Does Religion Make People Nicer?

Only if they think Sky Big Brother is watching


In his new movie Religulous, comedian Bill Maher makes wicked fun of the religiously credulous. But it turns out that the folks who believe in talking snakes and seventy-two virgins per martyr may be on to something. As whacky as some dogmas are, religions do appear to encourage generosity and honesty. At least that is the claim made in a fascinating review article, "The Origin and Evolution of Religious Prosociality" (subscription required) published in the current issue of Science.

Evolutionary biologists argue that there's nothing surprising about genetically related individuals making sacrifices for their kin: They are helping some of their own genes get passed along to the next generation. But what might cause people to make sacrifices for the good of unrelated strangers? Here, according to University of British Columbia social psychologists Ara Norenzayan and Azim F. Shariff, religion plays a key role.

The authors have winnowed three decades of empirical evidence looking for examples of religious prosociality, which they define as "the idea that religions facilitate acts that benefit others at a personal cost." Specifically, their hypothesis is that religion encourages people to sacrifice their individual fitness for the benefit of unrelated individuals or for their group. For example, young men may risk sacrificing themselves in war to protect their tribe. So how does religion encourage prosociality? The answer is that being watched by a Big-Brother-in-the-Sky tends to make believers nervous about being selfish.

This observation accords with numerous studies showing that people behave better when they think that someone may be watching them. For example, one remarkable study in 2006 found that just being under the gaze of eyes on a poster nearly tripled the contributions to an office coffee kitty. Exposing participants in a laboratory economic game to computer-generated eyespots while they played made them twice as generous as those who were not. Another study found that participants in a laboratory economic game were nearly four times stingier with other players when they thought they were anonymous than when they thought they were being observed. In other words, watched people are nicer people. Why should that be? It's because we want to have the reputation of being cooperative and prosocial so that other people, especially strangers, will want to cooperate with us.

"The cognitive awareness of gods is likely to heighten prosocial reputational concerns among believers, just as the cognitive awareness of human watchers does among believers and non-believers alike," hypothesize the authors. But supernatural oversight is even better because it "offers the powerful advantage that cooperative interactions can be observed even in the absence of social monitoring."

So does religion work, in the sense of encouraging prosocial other-regarding behavior? It depends. In one famous 1973 study, degrees of religiosity did not predict which students would stop to help someone lying on a sidewalk appearing to be sick. However, in another experiment, two players would simultaneously decide how much money to withdraw from the same envelope—if their combined withdrawals exceeded the amount in the envelope, neither would get any money. Systematically, less money was withdrawn when the game was played at religious kibbutzim than when it was played at secular kibbutzim. This finding supported the researchers' prediction that "men who participate in communal prayer most frequently will exhibit the highest levels of cooperation."

So why do religious believers tend cooperate more? In one illuminating study cited by the researchers, volunteers were given the option to raise money for a sick child's medical bills. Some would-be volunteers were told that it was very likely that they would be asked to help, while others were told that there was only a small chance that they would be called on. "In the latter condition, participants could reap the social benefits of feeling (or appearing) helpful without the cost of the actual altruistic act. Only in the latter situation was a link between religiosity and volunteering evident," claim Norenzayan and Shariff. Religion played a role when it appeared that volunteering would improve one's reputation without much personal cost.

Even more interesting are studies that find that invoking an unseen watcher enhances moral behavior. In one amazing experiment, when participants were told that the ghost of a dead student was haunting the experimental room, they cheated less on a computer test. Other researchers report that when experimental subjects were primed with religious words, they cheated significantly less on a subsequent task. Similarly, Norenzayan and Shariff found that subjects in experimental economic games were more generous when God concepts were implicitly activated before play.

The authors hypothesize that the belief in morally concerned gods who keep track of who's been naughty or nice helps create and stabilize large-scale societies. "Large groups, which until recently lacked institutionalized social-monitoring mechanisms, are vulnerable to collapse because of high rates of freeloading. If unwavering and pervasive belief in moralizing gods buffered against such freeloading, then belief in such gods should be more likely in larger human groups where the threat of freeloading is most acute," suggest the authors. In fact, a cross cultural analysis of 186 societies confirms this prediction: The larger a society, the more likely its members believe in deities that are concerned about human morality.

