[I have a written a Muse for Nature News on a paper probing the origins of morality (and by extension, of religion). Here it is. This stuff is always provocative, but the most stimulating aspect for me was discovering Jesse Bering’s paper
‘The folk psychology of souls’.]
‘Religion’, novelist Mary McCarthy wrote, ‘is only good for good people.’ Weigh the Inquisition against Martin Luther King, homicidal fanatics against Oxfam, and you have to suspect that religion supplies a context for justifying or motivating moral choices rather than a reason for them.
Into this bitterly contested arena comes a new paper by psychologists Ilkka Pyysiäinen of the University of Helsinki and Marc Hauser at Harvard . They point out that individuals presented with unfamiliar moral dilemmas show no difference in their responses if they have a religious background or not.
They draw on tests of moral judgements using the web-based Moral Sense Test that Hauser and others have developed at Harvard [2-6], or variants thereof. These present dilemmas ranging from how to handle freeloaders at ‘bring a dish’ dinner parties to the propriety of killing someone to save others. Few if any of the answers can be looked up in holy books.
Thousands of people, with diverse backgrounds, age, education, religious affiliation and ethnicity, have taken the tests. Pyysiäinen and Hauser say the results (mostly still in the publication pipeline) indicate that ‘moral intuitions operate independently of religious background’, although religion may influence responses in a few highly specific cases.
This may speak to the origins of religion. Some have suggested it is an adaptation that promotes cooperation between unrelated individuals [7,8] – for example, discouraging cheating with the notion that ‘God is watching’. Others say that religious behaviour is not specifically selected for, but arises as a by-product of other cognitive functions and capacities [9,10]: for example, religion may have appropriated underlying psychological reasons for a belief in souls and an afterlife.
Since religion has little influence on moral judgements, say Pyysiäinen and Hauser, the latter hypothesis appears more likely. They argue that human populations evolved moral intuitions about behavioural norms – which themselves promoted group cooperation – before they became encoded in religious systems. The researchers suggest we may possess an innate ‘moral grammar’ that guides these intuitions.
The paper plays to a wider issue than this point of largely anthropological interest, for it challenges the assertion commonly made in defence of religion: that it inculcates a moral awareness . If we follow the authors’ line of thinking, religious people are no more moral than atheists.
Pyysiäinen and Hauser do not wholly deny that religion is adaptive. They think that natural selection may have fine-tuned it, from an existing array of moral-determining cognitive functions, to optimize its benefits for cooperation. There is some evidence that religion promotes in-group altruism and self-sacrifice beyond what non-believers display .
Their paper may annoy both religious and atheistic zealots (which is usually a good sign). By taking it as given that religion is an evolved social behaviour rather than a matter of divine revelation, it tacitly adopts an atheistic framework. Yet at the same time it assumes that religiosity is a fundamental aspect of human psychology, thereby undermining those who see it as culturally imposed folly that can be erased with a cold shower of rationality.
It’s debatable, however, whether these moral tests are probing religion or culture as a moral-forming agency, since non-believers in a predominantly religious culture are likely to acquire the moral predispositions of the majority. Western culture, say, has long been shaped by Christian morality, as much as it has by the festivals and vocabulary of the church.
All the same, the tests show that neither culture nor religion matter very much: some other factors – presumed to be inherited – dictate our judgements.
That would explain why religious moral doctrine sometimes displays such illogic that one must suspect the judgement itself precedes it. Take, for example, the Catholic church’s early opposition to in vitro fertilization, which sat alongside a fierce prohibition against any other hindrance to procreation. And most religions have the same set of core moral principles about lying, thieving and murder, all with evident adaptive benefits to a group, beyond which the details (Christian original sin, say) are a question of historical contingency (Augustine was a powerful bishop, Pelagius an obscure monk).
But to uncover religion’s roots, is morality necessarily the place to look? It seems hard to credit that the immense cultural investment in religion was made merely to strengthen and fine-tune existing moral circuits. Some place more emphasis on the adaptive rationale for religious symbols and mystical beliefs, rather than morals . And let’s not forget that religion is more than an expression of personal convictions: it is generally institutional, with a status structure.
Yet attempting to explain the origins of such a rich cultural phenomenon as religion is doomed to some extent to be a thankless task. For to ‘explain’ Chartres Cathedral and Bach’s B Minor Mass in terms of non-kin cooperation is obviously to have explained nothing.
1. Pyysiäinen, I. & Hauser, M. Trends Cogn. Sci. 10.1016/j.tics.2009.12.007.
2. Huebner, B. et al. Mind & Lang. (in press).
3. Huebner, B. & Hauser, M. D. Philos. Psychol. (in press).
4. Hauser, M. D. et al., Mind & Lang. 22, 1-21 (2007).
5. Banerjee, K. et al., J. Cogn. Cult. (in press).
6. Abarbanell, L. & Hauser, M. D. Cognition (in press).
7. Johnson, D. & Bering, J. Evol. Psych. 4, 219-233 (2006).
8. Johnson, D. & Krüger, O. Polit. Theol. 5, 159-176 (2004).
9. Boyer, P. The Naturalness of Religious Ideas: A Cognitive Theory of Religion (University of California Press, Berkeley, 1994).
10. Bering, J. M. Behav. Brain Sci. 29, 453-462 (2006).
11. Sinnott-Armstrong, W. Morality Without God (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2009).
12. Bulbulia, J. & Mahoney, A. J. Cogn. Cult. 8, 295-320 (2008).