Religion, at least in many people’s minds, is linked to prosocial behaviour. There’s some evidence that that’s true – at least in certain circumstances – but it’s a little equivocal
But at least, we can agree that religious people believe they are more moral. When asked, they are more likely to say that they they will do the right thing (regardless of whether or not they actually do). It’s straightforward self-affirmation bias.
Or so I thought, until I saw the recent research from Olga Stavrova University of Cologne, Germany) and Pascal Siegers (GESIS Leibniz-Institute for the Social Sciences, Germany).
They did a total of four studies, digging into different social survey datasets, basically showing that that whether religious people said they were more ethical depends on whether or not they live in a ‘religious’ country.
For example, the more religious people there are in a country, the less likely it is that religious people will say that they go to religious services or are a charity member. When religion is common, religious people are relatively less likely to condemn liberal morals, or to disapprove of lying in one’s own interest.
OK, so what this is basically saying is that, in countries where most people are religious, your average religious person is pretty normal. In countries where it’s easy to opt out of religion, those people who stick with it tend to really be into it.
But actually the results showed some interesting details to ponder. Take a look at the graphs (click on them for a larger version).
They show how people respond to various questions on unethical behaviour – the further you go to the right on each graph, the more religious are the responders.
In general, the trend is that more religious people are less likely to say they do bad things – the graphs slope downwards to the right.
The different lines indicated different kinds of countries. The thick lines are countries with lots of religious people, the thin lines are countries with few religious people.
Two things jump out at you.
First is that, in countries with few religious people (thin lines), even the most religious are more likely to justify lying and admit traffic offences than the least religious people in highly religious countries (top two graphs).
Second is that, in highly religious countries (thick lines), everyone – religious and non-religious – is more likely to say that they would buy stolen goods and commit insurance fraud.
This second observation helps to explain another fact – that religious countries tend to be more corrupt. The data in those graphs have been corrected for socio-economic factors (wealth, education, etc). So they suggest that religious countries tend to have a more corrupt culture – everyone, regardless of how religious they are, is more likely to see corrupt behaviour as acceptable.
In the less religious countries, highly religious people are much less likely to condone corruption. And less religious countries are less corrupt. Is it the guiding light of the highly religious that is reducing corruption? I doubt it. Remember, in these countries there are hardly any highly religious people, so their it’s the behaviour of the non-religious that dominates the average.
More likely, it seems that people are not being entirely honest in their answers. Which brings us to the top two graphs.
What’s interesting about these is that, in the least religious countries, even the highly-religious are more likely to endorse lying and traffic offences than most people in more religious countries.
It seems that the cultural norms in less religious countries allow people to freely confess that they commit traffic offences and occasionally lie. But does that mean that they’re really doing it more?
And does it mean that the religious really tell fewer lies and commit fewer traffic offences? Well, other research has shown that the highly religious tell fewer ‘white’ lies. So maybe they do!
Stavrova O, & Siegers P (2014). Religious prosociality and morality across cultures: how social enforcement of religion shapes the effects of personal religiosity on prosocial and moral attitudes and behaviors. Personality & social psychology bulletin, 40 (3), 315-33 PMID: 24218518