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How moral behavior of believers and nonbelievers differ?

Posted October 6, 2014
Picture: Christopher Hitchens, famous atheist. Image credit: Boris Rasin/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Picture: Christopher Hitchens, famous atheist. Image credit: Boris Rasin/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Is moral behavior of religious and non-religious individuals different? Results of recent psychological experiments suggest that significant differences exist. But what are they?

Azim F. Shariff, Jared Piazza, and Stephanie R. Kramer working at the Universities of Oregon and Pennsylvania think that believers and nonbelievers diverge in the extent of their group commitment, motivations and even tend to use different ethical theories.

First of all, moral judgments of religious people are more parochial than ethical evaluations of nonbelievers. Groups formed by such people are cohesive and their members tend to be charitable towards each other. However, they are not so friendly towards atheists. “Being subliminally exposed to religious words or simply being in the presence of a church causes believers to report colder attitudes toward marginalized groups, including atheists, ethnic minorities, and homosexuals,” authors of the article recently published in the Trends in Cognitive Sciences say. In contrast, scope of the judgments made by non-religious persons is generally more universal.

Another important difference lies in the motivation of prosocial behavior. “Although the drive to appear virtuous to others is all but universal, it is especially pronounced among theists. An extensive meta-analysis found theists scoring consistently higher than nontheists on measures of socially desirable responding,” scientists claim. While religious people are strongly affected by priming with supernatural forces, moral behavior of nonbelievers is triggered by some specific social institutions, such as courts or police.

Finally, ethical theory employed by the members of these two groups is often different. Studies demonstrate that atheists tend to be more utilitarian than believers. This means that they are more inclined to break a moral rule, if it will maximize welfare for the highest number of individuals. “Theists are moral objectivists; that is, they tend to believe that when two people disagree about a moral issue, only one person can be correct. By contrast, nontheists are more inclined than theists to view morality as subjective or culturally relative,” researchers write.

Fortunately, psychological studies also suggest that both groups are united by universal intuitive preference for justice and compassion, which transcend mentioned differences.

Article:  Azim F. Shariff, Jared Piazza, Stephanie R. Kramer, 2014, Morality and the religious mind: why theists and nontheists differ, Volume 18, Issue 9, source link.

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