Are religious people more moral?

File 20171023 1748 1d0uxth.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Dimitris Xygalatas, CC BY

(The Conversation)  — Why do people distrust atheists?

A recent study we conducted, led by psychologist Will Gervais, found widespread and extreme moral prejudice against atheists around the world. Across all continents, people assumed that those who committed immoral acts, even extreme ones such as serial murder, were more likely to be atheists.

Although this was the first demonstration of such bias at a global scale, its existence is hardly surprising.

Survey data show that Americans are less trusting of atheists than of any other social group. For most politicians, going to church is often the best way to garner votes, and coming out as an unbeliever could well be political suicide. After all, there are no open atheists in the U.S. Congress. The only known religiously unaffiliated representative describes herself as “none,” but still denies being an atheist.

So, where does such extreme prejudice come from? And what is the actual evidence on the relationship between religion and morality?

How does religion relate to morality?

It is true that the world’s major religions are concerned with moral behavior. Many, therefore, might assume that religious commitment is a sign of virtue, or even that morality cannot exist without religion.

Both of these assumptions, however, are problematic.

Are ethical ideals of one religion limited to group members?
Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, CC BY-ND

For one thing, the ethical ideals of one religion might seem immoral to members of another. For instance, in the 19th century, Mormons considered polygamy a moral imperative, while Catholics saw it as a mortal sin.

Moreover, religious ideals of moral behavior are often limited to group members and might even be accompanied by outright hatred against other groups. In 1543, for example, Martin Luther, one of the fathers of Protestantism, published a treatise titled “On the Jews and their Lies,” echoing anti-Semitic sentiments that have been common among various religious groups for centuries.

These examples also reveal that religious morality can and does change with the ebb and flow of the surrounding culture. In recent years, several Anglican churches have revised their moral views to allow contraception, the ordination of women and the blessing of same-sex unions.

Discrepancy between beliefs and behavior

In any case, religiosity is only loosely related to theology. That is, the beliefs and behaviors of religious people are not always in accordance with official religious doctrines. Instead, popular religiosity tends to be much more practical and intuitive. This is what religious studies scholars call “theological incorrectness.”

Religiosity is only loosely related to theology.
Dimitris Xygalatas, CC BY

Buddhism, for example, may officially be a religion without gods, but most Buddhists still treat Buddha as a deity. Similarly, the Catholic Church vehemently opposes birth control, but the vast majority of Catholics practice it anyway. In fact, theological incorrectness is the norm rather than the exception among believers.

For this reason, sociologist Mark Chaves called the idea that people behave in accordance with religious beliefs and commandments the “religious congruence fallacy.”

This discrepancy among beliefs, attitudes and behaviors is a much broader phenomenon. After all, communism is an egalitarian ideology, but communists do not behave any less selfishly.

So, what is the actual evidence on the relationship between religion and morality?

Do people practice what they preach?

Social scientific research on the topic offers some intriguing results.

When researchers ask people to report on their own behaviors and attitudes, religious individuals claim to be more altruistic, compassionate, honest, civic and charitable than nonreligious ones. Even among twins, more religious siblings describe themselves as being more generous.

But when we look at actual behavior, these differences are nowhere to be found.

Researchers have now looked at multiple aspects of moral conduct, from charitable giving and cheating on exams to helping strangers in need and cooperating with anonymous others.

In a classical experiment known as the “Good Samaritan Study,” researchers monitored who would stop to help an injured person lying in an alley. They found that religiosity played no role in helping behavior, even when participants were on their way to deliver a talk on the parable of the good Samaritan.

This finding has now been confirmed in numerous laboratory and field studies. Overall, the results are clear: No matter how we define morality, religious people do not behave more morally than atheists, although they often say (and likely believe) that they do.

When and where religion has an impact

On the other hand, religious reminders do have a documented effect on moral behavior.

Studies conducted among American Christians, for example, have found that participants donated more money to charity and even watched less porn on Sundays. However, they compensated on both accounts during the rest of the week. As a result, there were no differences between religious and nonreligious participants on average.

