Overton: Morality without religion

BY JON OVERTON | MARCH 28, 2014 5:00 AM

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It’s hard to imagine a world without religion. Belief in a higher power seems borderline universal, though the exact content and shape of religious thought varies dramatically.

The Pew Research Center recently released survey results showing that in the most developed countries, people tend to think belief in God is not essential to being moral. At the opposite end, citizens of developing countries generally think, often by a 90 percent margin, that belief in God is necessary to be moral.

The United States, the world’s usual outlier, was about evenly split on this basic question: Do you need God to be moral?

I don’t aim to answer that. What seems more interesting is why people think you need belief to be moral in the first place. Some of the worst people in history were deeply religious, while many moral exemplars have been secular.

The reason we feel this way seems to be a largely social one, though there are surely a number of philosophical and theological components.

Christopher Bader and Roger Finke wrote in the Handbook of the Sociology of Morality that although religion tends to predict moral attitudes, its relationship with good behavior depends on the social context. When most people in a community have the same religious views, belief arguably deters deviant behavior.

If religion operates as a source of solidarity and trust, then it would certainly make sense to keep nonbelievers at arm’s length.

Steve Hitlin, a sociology associate professor who studies morality at the University of Iowa, theorized that this may be how religion works in much of the United States. Most developed countries, except for the United States, are racially alike and have a less independent mindset, so Americans need something that binds them together. Because many of our ancestors sought religious freedom, our underpinning cultural and social fabric may be belief in God.

This could explain why atheists are by far the least trusted minority group in the United States — well behind often-maligned Muslims and homosexuals — as a study in the American Sociological Review found. Keep in mind that about 90 percent of Americans still believe in God, despite hype about fading religious affiliation.

But that lack of trust doesn’t mean that the irreligious are necessarily immoral.

As a nonreligious person, I feel no urge to kill or otherwise maim innocent bystanders for kicks and giggles. There’s a big difference between psychopathy and not believing in God.

Couple that with the fact that countries in which people, according to the Pew survey, don’t see religion as essential to morality are pretty peaceful places. France, the Czech Republic, and Germany aren’t exploding because people are no longer held back by the fear of God.

He pointed to a growing body of research that seems to show that babies like people who are similar to themselves, along with those who are generally helpful. Many experiments conducted by such researchers as Yale psychologist Paul Bloom suggest that infants have a fairly consistent bare-bones conception of morality.

But it’s still difficult to ultimately say if belief in a higher power is truly innate.

“For the most part, human beings that are organized in societies believe in something,” Hitlin said.

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