In small hunter-gatherer bands or subsistence farming villages, it's pretty easy to keep track of just how cooperative your neighbors are. But when groups grow to encompass thousands and eventually millions of strangers, a Big-Brother-in-the-Sky can watch how your fellow citizens behave when you can't. And even better, Sky Big Brother can punish them with eternal damnation if they swindle you. One big downside is that groups have different Sky Big Brothers, which means that "the same mechanisms involved in ingroup altruism may also facilitate outgroup antagonism." In other words, kill the infidels!

Shariff and Norenzayan note that while religion remains a powerful facilitator of prosociality in large groups, modern societies have devised secular replacements for Sky Big Brother, including courts, police, and other contract-enforcing institutions. Also, the modern world is headed toward a transparent society in which social monitoring will be nearly as omnipresent as that of a hunter-gatherer band. Increasingly sophisticated information and communication technologies will enable anyone to assess your reputation for prosociality with a few mouse clicks. Sky Big Brother is being outsourced to the Web.

Ronald Bailey is reason's science correspondent. His book Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution is now available from Prometheus Books.

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  1. Bailey are you still a member of the ACLU?
    Sorry for bringing it up, but it is your fault since you never answered my question in the first place.

  2. Terry,

    Usually a lack of response is symbolic for “none of your business”. Could be wrong though, maybe Ron just doesn’t like you.

  3. Terry: When did you ask? In any case, yes, I am. It’s far from perfect, but the threats to our civil liberties are so numerous that I think I need to support it.

    Now back to the issue: Does believing in God make you a better person?

  4. Of course it does, that’s why it was invented.

  5. Think of the children.

  6. FWIW, I was answering the “Does religion make people nicer?” question.

  7. You know, God looks just like Lawrence Olivier.

  8. Hmmmm . . . honestly Ron to answer your question would cause me leave aside facts and focus on my personal beliefs. I’ll give it a try. Balance of power. People tend to be irrational about belief systems but if you are around a group of people with a similiar idea you tend to lean towards that group. I believe there were studies done on this. Plus if you like you can throw in founders effect for how strong any one idea can last over time. So after all this nonsense I wrote what is my answer? Yes, except when it doesn’t.

  9. “Sky Big Brother is being outsourced to the Web.”

    I’m not sure whether to rejoice or lament.

  10. Pro Lib,

    I was thinking more Zeus but . . . yeah. I can see the resemblance. lol.

  11. Speaking of Talking Snakes , the original and still the best is Glycon, the patron saint of reptilian sock puppetry-

    Glycon himself was a perfectly respectable Anatolian snake until captured by a snake oil salesman named Alexander of Aubonitechos , AKA Alexander the Pseudomant , who equipped his charge wit a puppet head and proceeded to ventriloquize his way deep into the purses of Roman tourists by becoming the region’s leading Oracle.

    When Alexander’s scam was discovered by the satirist Lucian , the Pseudomant paid to have the Greek tossed overboard on his return voyage to Rome , but Lucian talked the crew out of it by relating his cautionary tale, still in print after 1900 years

  12. It makes people nicer and meaner. Many people who repress their “evil” actions toward one group will let out that “evil” towards a group that they see as opposed to their imaginary person such as gays or nonbelievers of that particular imaginary person.

    Frankly the question I always ponder is, if the First Commandment is “no Gods except Moses’s God,” (basically establishing a monopoly) why the hell did “God” create reasoning skills? Or were reasoning skills created by “Satan” like dinosaur fossils?

  13. Knowing I’m going to end up a rotten corpse in a few short years really pisses me off.

  14. Then bask in the glow of this quote and go to the nearest church to be “saved”.

    ” As we all know, Christmas is that mystical time of year when the ghost of Jesus rises from the grave to feast on the flesh of the living! So we all sing Christmas Carols to lull him back to sleep.”

