Morality predates religion

Apologies for the somewhat repetitive theme on my blog this week but I want to nail this myth.

There is an idea that religious groups do a lot of community/voluntary/charitable work and that religious people are more likely to help others. This is repeated constantly by secularists as well as advocates of religion. This means that there is little scrutiny of the growing influence of faith groups in government and the massive amounts of public money given to religious organisations. Never mind that the National Council for Voluntary Organisations found that ‘[r]eligious affiliation makes little difference in terms of volunteering.’ (Faith and Voluntary Action, p12.)

Now a study at the University of British Columbia has examined the link between faith and ‘prosocial behaviour, a term that includes charity, cooperation, volunteerism, honesty, trust and various forms of personal sacrifice.’

The findings are interesting and throw up good points that I hadn’t considered before.

Here’s a summary.

1) When the faithful engage in good works they are often motivated not by selfless nobility but to please an omniscient higher power, or to maintain their reputations as morally good people.

2) Studies that show a link between altruism and religion are often based on ‘self-reports’ – that is, interviews with people who say that they regularly do community work, not direct observation of them doing so.

3) The ‘selfish gene’ myth – people have evolved to help others and be a productive member of the community because altruism helps the species as a whole. Nice guys don’t always finish last. For example, someone who is generous, social, kind and supportive will generally do well in terms of friendships, sexual opportunities and even in professional careers. Someone who lies, steals, cheats and exploits the weak will be distrusted and ostracised.

4) The community systems already in place such as courts, schools, police, universities, community centres and other secular institutions also can and do bring strangers together and promote pro-social behaviour.

5) Selflessness is not always a virtue. The suicide bomber makes the ultimate sacrifice but all it leads to is death for him and death, or serious injury, for those around him. Kamikaze pilots sacrificed their lives for the Japanese war effort but also destroyed themselves and others.

6) There is a hierarchy of victimhood in charity work. The British public give more to a single donkey sanctuary than to the two most prominent charities fighting against domestic abuse, sexual violence, forced marriage, trafficking and honour crimes. Chris Morris recognised the hierarchy of victimhood in his classic Brass Eye sketch in which he divided an audience of HIV sufferers into people with ‘Good AIDS’ (contracted through blood transfusion) and people with ‘Bad AIDS’ (contracted through drug use or homosexual relationships). Religious organisations have been known to discriminate against gay service users. It has been suggested that medical treatment should be denied to people who smoke or self-harm.

What this means is that cute furry animals, war veterans and children with well-known terminal diseases will see some benefit from charity work. People with mental illness, refugees, battered women – not so much.

The report’s conclusion: religion ‘has no monopoly on good behavior today’. Social psychologist Ara Norenzayan said that ‘We found little or no evidence that empathy plays any role in religious prosociality’. Another researcher stated that ‘many non-religious people act as cooperatively as religious ones, and that many predominantly secular states are as (and often more) stable and functional as predominantly religious ones’.

Richard P. Sloan, a professor of behavioral medicine at Columbia University Medical Center who has done research on spirituality and medicine but was uninvolved in the new review essay, said he agreed that empathy, compassion and altruism can be induced in society without religion.

‘I don’t believe there is any evidence to support the necessity of religion for prosocial behavior,’ Sloan said. ‘There are people who make the argument that altruism and prosocial behavior evolutionarily preceded the development of religion for a long time. You can see evidence of altruistic behavior in humans dating back for a long time.’

Morality predates religion.

3 Responses to “Morality predates religion”

  1. Sarah Franco Says:

    Fascinating stuff. I grew up among catholic believers and my personal impressions are confirmed in this post. Many people do good, not because of a sense of moral duty, but with an interest:

    ‘buy’ their place in heaven;

    look like a good person…

    in many cases I have noticed behaviours who really look like people are trying to bribe the saints or even God, if you know what I mean.

    then, there is also the sense of superiority that these religious ‘good guys’ have, which can be very humiliating for those who are in a position of need and have to accept whatever comes.

  2. maxdunbar Says:

    Yeah, very good points

  3. The Choice of Hercules « Max Dunbar Says:

    […] is this true? Ideas of duty animate terrorists and suicide bombers but the outcome of these drives tends to be destruction of life, including their own. Those […]

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