including secular charities. And IRS tax receipts show that states where people are more religious have much higher rates of charitable giving than less religious states. Meanwhile, lab experiments show that participating in religious rituals primes people to be more generous and caring toward one another.

The benefits of religion don’t stop there. Actively religious people are much more likely to say they are “very happy” with their lives than their secular counterparts, according to a 2004 study cited by Bloom. And non-religious people are proportionately more like to express that they feel like failures.

But as always – at least when it comes to religion – the positives are balanced nearly evenly by the negatives, and this is Bloom’s point. For example, religious participation also often inspires people to be prejudiced against outsiders and minorities. In a 1950s study, the psychologist Gordon Allport showed that religious people were much more prejudiced against minority groups and foreigners than non-religious people. And in perhaps the most disconcerting study cited by Bloom, a research team recently found that exposing subjects to religiously themed words actually increased their levels of prejudice against African-Americans.

So is religion good for us or not? As an atheistic scientist, Bloom’s answer is a deliciously ambiguous “yes and no.” Religion, he believes, is simply a tool. It evolved to help humans solve the “free rider” problem of communal social life. When a social group depends on the efforts of all its members for success, free riders – people who accept help and resources from the group, but don’t give much back in return – can pose a serious threat to the entire collective. This threat is especially dire for human beings, since we depend almost entirely on our social abilities to survive.

According to Bloom, that’s where religion comes in. By demanding that people participate in costly, often painful rituals, religious groups ensure that their members have a strong motivation to stay involved and contribute economic and social resources to the group. It’s a bit like investing with friends – the more money you’ve put into the shared investment, the more motivated you are to make sure that investment pays off.

This evolutionary perspective on religion helps explain one of the most perplexing findings Bloom highlights: the moral effects of religion, both good and bad, are predicted by what sorts of religious behaviors people partake in, not whether or not they believe in God or an afterlife. In fact, private religious behaviors of all kinds don’t seem to make much difference when it comes to people’s ethical actions. For instance, among Palestinian Muslims attending mosque services often was associated with support of suicide bombings against Israelis, while individual prayer had no such association.

These findings back up a growing chorus of scholars in the religious studies world who insist that religion is essentially about action, not abstract beliefs and propositions. If Bloom is right, then participating regularly in group-oriented religious activities ought to make most people more generous, happy, and altruistic…as well as more suspicious of outsiders, prejudiced, and defensive of their in-groups. Like a cancer treatment with profoundly unpleasant side effects, religion inspires the best in human nature even while it trots out the worst.

But, Bloom points out, there’s reason to be optimistic. First, the association between religion and racial prejudice has declined – at least in America – since the mid-1960s. Secondly, Allport’s research also showed that only certain kinds of religiosity seemed to inspire prejudice. Religiosity that emphasized external rewards and social acceptance was associated with negative feelings toward members of other races, while religiousness that was focused on internal, subjective goals wasn’t.

The relationship between morality and religion is a difficult one. Calvinist Christian theologians like Karl Barth have argued that human morality has nothing to do with God’s sense of right and wrong, and that salvation can only come from God’s inscrutable decision. And, as other writers have pointed out, profound religious or mystical experiences often seem to blur the lines between good and evil, making the basic nature of the universe seem neither good nor bad. Meanwhile, figures such as the 16th-century Spanish nun Teresa of Avila make the opposite claim:

A single [religious experience] may be sufficient to abolish at a stroke certain imperfections of which the soul during its whole life had vainly tried to rid itself, and to leave it adorned with virtues and loaded with supernatural gifts. A single one of these intoxicating consolations may reward it for all the labors undergone in its life.

One thing is for sure: religions certainly play a major role in how people think about morality. In fact, religion undergirds such a vast portion of human society that it’s difficult to even imagine how we’d formulate our questions about ethics outside of religious frameworks. (Even modern secular cultures are still deeply informed by Christian language and themes.) Thorny questions like the relationship of religion and morality do accomplish one thing, though: they show that we need to understand religion if we want to understand ourselves, including our moral behavior. Bloom’s most important message, then, is not that religion is good, bad, or deluded. It’s that it would be, in Bloom’s words, “impossible to make sense of most of human existence, including law, morality, war, and culture, without some appreciation of religion and how it works.”