  15. Im not sure I think increased cooperation is the best yardstick for “nice”. Anyway, it seems like it only works amoung people who either are members of the same religion or could plausibly be converted…

  16. I would think there would be a positive correlation between being a good person and one’s involvement in a values system that supports an objective viewpoint (i.e., the world is real regardless of whether I’m here), as opposed to a more subjective take (how the world actually works isn’t so important as my personal experience with whatever floats my boat). But that may just be because I think Catholics and athiests tend to be more about doing good than Gnostic types. Then again, Mormons are really sweet people, and their worldview is as subjective as anyone’s.

  17. I like this summation of the dilemma religious beliefs present.

    In small hunter-gatherer bands or subsistence farming villages, it’s pretty easy to keep track of just how cooperative your neighbors are. But when groups grow to encompass thousands and eventually millions of strangers, a Big-Brother-in-the-Sky can watch how your fellow citizens behave when you can’t. And even better, Sky Big Brother can punish them with eternal damnation if they swindle you. One big downside is that groups have different Sky Big Brothers, which means that “the same mechanisms involved in ingroup altruism may also facilitate outgroup antagonism.” In other words, kill the infidels!

    Good article. I’ll recommend it to my theist friends.

  18. Hmmmm . . . does Cthulu make people good? No . . . but he makes them free!

  19. Having actually met people who say that they would do bad things if not for the threat of eternal damnation, I have to say that it can be true that religion can make people better or nicer. But, as someone who manages to find a use for morality without the need for God or an afterlife, I find that fact very sad. The thing that makes the Golden Rule so great is that it doesn’t require any God or Jesus to make it a good idea.

  20. The thing that makes the Golden Rule so great is that it doesn’t require any God or Jesus to make it a good idea.

    And we can all break it with impunity!!!!

  21. Pro Lib,

    I was thinking more Zeus but . . . yeah. I can see the resemblance. lol.

    The generation gap between Gen X and Gen Y is precisely at the point where one did or did not see clash of the titans in elementary school.

  22. I’ll concur that it seems religion has defined “nice” without much competition for a few thousand years, so of course it’s going to seem like religion makes people “nicer”.

    Also, is it possible that people who are naturally nice tend to gravitate towards religion? And if (organized) religion didn’t exist, would these people organize in some other way or stop being nice?

  23. God died a while back, yet the corpse is still not cold. Luckily for God his soul can inhabit other entities, and since he had a rather strong reign he decided to inhabit the next strongest entity that existed and felt obliged to do so because God helped this entity for so many years. God became the State.

  24. Naga,

    Zeus? I’m not seeing it.

  25. Now back to the issue: Does believing in God make you a better person?

    Saddly yes.

    Even worse it probably is the reason for liberal democracy and the concepts of moral justice and equality under the law and why we are not in some forest hanging from trees throwing feces at each other, if not simply extinct.

  26. I haven’t watched “Clash of the Titans” since . . . 04′ I think. As for the other part I watched “Clash of the Titans” around the time my little brother was born. I must have seen it in 88′ or 89′ which would have made me 4. Hmmmm . . . now that I think about it I saw “The Evil Dead” when I was even younger than that!


  27. Talk about a placebo effect on a MASSIVE scale.

  28. How do you not think Zeus right from the start? What were you thinking? The damned Censor again, huh?

  29. Whenever I’ve suggested to my fellow non-believers that religion might actually cause people to behave “better” (assuming we can agree on what that means), I’ve been shouted down. It seems to be an article of atheist dogma in some circles that “atheists are just as moral as believers.”

    It makes perfect sense to me that fear of an all-seeing cranky sky-fairy would cause a person to be more rule-abiding, especially w/r/t minor wrongs.

  30. Naga,

    Pro Libertate make joke. Saw movie as youngster.

  31. JP,

    Atheism is a belief system. As for a religion, probably not. But definitely has a lot of similarities to religion. They just won’t admit it.

  32. Pro Lib,

    I was joking too. Seems we have ourselves a Mexican standoff. Make your move, punk!

