Religion & morality
Get this: Religious and nonreligious people are equally prone to immoral acts.
So finds a new study by Saint Peter’s University, which I read about in Science magazine.
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.
But their finding on religion — that people who identified themselves as religious were just as moral or immoral as nonreligious people — most grabbed my attention.
Because I don’t buy it.
Look, it is very true that nonreligious people can be very principled and that regular churchgoers can be crooks in their business dealings.
But what is different about 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 evil.
The fact is, there is good in this world and there is evil, and with every decision at every moment of every day, we are moving in one direction or the other.
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.
It’s not really so complicated. We all long for beauty and detest ugliness. We all long to become good and root out evil. Religion and faith can help us, but it’s still not easy.
Heck, with my religion, you have to confess your sins out loud to another human being. Hearing yourself say what you did is an incredibly humbling thing to do — which is why I don’t do it very often — but, boy, does it make one try to be a more moral person.
In any event, in a general sense, I think many people who faithfully practice their religion have a slight edge over many people who practice none, where moral and immoral behavior are concerned.
For instance, religious people give way more to the needy than nonreligious people. Charity is a virtue, after all.
And though religious and nonreligious people may both be prone to immoral acts, the religious person has help to fend off immorality.
As the great Dear Abby once said, church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints.