Questionable Motives

December 12, 2009

Is religious belief beneficial to societies?

Filed under: Human Development,Morality,Psychology,Religion,Science,Society — tildeb @ 2:45 pm

Is religious belief beneficial to societies? Does religion make people behave better?

Many believers assume, without question, that it does – even that there can be no morality without religion. They cite George Washington who believed that national morality could not prevail without religions principles, or Dostoevsky’s famous claim (actually words of his fictional character Ivan Karamazov) that “without God all things are permitted”. Then there are Americans defending their country’s peculiarly high levels of popular religious belief and claiming that faith-based charity is better than universal government provision.

Atheists, naturalists and humanists fight back claiming that it’s perfectly possible to be moral without God. Evolutionary psychology reveals the common morality of our species, and the universal values of fairness, kindness, and reciprocity.

So who is right?

The 1st world nations with the highest levels of belief in God, and the greatest religious observance are also the ones with all the signs of societal dysfunction. These correlations are truly stunning.

Read Sue Blackmore’s commentary here about Gregory Paul’s research paper here.


  1. i would suggest that much as science has evolved, so, too, must religion evolve. the religions in 1st world countries are all at least over a thousand years old – is it not possible, then, that those religions no longer serve the needs of the age in which we live?

    as for evolutionary psychology – psychology is hardly evolved enough to shed conclusive light on anything. anthropology, on the other hand, would point out that every society, even throughout history, has had a religious system with which to regulate itself. so the concept of “common morality” that you present, is likely due to the fact that religion has always existed in human society.

    Comment by mdr410 — December 13, 2009 @ 9:46 pm | Reply

  2. I agree that religious belief needs to evolve more than it already has Sue Blackmore writes Evolutionary psychology reveals the common morality of our species, and the universal values of fairness, kindness, and reciprocity. Although still in its infancy, evolutionary psychology is making significant and meaningful contributions to our understanding of common attitudes and actions that are shared regardless of culture, language, race, and religious belief… in other words, beyond the ken of anthropology. (See Marc Hauser’s work on morality specifically .)

    The point of Paul’s research is to challenge your assumption that because religious belief is a common feature in many cultures, it is therefore capable and probable that this kind of belief regulates moral behaviour. Just the opposite seems to be the case, although it is ‘early days’ in the research.

    Paul writes that strongly secular advanced democracies display superior cumulative internal conditions, with some nations in western Europe enjoying the best overall circumstances yet seen. These results contradict the moral-creator socioeconomic hypothesis, including the thesis widely held in America that a democracy can combine libertarian economics with high levels of popular religion and charity to achieve socioeconomic success. Conservative religious ideology is a probable contributing causal factor of societal dysfunction, in part because it opposes the modulation of free market capitalism with extensive government based assistance, as well as the pragmatic social policies, that have proven more effective at creating the exceptionally secure, equable and benevolent overall societal and economic conditions that have unintentionally helped cause the least theistic prosperous democracies yet seen to come into existence.

    Thus, I think you need to come up with something more than assertion to back up your notion that common morality is likely due to the fact that religion has always existed in human society. It seems that we are moral in spite of religious belief… no matter how common or prevalent it may be.

    Comment by tildeb — December 13, 2009 @ 10:51 pm | Reply

  3. yes, i agree that conservatism destroys progress, and so a society cannot advance socioeconomically. (the middle east would be a TERRIFIC example of this!) and western countries, due to capitalism and the “laissez-faire” ideology (which i think helps us not really care what the guy next door believes in), have largely progressed – like you said – in spite of religion.
    i think my question is more about whether or not a new religion might not be beneficial to society. i mean, i look back at christianity’s beginnings, and the beginnings of islam… and they weren’t terrible, dogmatic things when they started. civilization advanced, actually, for a while. so what if there were a new religion these days? would that help us advance more? or, like you are saying, are we better off getting rid of religion altogether? if we are, then we really don’t need to worry about religion evolving. we should just collectively shove it out of an airlock!

    Comment by mdr410 — December 14, 2009 @ 3:43 am | Reply

    • Then the question becomes how is any religion – new or old – beneficial and what is the evidence for that? Societal advancements in the categories Paul lists seem to occur and then religious belief decreases. For evidence, Paul’s research seems to indicate that because secular governments implement policies to address them, advancements in these areas occur, thus reducing the prevalence of religious practice.

      Comment by tildeb — December 14, 2009 @ 1:56 pm | Reply

  4. mdr419, you may be interested in this short paper about evolution and morality and how the biological sciences approach the topic.

    Abstract from

    Here, in textbook style, is a concise biological account of the evolution of morality. It addresses morality on three levels: moral outcomes (behavioral genetics), moral motivation or intent (psychology and neurology), and moral systems (sociality).

    Comment by tildeb — December 14, 2009 @ 5:45 pm | Reply

    • excellent! some light reading for my incubations…


      Comment by mdr410 — December 14, 2009 @ 6:25 pm | Reply

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