  33. Like Don King, if Jesus didn’t exist, we’d have to invent him!

  34. The Golden Rule is only a rule, it’s not like it’s a law or anything. We’re a nation of laws, not some damned rules.

  35. It’s not Zeus. It’s Charlton Heston. Can’t you see the tracers behind him? Then again….maybe it is God.

  36. I love annoying liberals on how much more religious conservatives donate to charity despite their opposition to wealth redistribution. Does my pleasure from trolling liberals make me an evil secularist?

  37. It’s not Zeus. It’s Charlton Heston.

    Duh, Charlton Heston was jewish not greek.

  38. Or, he was roman not greek.

  39. I was thinking more Zeus but . . . yeah. I can see the resemblance. lol.

    People behave better under threat of being chained to a rock and having a vulture eat their liver for all eternity.

  40. “I love annoying liberals ”

    That’s about all the right wing can manage to do competently these days.

  41. While the justice system works well to keep people from committing the big evils, it can’t really handle the small day to day stuff, much less compel people to actively help others. People can generally agree that being good to one another makes for a better society, and a good society is hugely beneficial to the individuals within it. What is difficult to see is how one’s individual acts of goodness directly benefit one’s self. Individuals must believe that their expenditure of goodness will somehow come back around to them, even though they can’t see how this directly happens. The concept of God creates the connection between their good acts and their benefit, whether that benefit comes here or in an afterlife. (Alternatively, God can also make the connection between their evil actions and the consequences here or in the afterlife. This belief also helps those who have been victimized by promising justice against those who have wronged them, allowing the victims release of their own desires for revenge.)

  42. I’m gonna give you assholes a chance. What do you say we play a little Bangkok Rules?

    Kolohe ,

    Um, Heston wasn’t Jewish. Except when he was Moses.


    What, pray tell, is the left doing competently? Even if the Democrats win, win, win! this election, they’ll just exit forthwith after another two years of this horrid Congress.

  43. “What, pray tell, is the left doing competently?”

    Annoying conservatives, and being ahead in the polls.

    I never said they don’t suck, too.

  44. Brian S.,

    Keep things in perspective. His liver grew back and he was given immortality.

  45. Pro Liberate,

    LOL!!! “I’ve played three presidents, three saints and two geniuses – and that’s probably enough for any man”

  46. “Atheism is a belief system.”

    Disbelief in or denial of the existence of God or gods.

    Attempts to redefine terms for the sake of contention is a pet peeve of mine. Atheism is a singular component of any number of belief systems, from Epicurus’ materialism to Zen Buddhism.

  47. I’m convinced that at least 50% of people who claim to be religious are really atheists in denial. Nobody who truly believed in Hell would really act like they do.

  48. But seriously, Obama didn’t base his VP choice on “how much would this REALLY annoy conservatives?” and then pick Bernie Sanders.

  49. I dunno–Biden annoys me, and I’m not a conservative. I wonder if Palin at his age will be as inept?

  50. Pro L, but imagine the outrage if he picked Sanders or Kunicnuch as his running mate?

    Because they’re basically left wing Sarah Palins.

    Or how about Cynthia McKinney?

  51. Um, Heston wasn’t Jewish. Except when he was Moses.

    And he wasn’t roman. until he got cell phone company with more bars in more areas.

  52. In The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins posed a question that went something like

    What is the evolutionary advantage conferred by religion. It’s present in all societies. We put a lot of resources into it with no discernible gain.

    It’s an interesting question to atheists. Why do they (the overwhelming majority) believe?

    What this indicates (to me) is that in medium to large societies there is a discernible gain (survival advantage) for a people/species to believe in God. Promoting that tendency to theism almost certainly has societal benefits in the past.

    But I’m just musing here. There are no gogs and people will continue to believe in them, even if we find out why they do.

  53. Oops, gogs should read gods. Unless your deity is named Gog.

  54. I always like to think religion came about because a few people in a given civilization got fucked up on magic mushrooms or something similar, and didn’t know it was the mushrooms that made them see gods.

