Wednesday, January 12, 2011

More Disastrous Effects of Adding God Into Our Moral Decisions

Being moral is hard.  Trying to sort out and prioritize the most ethically salient features of a complicated decision and then make a choice is filled with ambiguity.  And when the stakes are high, the complexities and ambiguities amplify our apprehension.  So it's no wonder that so many people derive comfort from the idea that God can see through the fog and provide us with clear and certain moral answers.  The problem, of course, is that he doesn't.  Believers are notorious for cherry picking the passages from the Bible, edicts from the Pope, or other divine sanctions that suit them while ignoring the ones that don't give them the answers they want.  Even worse, we broadcast more of our own moral sentiments onto God than we do other people, in part because what God wants is so murky.  

Also see:  "Believers' estimates of God's beliefs are more egocentric than estimates of other people's beliefs."  Epley N, Converse BA, DElbosc A, Montelone GA, and Cacioppa JT.

Other research has also shown that we are prone to change our minds about moral matters when we are forced to consider the opposing viewpoint or alternatives, but we frequently conceal that shift in attitude from ourselves and insist that the view we changed to was the one we had all along.  Combine that tendency with our predisposition to attribute more of our own views to God, and you create idiosyncratic, and capricious decision makers who invoke God as their authority.  

It turns out that that combination is just as scary as it sounds.  Here's a recent study about the effects of scriptural violence on aggression by Brad J. Bushman, Robert D. Ridge, Enny Das, Colin W. Key, and Gregory L. Busath.  

"When God Sanctions Killing:  The Effects of Scriptural Violence on Aggression,"  Psychological Science, Vol. 18, Number 3.

ABSTRACT—Violent people often claim that God sanctions their actions. In two studies, participants read a violent passage said to come from either the Bible or an ancient scroll. For half the participants, the passage said that God sanctioned the violence. Next, participants competed with an ostensible partner on a task in which the winner could blast the loser with loud noise through headphones (the aggression measure). Study 1 involved Brigham Young University students; 99% believed in God and in the Bible. Study 2 involved Vrije Universiteit–Amsterdam students; 50% believed in God, and 27% believed in the Bible. In Study 1, aggression increased when the passage was from the Bible or mentioned God. In Study 2, aggression increased when the passage mentioned God, especially among participants who believed in God and in the Bible. These results suggest that scriptural violence sanctioned by God can increase aggression, especially in believers.

So now consider the combined point of all three threads of research.  1) We project more of our own views onto God than others who we know more about.  2)  We can be easily induced to change our minds about moral matters and then we hide the shift from ourselves.  And 3) when people think that God sanctions violence, they become more aggressive themselves.  That is, adding God to the considerations in moral matters would appear to make things worse because we don't actually  know what God wants, but we endow him with our own views, but when the un-moored views inevitably shift around, God provides us with a sort of carte blanche endorsement of whatever they morph into.  And adding God into the story exacerbates our aggressive and violent proclivities.  And you thought violent video games were bad.  


Anonymous said...

Dacher Keltner, a pschologist at UC Berkeley, has found that as power increases immorality increases as well. I bet the hightened levels of aggression have to do with an increase in perceived power by thinking one is aligned with the ultimate. Absolute power corrupts absolutely, so it seems thinking the absolute has sanctioned your power leads to more unethical behavior than otherwise.

Unknown said...

Somehow I missed this article earlier. This is absolutely one of my favorite blogs, well, behind Pharyngula (PZ Myers) of course. :)

This is very frightening conclusion that you've drawn, but I have to agree with it. Bringing those studies together leads to a dangerous realization. The interesting thing is that most believers, and I'd be tempted to say all, think that their beliefs are completely benign. However, the psychology of people's behavior, combined with the justification provided by religious belief in no way, as shown throughout history, leads to any sort of morality that can be considered greater (and is often less) than any other sort of morality.

overseerstephen said...

It has allowed people to see the absurdity in hypocrisy. It has also forced large numbers of people to think for themselves; against the churches wishes. Most religions use a concept which The German philosopher Hegel calls “The Other” in order to keep large masses of people united in fear. An example of this is the fear and hatred of “The Other” where groups of people such as Gays, Atheists, scientists, thinkers and the mythological concept of Satan and even the God(s) the religion itself represents takes the place of “The Other”. In this way the members of the religion are kept united in the fear of (or of becoming) “The Other”. Atheism does not practice this method of control of other human beings. Instead atheism promote the concept of “Free Thinking”, possibly explaining why atheists to not gather in large congregations. As a result if atheist ideas are allowed in society; this can have devastating consequences on religious structures. An example of the negative effects of free thinking can be seen at the onset of astronomy when the church was forced to accept that the sun did not orbit the earth but in fact that the earth orbited the sun (calling into question the basic understanding of the church that the earth was at the center of the universe). As a result the church was forced to execute hundreds of thinking people in order to reinstate an acceptable level of fear. Atheism is responsible for countless death brought about by the hands of religious institutions such as the catholic church, the Jewish faith, Islam… in order to regain its grip on the masses. In this way atheism is dangerous and should have no place in society.