When does religion have an impact?
Dimitris Xygalatas, CC BY

Likewise, a study conducted in Morocco found that whenever the Islamic call to prayer was publicly audible, locals contributed more money to charity. However, these effects were short-lived: Donations increased only within a few minutes of each call and then dropped again.

Numerous other studies have yielded similar results. In my own work, I found that people became more generous and cooperative when they found themselves in a place of worship.

Interestingly, one’s degree of religiosity does not seem to have a major effect in these experiments. In other words, the positive effects of religion depend on the situation, not the disposition.

Religion and rule of law

Not all beliefs are created equal, though. A recent cross-cultural study showed that those who see their gods as moralizing and punishing are more impartial and cheat less in economic transactions. In other words, if people believe that their gods always know what they are up to and are willing to punish transgressors, they will tend to behave better, and expect that others will too.

Such a belief in an external source of justice, however, is not unique to religion. Trust in the rule of law, in the form of an efficient state, a fair judicial system or a reliable police force, is also a predictor of moral behavior.

And indeed, when the rule of law is strong, religious belief declines, and so does distrust against atheists.

The co-evolution of God and society

Scientific evidence suggests that humans – and even our primate cousins – have innate moral predispositions, which are often expressed in religious philosophies. That is, religion is a reflection rather than the cause of these predispositions.

But the reason religion has been so successful in the course of human history is precisely its ability to capitalize on those moral intuitions.

What’s behind success of religion?
Saint Joseph, CC BY-NC-ND

The historical record shows that supernatural beings have not always been associated with morality. Ancient Greek gods were not interested in people’s ethical conduct. Much like the various local deities worshipped among many modern hunter-gatherers, they cared about receiving rites and offerings but not about whether people lied to one another or cheated on their spouses.

According to psychologist Ara Norenzayan, belief in morally invested gods developed as a solution to the problem of large-scale cooperation.

Early societies were small enough that their members could rely on people’s reputations to decide whom to associate with. But once our ancestors turned to permanent settlements and group size increased, everyday interactions were increasingly taking place between strangers. How were people to know whom to trust?

Religion provided an answer by introducing beliefs about all-knowing, all-powerful gods who punish moral transgressions. As human societies grew larger, so did the occurrence of such beliefs. And in the absence of efficient secular institutions, the fear of God was crucial for establishing and maintaining social order.

In those societies, a sincere belief in a punishing supernatural watcher was the best guarantee of moral behavior, providing a public signal of compliance with social norms.

The ConversationToday we have other ways of policing morality, but this evolutionary heritage is still with us. Although statistics show that atheists commit fewer crimes than average, the widespread prejudice against them, as highlighted by our study, reflects intuitions that have been forged through centuries and might be hard to overcome.

(Dimitris Xygalatas is an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Connecticut. This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.)


  1. Are religious people more moral? It depends what the religion teaches, and how closely people follow it. I will say that morality as we know it is derived from religion over human history and the area where people live and grow is the baseline set of morals. Those who move away from religious morals as the baseline into area of humanistic logic we see things like abortion, assisted suicide, euthanasia. Currently, Iceland is the example with their “brag” of having “lowered” or “cured” the rate of babies born with downs syndrome which is really nothing more than aborting DS babies.

  2. Why are you making the presumption that abortion, assisted suicide and euthanasia are immoral? Theses can be very moral actions. Iceland is a great place too, we should be more like it !!

    Religious morals also brought us circumcision, female genital mutilation, suicide bombings and witch hunts. Not to mention slandering new born babies, accusing them of harboring original sin.

  3. -> “Although statistics show that atheists commit fewer crimes than average, the widespread prejudice against them…”

    This is never acknowledged by religious folk, it is hard to find atheists in prison. Theists immediately push the “no objective morality” fallacy or “just want to sin” nonsense, or that non-believers can freely murder, rape, steal, etc. They ignore the real facts , as usual.