  55. I was surprised when Heston died. I thought he was some sort of demigod or something.

  56. Pro L, but imagine the outrage if he picked Sanders or Kunicnuch as his running mate?

    Because they’re basically left wing Sarah Palins.

    Palin has governed far more centrist then Kucinich has. Where do you guys get this stuff?

    I really do not think the right has as much animosity to “culturally left” people as the left has for “culturally right” people…which is sort of odd seeing as how the vast majority of people are “culturally right of center”….the only big difference is that the left are “Culturally right of center” with gay friends and don’t hunt.

  57. “Palin has governed far more centrist then Kucinich has”

    That says a lot about your relative place on the political spectrum and not much about theirs, JC.

  58. My point remains. Part of her appeal with right wingers is OMG SHE ANNOYS TEH LIBRUHS! LOL!

  59. My experience with Mormons is that their belief system tends to make them much nicer neighbors, except at the ballot box, where they then tend to try to use the state to coercively enforce their moral code.

    Now, if the First Presidency would come out with a statement strongly affirming a libertarian viewpoint regarding government enforcement of private morality, Mormons would be some of the best neighbors imaginable. They could call it the “Jeff Flake” doctrine (he’s LDS).



  61. What is the evolutionary advantage conferred by religion. It’s present in all societies. We put a lot of resources into it with no discernible gain.

    J sub D — religious people tend to have more children. They tend to not abort unborn children. This gives them a reproductive advantage that is offset to a certain extent by the time spent in church and doing charitable acts. And, to the extent that their religion makes them happier and less fearful of death, that can also contribute to a reproductive advantage.

  62. Liberals are people smart enough not to believe in Jesus but stupid enough to believe in what he said.

  63. J sub D — religious people tend to have more children. They tend to not abort unborn children.

    Isn’t abortion that did not kill the woman as well a 20th century invention? (or maybe late 19th, I think they talked about it in Deadwood)

  64. What prolefeed says is correct. Mormons are *exceptionally* nice people to be around, and always straight arrows. Sometimes creepily so.

  65. I always like to think religion came about because a few people in a given civilization got fucked up on magic mushrooms or something similar, and didn’t know it was the mushrooms that made them see gods.

    That would explain the burning bush, but not so much the Thou Shalt Nots!

  66. Kolohe,

    There have always been . . . toxins you can ingest that . . . induce abortion.

  67. BTW, it’s occurred to me that western religion is a spiritualization of law while eastern religion is a spiritualization of therapeutic psychology (with some overlap)!!

    Who’s with me???

  68. “And, to the extent that their religion makes them happier and less fearful of death, that can also contribute to a reproductive advantage.”

    I agree. It provides alot of comfort to people entering battle. It also really helps keep children in line.

  69. Bluh. Religious people are dumb. It’s so sad how they tend to be happier. They should be neurotic, anxious messes like the rest of us.

  70. URKOBOLD, she looked at ME, i KNOW she wants me!

    prolefeed, I heard a christian preacher (Chip Ingraham) in a lesson last week say that statistically, almost 25% of abortions in the U.S. are had by evangelical christian women. He gave no referance for his info. Interesting nonetheless.

  71. fyodor, the eastern folks had better drugs?

  72. fwiw, the fella in the pic looks like Foster Brooks to me.

  73. I referenced this book in a thread about religion a few weeks ago, but it seems apt to bring it up again. Religion Explained by Pascal Boyer addresses the adaptive value of religious behavior very well, from a cognitive and anthropological perspective. I thought it did a good job of examining a lot of the questions J sub D and prolefeed were mentioning earlier.

  74. One big downside is that groups have different Sky Big Brothers, which means that “the same mechanisms involved in ingroup altruism may also facilitate outgroup antagonism.” In other words, kill the infidels

    Well, I guess there’s always a catch.

    Regarding the question “What is the selective advantage that causes this phenomenon to be so widespread?”; one interesting theory is that its not so much that religion itself that is advantageous, but certain aspects of the human mind are advantageous (eg. the tendency to attribute agency, the tendency of children to believe their parents, etc.) and religion is a byproduct. This article explores that theory.

