Punitive gods stop cheaters, compassionate gods encourage them

Punitive gods stop cheaters, compassionate gods encourage them April 23, 2011

Probably more important than whether you believe in a God is the type of God you believe in – from a behavioural point of view, at least.

For example, believers in a judgemental god are more likely to support the death penalty, and are more likely to suffer mental ill health. Back in 2006, Gary Jensen (a criminologist at Vanderbildt University) showed that so-called ‘passionate dualism’ – i.e. religious worldview characterised by intense beliefs in a clash between good and evil – is a major cause of homicide.

Now, a new study by Azim Shariff, at the University of Oregon, and Ara Norenzayan, at the University of British Columbia, have looked at how views of God affect cheating. You may remember Shariff from a pivotal study in 2008 on priming religious concepts and honesty.

In this new study, they sat students down to what they thought was a warm-up task on basic numeracy (adding up a bunch of numbers – simple but tedious). Unfortunately, the computer programme had a glitch that showed the answer after a few seconds. The students were asked to be honest and press the space bar to make the answer go away – without looking at it.

Of course, this was no glitch. In fact, they were interested in whether (and how often) the students did the honest thing and pressed the space bar.

It turned out that there was no difference in honesty between atheists and the religious. However, there was a big difference among the religious.

Those who believed in a stern, punishing god were less likely to cheat – while those who believe compassionate, forgiving god were actually more likely to cheat! On average, the two cancelled out – which is why the religious as a whole were no different from atheists.

So does that mean that encouraging belief in punishing gods will reduce cheating. Well, it’s not quite that simple.

Take, for example, this graph that I just knocked together. It plots ‘Passionate Dualism’ – based on Gary Jensen’s original measure of heaven and hell beliefs – against corruption (the Corruption Perceptions Index). It goes in the opposite way to what you might expect – the greater the level of belief in punitive gods, the more corruption a country has.

One reason this might happen is that Shariff’s study was a scientific study, done in isolation from any context. Yet the most common cause of cheating is actually when people feel that they’ve been hard-done by elsewhere, as this article in the NY Times explains:

“Cheating is especially easy to justify when you frame situations to cast yourself as a victim of some kind of unfairness,” said Dr. Anjan Chatterjee, a neurologist at the University of Pennsylvania who has studied the use of prescription drugs to improve intellectual performance. “Then it becomes a matter of evening the score; you’re not cheating, you’re restoring fairness.”

What’s more, individuals who are convinced that they have the moral high ground are actually more likely to cheat. Perhaps believers in a punitive god have had experiences in the past that make them feel like they are victims of injustice, and also that they are strongly in the right.

Well, this might help to explain it, but it certainly isn’t the full story, and it probably isn’t the most interesting one.  Much more interesting is the likelihood that people change adapt their concept of god to suit the society in which they find themselves. Here’s Shariff and Norenzayan:

… the concept of a punishing God should be expected to be more widespread in societies where the threat of freeloading is high, such as those lacking effective social institutions, experiencing internal or external threats, or both. This hypothesis raises the possibility that the widespread belief in benevolent deities is a modern phenomenon—the consequence of a gradual change in religious beliefs.

Their point is that believing in a punishing god is actually very stress-inducing. An earlier study found that reminders of God make Christians less fearful of death – but make Muslims more fearful! That was mainly because, unlike the Christians, they had solid belief in hell. Back then I commented that:

The function of Hell is to reinforce social order by threatening punishment to wrongdoers who can’t be brought to justice by normal societal mechanisms. As a strategy, it’s not terribly successful. Medieval Europe is not renowned as an era of peace, justice and harmony.

But perhaps in the absence of more effective social controls, promoting fear of hell is better than nothing. When better social controls are invented – such as in modern Europe – Hell is no longer needed.

If Hell is no longer needed in modern Europe, then Heaven still is. People still die, and our basic, evolved instincts make us all fear of death. The prospect of heaven can reduce that fear – but only if you abandon the inconvenient concept of hell.

As a result, modern Christianity, reacting to market demand, quietly drops the concept of hell, but retains the concept of heaven.

The feel-good version of religion, like atheism, is what you get when you remove danger and threat from people’s lives.
Shariff, A., & Norenzayan, A. (2011). Mean Gods Make Good People: Different Views of God Predict Cheating Behavior. International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, 21 (2), 85-96 DOI: 10.1080/10508619.2011.556990

Creative Commons License This article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.

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