  4. Of course they are more moral! just ask them!

    There have never been religious wars. witches were never burned. Segregation was not accompanied by god quotes. Radical Islam!

  5. It depends on what the religion teaches. And how closely people follow it? That’s a loophole you could drive a very large Cathedral through.

    Plenty of religious people support abortion rights. Pro lifers are known for being pro capital punishment.

  6. If they didn’t have double standards, they’d lack any standards at all!

  7. Morality and religion are not necessarily dependent upon one another. Morality can be thought of as a set of values that drive behavior toward the benefit of all mankind. Religion is the codification of moral behavior in that it defines how to behave in the best interest of a given community, but usually mixes in notions of supernatural beings or states of being. But as communities differ, so do the religious codes and other supernatural nonsense. Therefore, religion is fundamentally not in the best interest of mankind as a whole, but rather in the best interest of only fellow practitioners of that religion, and as such, is amoral.

  8. Good article – pity about the headline.

    If we define being “moral” as doing what is right without being influenced by reward and/or punishment we can argue that anyone who believes in an afterlife/re-incarnation which is affected by one’s behaviour in this life is incapable of being sure that they can act morally. Since they believe that their actions may be used for or against them by the next life arbiter they are open, consciously or otherwise, to tuning their “morality” for next-life considerations.

    Which, I suppose, means that, pretty much, only atheists are able to claim, rightly or wrongly, that they can be sure they act in a moral way.

  9. They are not moral, because they are murder, Damien

  10. Go tell Yahweh…he murdered all the first born in Egypt including a lot of babies…and wiped out all but 8 people in the great flood.

    And all those foreskins Sandi, why did God make foreskins just to have us cut them off? What is your opinion about foreskins, Sandi…do you have an explanation?

  11. You know what He “murdered”? The same people that you endorse, and He called an abomination. The same people who chose to defy Him. He creates us; He has the right to do with us as He pleases. If one chooses to defy Him, expect what you get.
    The foreskin example is because God wants His people to be separate from the rest.

  12. So God murdered those babies because they were an “abomination”. Great, now tell us again about pro-life?

    -> “The foreskin example is because God wants His people to be separate from the rest.” …

    So God could have asked his chosen people to cut their hair or finger-nails differently. No, instead he went for the foreskins, without asking women if that looked OK — Lucky for the guys that Yahweh didn’t go for ball-busting…only the foreskins !!

  13. He actually protected those babies from the immorality of the time Damien.
    Actually, if you want a partial list of what the Lord wanted to keep His people separate, you may be interested in the Book of Leviticus.
    The foreskin is more your issue than anyone else’s.

  14. Its not murder if god does it. Thus you prove that bible believing christians are moral relativists. And you worship a god that agrees with you.

  15. -> “He actually protected those babies from the immorality of the time…”

    So don’t complain about abortion — same thing, you should be thanking the women for protecting the aborted babies!

    Foreskin’s are God’s issue…don’t push Leviticus on people then ignore it…

    Leviticus 12:3 “On the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised.”

  16. God is the only one with the right to give and take life, Danien. I tried to tell you that earlier. Sorry you missed it.

  17. As I told Damien, God gives life and He takes it away. If you have difficulty with when He does it, discuss it with Him.

  18. Glad to know I am more moral than God !!

    I have broken my own rule of not getting into long back-and-forth threads with God’s immoral sycophants, so…

    Hail Satan, Sandi

  19. It just shows that neither you nor your god have any morals at all. Wipe out the first born sons of Egypt? the Amalakites? The population of little babies who couldn’t have sinned even if they wanted to? Anyone that pisseth aga8nst a Wall?

    If god, or you, want to do it, why, it is by definition ok. Don’t worry that it violates any and all moral standards for anyone except blood thirsty savages. And the best part of all? You and your so called religious fellow travelers routinely accuse all atheists, in the persons of Mao, Hitler, pol pot, and Stalin, of being so morally depraved that they have slaughtered millions.

    But your god does it, and all of a sudden, you’re just fine with it.

