Post No.: 0258
Humans weren’t completely amoral before religion was invented. Other social primate relatives and mammals demonstrate what seem like compassionate behaviours and a sense of fairness too (although to a lesser degree e.g. chimpanzees will not punish unfair offers in the ‘ultimatum game’ (a two-player game of ‘take my offer or neither of us will get anything’) or care about advantageous inequities (caring about getting more than what’s clearly considered fair); but they do seem to understand suffering and harm, reciprocation and they respect hierarchies). And religions probably couldn’t have formed if people couldn’t organise themselves together with some kind of group harmony in the first place.
Nevertheless, the scriptures of religions do obviously have a lot to directly say about morality and decision-making, and they undoubtedly shape people’s views on issues like abortion, homosexuality or marriage (see Post No.: 0247 for a piece about how religions shape marriage and fidelity). Yet knowing about someone’s level of religiosity doesn’t predict their level of charitable giving, honesty and possibly other traits. This might arguably be because the ambiguity in the scriptures means that people can come up with their own conclusions first, and then search for the line or passage that justifies those conclusions (e.g. whether violence is or isn’t justified, where followers are more likely to look to justify tolerance and peace in win-win situations and look to justify a holy war in win-lose situations). So direct moral guidance from religious texts can be both good and bad. Congregating into like-minded groups in general has its good and bad points. There’s also the question of whether or how much specific religious beliefs and practices cause morality or are an effect of other sources of moral change?
Religious and non-religious people can easily accuse each other of immorality because they may use different frameworks for determining what is moral. There are, for example, deontologist (obeying universal rule-based principles/duties regardless of their consequences) versus consequentialist (the result/outcome is what matters most), or libertarian (individualist and prioritising self-interests) versus utilitarian (prioritising the overall/greater good even if it disadvantages oneself or harms another individual) meta-ethics, concerning all manner of issues including individual rights regarding abortion, contraception or sexuality versus pro-natal norms that benefit the group overall, and fidelity versus divorce.
These problems are however the same with, for instance, politically ‘liberal’ versus ‘conservative’ people who are without religious affiliations too – hence these perennial and fundamental disagreements never resolve because people are arguing past each other and failing to convince one another despite feeling vehemently emotionally passionate about what’s right or wrong or about what morality even is. Understanding the fuzzy moral dilemmas involved in any issue that divides groups of people is crucial for understanding exactly why they’re divided.
Indeed, different perspectives and moral rationales can change what we each consider as ‘harmful’ or ‘caring’ or ‘fair’ (e.g. is ‘tough love’ harmful or caring? Is being born lucky fair?) So even though two people may agree that they seek to minimise harm or be fair, they can come up with completely opposing solutions. Morality is frequently subjective and dilemmatic – some rights or ethics directly impinge on other rights or ethics so there isn’t always a clear or absolute right or unanimously agreeable answer (hence the people whom we should probably pay less attention to are those who, in a smug and/or forthright manner, think there are clear ‘good’ and ‘evil’ stances in these cases, or as a result clearly ‘good’ and ‘evil’ people – they haven’t thought enough about or understood the presence of these dilemmas).
Moral values that benefit the individual include doing no harm to individuals and caring for individuals (e.g. the vulnerable), and fairness (e.g. reciprocity). Moral values that bind or enhance group cohesion include respect for authority and obedience, group loyalty, purity/not violating perceived sacred rules of decency, (spiritual) cleanliness and not playing god or doing ‘unnatural’ things to ourselves.
Now, even accounting for political biases (although religious beliefs and political biases often inextricably shape each other and overlap) – religiosity is still causally linked to holding more generally conservative and group-binding moral values i.e. an increased obedience to authority, conformity and ingroup loyalty, at the risk of denigrating outgroup members and not being able to violate rules of decency (or ‘decency’), such as blasphemy or homosexuality.
Priming people with religious thoughts further increases their endorsement of these binding morals. Religion not only influences what people believe is right or wrong but also how they think about right or wrong in the first place – religious people are more likely to take a deontological stance regardless of their consequences – just like violating their religious commandments/tenets is absolutely impermissible (e.g. that it’s impermissible to ever kill anyone, even if this might save more lives overall; or at least this is how these people believe they will react if they’ll ever face such a dilemmatic scenario in real life).
These are broad generalisations but religious people will more likely believe that, if two people disagree about a moral belief, then at least one of them must be wrong i.e. religious people tend to believe in objectively and unquestionably right answers (usually the divine words of their god(s)). Non-religious people are more likely to say that neither party need be incorrect, and that moral decisions are sometimes more subjective than objective.
Our culture affects our perspectives, which in turn affects our moral beliefs, and so if you were born into another culture or family – maybe with a different level of religiosity – you’d probably hold different moral beliefs i.e. situational factors or upbringing are oftentimes more predictive of our attitudes and behaviours than our individual or innate dispositional factors. And no one chooses what culture or family they’ll be raised in during their formative years.
Rather than individuals coming up with their own moral stances in hermetically-sealed chambers, people are heavily socially shaped by their tribes and coalitions. Morality is more of a team sport. We gravitate towards groups that share our existing moral views but we also take a lot of our moral views from the groups we happen to be around. We tend to follow our immediate peers and ingroups.
A study even demonstrated the reverse causal link – if people are primed to see morality as being more subjective, they’ll tend to become less confident in their belief in a god(s). So priming people with religious thoughts leads to more deontological reasoning, whilst priming people with consequentialism undermines religious belief.
All the above are very general patterns when looking at the major world religions broadly rather than any religion individually, and (like just about all psychological traits and behaviours to varying degrees or probabilities) not everyone falls neatly into these trends because everyone has faced more-or-less a unique set of strong and subtle influences (both genetic or biological and environmental or cultural) that have shaped their lives to this very day to give them the beliefs they currently individually hold. So not all people who follow a particular religion agree with each other, just like not all people who follow a particular political leaning agree with each other. Yet this shouldn’t mean that we should ignore these general influences and trends when we talk about groups as a whole because they are still useful and relevant, particularly in a democracy where the majority gets their way, and where governments cannot ever please everyone and so must try to please as many people as they can.
Woof. To have a better chance of getting along with people with different moral views, we need to better learn what shaped their and our own views. We don’t have to agree with or like each other but we can look at each other with more understanding. At the root of aggression is fear, and we fear the unknown, thus to reduce aggression, we need to know each other better. We may still argue with others but hopefully not want to kill those with very different moral views to us because we think those sides are ‘evil’ (where wanting to kill others for their beliefs would surely ironically make us the evil ones(!))