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  • Per Smith

    Very interesting stuff Connor, and this new blog looks great. As someone who researches ritual, and perhaps especially as someone who researches ritual outside of the realm of supernatural agents and abstract propositions I’m fully aboard the “action is where it’s at” movement. Though with that in mind I wonder how productive it is to confine discussions of the benefits of ritual to the subject of “religion.” I’ve wondered more thoroughly about it on my blog –

  • jerry lynch

    Like almost everything in life, the potential for good or evil is in religion, as intelligently and eloquently pointed out in this piece. The statement about mystical experiences seeming “to blur the lines between good and evil” is especially intriguing to me. From my understanding, it is a non-dualistic perspective, which is not a blurring of good and evil, except for those outside the experience. Paradox is the native tongue of the mystic. “Surrender to win.” To live, you must die.” The last shall be first.” Outright contradictions…without a deeper vision.

    A spirit of action does seem far preferable than a system of belief. The gospels to me are meant to convey “being as Christ” more than believing in Christ’s words and acting on them. For this becoming, how we believe appears far more important than what we believe. “Turn, and BECOME as a little child”: this is the crux, I feel, of how to believe.

    Belief is not an end and maintaining the belief will keep us from its purpose: transformation. The end of a belief, both its purpose and demise, is realization: bringing into actual and genuine being. What I feel Christ was offering was not a form to be morally perfect but way to be fully alive, to be free to embrace the moment with our entire being.

    I have heard many Christian say that the Beatitudes are a new ethos, one even suggested that they replace the Ten Commandments at courthouses (where that is still allowed). For me, the Beatitudes describe the state of being a saint and not a path to follow to becoming one. This seems too obvious. yet most still speak in terms of finding these too idealistc to ever actually achieve, although a noble goal to strive for…which will keep that goal at a safe and constant distance.

    The following of any Commandment and the practice of any principle is meant to revelatory, not regulatory: what is it in me that resists or motivates adherrence? This is part of the cross: uncovering those the roots of those defects and wounds that harm others and myself. This is quite painful. But to know the truth that will set us free, it is a necessary suffering.

    Again, the goal is not to be morally right in all that we do but to be as present for “life as it is” that we can, accepting the good with the bad. It is about becoming what is right, not simply doing (obeying, conforming, following) what is right. Let’s take patience as an example:
    They say patience is a virtue. It is when patience is no longer a virtue that we realize what is best. True patience doesn’t know it is patient, for there is no other time, place, or endeavor it would prefer and find joy in. (Integrity is beyond intent–and most religious people are filled with intent because they merely believe.)

    The end of the practice of patience, both its purpose and demise, is to be free of those things within ourselves that kept us from perfect peace in the moment, from fully embraing the “as is.” The same is true of honesty. If I have to think to be honest, I am not fully honest; there is another motive at work. Therein is the rub.

    There may be someone out there that will experience this all the time, yet for the vast majority, including myself, we just taste this occasionally, get an enticing hint of a magnificent potential. Progress is realizing such greater and greater discoveries, a growing wonder and deepening freedom, and as such progress is far, far better than perfection, what would be the end of such a joyful and delightful and, yes, interesting journey. This is the way of the Little Child.

  • robert bridges

    In 1989 I received a Ph.D. in the Psychology of Religion from the University of Denver. Gordon Allport’s studies which Bloom uses as his primary source for data were completed in the 50′s. My doctoral advisor Dr. Bernard Spilka – studied with Allport. So, what I’m saying is do your homework. Get the latest research data on this subject (I assure you there have been hundreds of well designed, carried out and written studies pertaining to your topic theme. I have no idea where or how you came across Bloom – but obviously Bloom didn’t much bother to do his homework either…….and google Bernard Spilka so you can start doing yours.

  • connorwood

    Robert, thanks for your comment, but I’m very aware of Gordon Allport’s studies. As you know, Allport’s distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic religiosity is one of the most influential concepts in the social science of religion to this day, especially when you include modifications such as Batson’s I/E/Quest typology. However, Bloom uses a lot more than Allport in his studies, and has conducted many of his own experiments. As far as I’m concerned (and I’m not alone), he counts as one of the top experts in his field.

  • connorwood

    “Paradox is the native tongue of the mystic.” I really like that – thanks for the insightful comments, Jerry.

  • Raymond Takashi Swenson

    Making generalizations about “religion” as if it is a single entity with consistent characteristics is just not logical. There are all sorts of human activities that get put into the sack that we (in English) label religion, but frankly it is not possible to show that ALL things placed in that semantic bag are similar in anything but their refetence to an entity or force that isbeyond the observable natural substance of oyr common reality.

    The religion that sanctions the deliberate mass murder of thousands of people is distinct from a religion which motivates a person to sacrifice his own life to protect one other person from harm. Such differences have very distinct effects on human behavior. To assert that they have a fundamental commonality is to reduce that common area to unimportance.

    This kind of hypothesis assumes most of what needs to be proved, especially that there is a commonality that can be present in everything labeled “religion”, and that this shared element determines the effect of any religion. Attempts to define psychological experiments as.measuring “religion” are also suspect and arbitrary. If those experiments do not measure knowledge of the Bible, how can they be sure they are measuring religion as oppised to any other social phenomenon?

  • jerry lynch

    No, no, thank you, Connor. I truly enjoyed your piece; my amends for not making that abundantly clear in my post. I have degrees in psychology, worked as a grief counselor briefly, but have no real training in research, an area several professors encouraged me to pursue; they thought I had the mind for it.
    I don’t.
    I studied psychology to get the broadest range of possible explanations for what was happening to me before I entered school. My hypotheses and queries, that misled those professors in their assessment, were all about self-examination; I wanted reliable tools to probe my experiences and useful directions to do the best analysis possible. Now, this ambition seems a bit deranged. The objectivity and precision necessary for such an endeavor needs an entirely different education. The Mystics, I feel, offer something higher than a Ph.D. in that area.
    In my opinion, all the sciences seem to converge of our questions of truth: the nature of who we are, why we are here, and what is for our ultimate well-being. We speak for nature and the universe; the why, what, and why of it all, if not just random chance, can be found is us. This is not hubris but just a matter of mechanics: we appear self-reflective and self-aware, have an opposing thumb and instruments of measurement, a rich language and science. Trees may eventually tell us more about this existence, but they will need both an interpretor and a stenographer.
    How do we come to true objectivity, or “immaculate perception” as a Buddhist nun once anointed it.
    It seems that not only beauty but everything is in the eye of the beholder. Our own everyday experience with people strongly indicates that reality is only in the heart; the life we get is there. Same situation involving three people and we may get, and usually do, three divergent reactions: one is broken, another is angry, and the last laughs. The very best we get from religion, I feel, is the equanimity with all of life situations, that peace which is said to surpass all understanding. What a wondrous advantage for the scientist!
    The question I am leading up to, which is probably too obvious, is this: can we study religion from the outside, even with the best methods, greatest minds, and finest training available in academic society?
    I tried, although this fact should not be all that discouraging. I am not an academian type or all that intelligent; just my siblings run circles around me and Mensa is not retruning my calls. Oh, and I have had some deleterious and consuming habits, which may skew all results or make clear assessments impossible. No matter. Inconsequential to my point.
    Getting the “false self” (persona, ego, worldliness) out of the way: what a possible boon to science. Our researchers need such a path.

  • nnmns

    “In fact, private religious behaviors of all kinds don’t seem to make much difference when it comes to people’s ethical actions. For instance, among Palestinian Muslims attending mosque services often was associated with support of suicide bombings against Israelis, while individual prayer had no such association.”