    Truly, thank you for demonstrating beyond a doubt that the whole idea is absolutely ludicrous that religion and morality have the slightest thing to do with each other, except that corporate religion sees morality as a tool in its never ending quest for power, money, and dominion.

  20. The foreskin example is problematical. In Genesis 10:13 and 14, God commands Abraham to circumcise his sons and his slaves. People now argue that keeping slaves is immoral. Some also argue that infant circumcision is also immoral, just as female ‘circumcision’ is.

    In any case, Acts 15 makes it clear that Christian converts don’t need to be circumcised. Circumcision is described there as an unbearable burden. The Apostle Paul, who circumcised Timothy (Acts 16:1-4) taught that circumcision was nothing (Galatians 6:15). As for those who promoted circumcision to Christians, he wished that they would go and castrate themselves! (Galatians 5:12)

    Even in the Old Testament, the prophet Jeremiah taught that non-Jewish circumcision and even Jewish circumcision didn’t count if your heart was in the wrong place. (Jeremiah 9:25-26)

  21. ok.
    We were discussing how Christ set certain standards that kept His people separate from the rest of the crowd – eating pork, blood things, abstaining from immorality. Circumcision is another example of how Christ kept His people separate.

  22. I know you hail him, which is why I pray for you.

  23. Hi Sandi,

    Thanks for your response.

    There’s only one instance when Jesus talked about circumcision.Here is John 7:21-23 passage from the King James Version:

    “Jesus answered and said unto them, I have done one work, and ye all marvel. Moses therefore gave unto you circumcision; (not because it is of Moses, but of the fathers;) and ye on the sabbath day circumcise a man. If a man on the sabbath day receive circumcision, that the law of Moses should not be broken; are ye angry at me, because I have made a man every whit whole on the sabbath day?”

    Note what this passage does.

    * It contrasts Jesus’ healing, which makes a man every bit whole, with circumcision, which chops a bit off.

    * It says that the command to circumcise came from Moses and the ancestors. It doesn’t say it came from God.

    * It points out the inconsistency of objecting to healing on the Sabbath while circumcising on the Sabbath to keep the Law of Moses.

    Jesus’ comment was an implied criticism of circumcision; it was not an endorsement or a way to keep his followers separate from others.

    As for Christians eating pork, please see Acts 10: 9-16 and Mark 7:17-23.

  24. I guess what this story really tells us is: Nobody’s perfect. That’s hardly a revelation.

  25. Wow, foreskin or no foreskin…why are God and the Abrahamic religions so freaked out about how the male organ is to be seen ??

    1 Samuel 18 “…he and his men went out and killed 200 Philistines. Then David fulfilled the king’s requirement by presenting all their foreskins to him…”

    Sad for David’s men who had to harvest the foreskins…unless of course David himself enjoyed doing this…Hmmm ?

  26. Morality has become contemporaneously conflated with a deity/religion.
    As such it is referred to by the religious in that context.
    The golden rule which enabled humans to remain extant for some 200,000 yrs – existed long before any gods, scriptures or holy men existed.
    The gr connotes human sympathy and empathy.
    The religious appropriated the gr some 5000 yrs ago and re-named it god’s divine law.- morality.

    Humans are all born atheists.
    As were those countless billions born long before us.

    We survived in-spite of religion.
    Our demise as a species will be as a result of the direct or indirect action of a religion.
    Unless of course, there is a repeat of the biblical flood intended to kill people like me.
    That would be a shame – my grandchildren are so wonderful, and they would be drowned also.
    God has shown himself to be very cruel.
    He also has some large meteors in his arsenal….

  27. Sophmorically transparent side-step.
    Ever the fraud Luckins….

  28. Was Osama bin Laden a monster or a hero ?
    You might want to chat with some orthodox middle eastern shia or sunni before you answer.

  29. Artificial distinction – the answer would be personal and depend upon the viewpoint of the answerer.

    I suspect that had I been born in Londonderry rather than London in 1947 I’d have had a gun in my hand before my seventeenth birthday – would I have been morally right to do so – I’m sure I (and many around me) would have thought I was.

