On Religion and Morality

Are religious people as equally prone to immoral acts as nonreligious people?

The answer is yes according to a new study, “Morality in Everday Life,” which I read about in the Daily Mail.

Thomas Purcell 1

Daniel Wisneski and Wilhelm Hofmann, the study’s lead authors, recruited 1,252 adults between ages 18 and 68 using Craigslist, Facebook, Twitter and other outlets. Participants downloaded an app to their smartphones that allowed researchers to text them five times a day. The participants then reported any moral or immoral acts – things they did themselves, witnessed or heard about – and rated how intensely they felt about those acts on a scale of 0 to 5.

Participants filed 13,240 reports, describing everything from arranging adulterous encounters (immoral) to giving a homeless man a sandwich (moral). Researchers spent weeks reviewing the comments and identified six moral principles: care for others, fairness, liberty, loyalty, authority and sanctity. Researchers also found that the participants’ judgment reflected two other moral behaviors: honesty and self-discipline.

“They found that conservatives were more likely than liberals to report acts involving sanctity and respect for authority, and liberals were more likely than conservatives to talk about fairness,” according to Science magazine, which published the study.

But their findings on religious people were interesting. According to the Daily Mail, religious people in the study had more pride and joy when they committed moral acts and were more disgusted with themselves when they committed immoral acts – overall religious people were just as moral or immoral as nonreligious people.

It is certainly true that nonreligious people can be very principled and that regular churchgoers can be crooks in their business dealings.

But what is different about many religious people is they have a framework and a community to help them lead more moral lives and seek redemption and forgiveness when they slip up – they have a methodology, if you will, to help them navigate good and bad.

Greek philosophers had names for what is good. They believed that prudence, temperance, courage and justice were virtues that all people longed for and should strive to master.

And while we’re striving for good, we need to fight the bad: excessive pride, envy, gluttony, lust, anger, greed and sloth. These are known as the seven deadly sins – activities I save for the weekend.

Religion can help us navigate good and evil. I have certainly found this to be the case with Catholicism, my religion.

We Catholics have a lot of guidance to help us navigate what’s moral and immoral. We have the Bible, which offers plenty of instructions. We have the Ten Commandments, which, as columnist George F. Will once noted, are not called the Ten Suggestions.

We have coaches we can go to – people who have been educated and trained to help others understand their religion and use it to achieve good outcomes. A good coach can help an individual improve his performance – just as true in spiritual matters as it is in athletics.

Harvard University Moral Psychologist Fiery Cushman told science that a weakness of the study is that it is based on subjective, rather than objective, assumptions. It’s based on the view that the participants have of themselves, which “may color how they report their own behavior.”

Whatever the case, it’s not really so complicated to me. We all long for beauty and detest ugliness. We all long to become good and root out evil. And, in a general sense, I think many people who practice their faith have a slight advantage at being more moral by being part of something much larger than themselves – a community that is struggling to do good and avoid bad.

To paraphrase the great Dear Abby, church is not a museum for saints, it’s a hospital for sinners.

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