    I presume you are saying Palestinians doing suicide bombings against Israelis is a bad thing. I wonder if, were the US small and weak with no armed forces, and Canada large and aggressive, and if Canadians regularly stole land from US citizens with no chance for recompense, I wonder if then you’d consider US citizens who resisted with bombs or guns as doing bad things. Because that’s the proper analogy.

  • sherwood8028

    I was “religious” for almost the first 45 years of my life. Thus, I considered myself to be a “good” person, one who did the best he could to please others – expecting as a result, they would be “good” to me. Some were, some were not. And then. a crisis came into my life and not knowing where else to turn, I opened my Bible hoping to discover an answer to my dilemma.
    I came upon Jesus’ words where He commended His followers to – repent! I had no idea as what that really meant and so I offered up a prayer. Imagine my amazement when I received a response, by way of thoughts coming to mind that I had thought were shut away long ago. Bottom line was that I had good reasons to repent, that the tiny seeds of discontent I had sowed as a youth and continued on for many years had grown into what I like to describe as “mighty oaks of unrighteousness”. What to do? I prayed again, this time to agree that I had been wrong and ask for forgiveness and it was as if this huge load was suddenly removed from my body. I really did not understand the terminology in those days, but I felt as though I had been – born again. And that made sense to me as I had often derided folks who seemed to me at the time, to be invoking a “holy” command on an unholy circumstance. So much for my theology in those days.

    I decided that since I had been wrong and it appeared as though God really did care for me, I decided then and there to change my ways. To get serious about studying the Bible as opposed to occasionally looking up a verse or two and to discover all that God might make available to me.

    I went back to church and I was strangely joyously received without a word as to what I now realize was a transformation from the man I had been to the man I could become. The challenges of life continued but as each seemed to appear, I sought refuge in my Bible and was amazed to discover how many practical answers that it had to provide. I began to put real trust in God and then was astounded by the good breaks that seem to appear whenever I placed my trust in a better answer the Bible provided than I had even known in my past.

    So it was that and to my great surprise, I dared to challenge some of the practices I had seen evolving in the church. In the first church I attended, I realized that they were adamant about believing that being “filled” with the Spirit would be demonstrated by speaking in tongues. A good “brother” in fact was now teaching people how to acquire this skill and so I tried, and tried, using his techniques, all to no avail. Strangely however, I got involved with two friends who seemed to me to be accusing me of something I did not understand. I prayed hoping to discover an answer and to my astonishment I began uttering sounds that I really did not understand. And to further my confusion each of the other two were telling me that they had understood what I was saying and both, on their knees, asked me to forgive them. What had happened? To this day I have not fully understood all that happened except that it convinced me that God’s ways are truly above our ways and that trying to rationalize issues that are often, beyond our comprehension.

    I say all of that to say this, one of the greatest problems we have as Christians, as believers in God and in His Son, our Lord, Jesus Christ, is our tendency to resolve our problems without responding to His wisdom, merely wastes our time and our energies and we wind up, being overwhelmed by situations beyond our comprehension. The tragedy is that we drive away the very people who need us the most.

  • connorwood

    That’s a pretty strong position, nnmns, but in the interests of free speech I am not going to censor it (the spam filter tried to delete it, possibly because of the strong content). Just to make sure I’m clear on this, yes – I do unequivocally think Palestinians bombing Israelis is a bad thing. But that goes for Israeli-on-Palestinian terrorism, too.

  • idea1013

    It seems you’ve reduced the argument to “my good religion isn’t like that bad religion over there, therefore the study is moot.” Following up with expecting measures that include the Bible specifically further show your bias. This is why such research should be left in the capable hands of objective researchers. Religious belief and action are similar across religions, regardless of which system one adheres to; Bloom makes valid points throughout his study, though I can see how those points could make some believers uncomfortable.

  • berock212

    Religion doesn’t really change people one way or the other, it just makes people more extreme. You will see really nice Christians and Muslims and Jews that follow the holy book. And then you have bigots, westboro Baptists church, suicide bombers, e.c.t. Religion just gives you a tool to justify your actions, so they tend to swing one way or the other.