    Is stealing moral – when it’s to feed the starving?
    Is killing people moral in defence of family, friends, tribal members, in defence of land, access to water, and what if those killed are acting from desperation for themselves and others.

    Morality is not absolute – the challenge to humanity is to find ways of balancing competing needs, managing expectations and providing decent minimum life quality whilst still enabling the natural desire to improve and progress.
    The problem with winner-takes-all is that no winner is ever powerful enough to resist the inevitable (temporary) alliances that their behaviour creates. And so misery begats misery.

  30. Awwwww. Isn’t that nice? I find it very difficult to believe in any god that claims a moral right to kill people. I have no respect for anyone who claims a moral right to kill people, but gets upset if other people kill people. I would expect god to be a better person than I am. But apparently, you don’t. He’s right up your moral alley.

  31. Have you read, or understood anything I was discussing with him, or are you just off on your own tangent?

  32. Sandi, you wrote “Circumcision is another example of how Christ kept His people separate.” I quoted chapter and verse to show that this point of view is questionable.

    Circumcision is not required in Christianity, and Christians are free to eat pork if they want. If you do not agree, then your argument is with the New Testament, not me.

  33. Wow! You will make up any excuse to make you feel better.

  34. That’s why you keep leaving me posts! That is one of the ways the Lord kept His people separate. It was discussing Israel. Christians are not under those regulations – at least most of them. The moral laws were brought into the New Testament.

  35. Sandi, now that you have admitted that Christians are not under “those regulations” as you term them there is no more to discuss. Old Testament rules are one thing; New Testament rules are another.

  36. ” Christians are not under those regulations – at least most of them. moral laws were brought into the New Testament.”

  37. The very best way to do what you really want to do is to say that god told you to do it.

    Example 1: Ms. Sandimonious,

  38. God’s
    morals are above those of the ‘morals’ of ‘men’ who choose for
    themselves what their ‘morals’ will be and whether or not they will
    ‘obey’ them or not and to what degree they will abide by their ‘morals’.
    God takes those kinds of things away from those that are truly obedient
    to Him. That is where the true ‘superiority’ of God’s morals compared
    to man’s morals is in a huge way

  39. atheism is the future, so the future will mean less crime.

  40. the article states that some other animals have morals, but they dont have religions , so your argument about religions creating morals doesnt stand up.
    iceland is surely free to do as it people choose, having elected political parties that represent their wishes.
    i notice that in iceland you can be a woman or a gay person and still be the leader, but not in the major churches.
    so Iceland would appear to have more morals than Catholicism or Islam for instance..

  41. so your make believe god was male ?
    do you think its moral to be so sexist when inventing gods ?

  42. I’d like to disagree with the start of the last paragraph:

    Today we have other ways of policing morality, but this evolutionary heritage is still with us.

    The remnants of gods and religious belief have plenty to do with cultural evolution, but nothing to do with actual evolution.

  43. This is why I always teach ‘actions speak louder than words’. I do not care why, only what you do.

  44. Mortality is simply making a choice,no good or bad.
    People who pray, don‘t bring umbrellas to church. They do it because reality is so small.
    It‘s about finding the spark of goodness inside of oneself. A dialogue with yourself,an on going conflict,a journey,not an answer. God is a word,not a thing or object as atheists proclaim. Science and religion,apples and oranges,what does science have to do with values.
    God a concept and those who claim to know God‘s will,authority ,it’s they‘re idea that leads the road to atheism.
    It‘s simple a teaching tool.

  45. if paedophilia, covering up paedophilia, fraud, genocide, torture, murder, blackmail, corruption, etc are moral … then yes … religious people are more moral.

    the fact is … if you are a catholic, you are a member of the biggest, most powerful criminal organisation the world has ever seen.

  46. Murder is killing human beings against their will. Euthanasia is not against the person’s will, and abortion may not be killing a human being.

  47. The great Jewish Philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz famously said that morality is atheistic concept par excellence.

Leave a Comment