    Most everything I have read here is disagreement, and I understand why.
    This is the way men have been ruled for all times, by those in power, getting the rest to disagree. Man even uses religion to make you disagree.
    GOD would rather all men would agree that God made us and we all deserve more than the rulers give us.

  76. GOD would rather all men would agree that God made us and we all deserve more than the rulers give us.


    Will He be appearing on CNN any time soon to confirm his views on that? Or perhaps MSNBC? Any TV station? YouTube?

  77. It’s not an either/or scenario. Religion, depending on who is doing the interpreting, can promote both good and bad tendencies.

    It’s like arguing over whether or not Islam is a violent, or peaceful religion.

    It’s both.

  78. BG:

    Daniel Dennett covers the ‘religion as a side-effect of other selective advantages’ argument quite well in his book, “Breaking the Spell, Religion as a Natural Phenomenon”.

    I think that was a more interesting book than Dawkin’s “God Delusion”, as much as I liked it.

  79. Does suicide bombing count as pro social behavior?

  80. brandon

    Yea, I heard about Dennet’s book, but I don’t know the details of what he goes over. Perhaps I’ll check that out.

  81. Robert Wright in “Three Scientists and Their Gods” suggested that societies that had a belief in god tended to be more successful (fit) than societies that did not. It makes sense from a sociobiology perspective for exactly the reasons suggested in the article. Cooperative strategies are supierior to selfish strategies. The Golden Rule or variations of it seem universal.

  82. We are a more religious society than most European ones yet we suffer from more crime, especially violent crime, and have a tendency to be more ignorant on multiple subjects than our European counterparts. And while generally more dour, I find most Europeans to be nice (as in polite and generally affable.)

    Also, I tend to find a high correlation with intelligence and atheism and niceness (in the sense that atheists tend not to brawl, beat their wives, steal, lie, hate, etc etc. Of course the correlation of intelligence with Atheism tends to mean that Atheists do not represent among the lower classes but are a higher class phenomena.) Yes we atheists ridicule you faithful types, but that’s because you are teh stoopid not because we are not generally nice.

    Religion makes people nicer to those who share their faith and belong to same house of worship, but less nice to outsiders in a general sense (especially towards “weird” religions and atheists). Religion likely exists because people fundamentally do not equate their physical bodies with themselves and thus believe in souls, ghosts, spirits and gods.

    I count people who do not believe in god but who believe in the Zodiac, Tarot, spirituality etc, as essentially people of faith. They too are irrational. I have neighbors who are so deeply convinced that a person’s sign tells you everything about them they treat people differently based on their birthdays. First question they ask: When were you born? Jeebus, that’s as bad a those who ask what church you attend right after learnin’ your name.

  83. bob,
    What do the rulers “give” us, besides a nasty pain in our colons?

  84. Cool article, I think I might try to use it for an assignment in a Research class.

    It’s true that we have higher crime rates than Europe. the question is, will the crime rate go down if we become less religious? Or will we become less religious if the crime rate goes down?

    My opinion is that America has more of an underclass of genuinely dumb people that our education system doesn’t save, leading to higher crime and more religion. Fix that, problems solved. Liberals should support school choice.

  85. You know, there’s a reason why religious leaders are frequently referred to as “shepherds.” If their devout followers are less agressive and more law abiding than atheists, perhaps we can credit the same credulous, passive and conforming mindset that led them to believe in their particular brand of superstition.

  86. I think that many religious and atheistic people act morally, when they do, out of a sense of joy caused by so acting. Not a fear of divine retribution.

    I propose that religion has the ability to encourage that state in people.

    And furthermore, even though atheists can get there too, the religious have a reason to believe that their good feelings are not biologically arbitrary.

    But my real burning questions is, regarding the Religulous movie site, what does Bill Maher have to do with a cheese sandwich emblazed by the face of Matthew Modine?

  87. If I had to answer Ron Bailey’s question, I’d point to the one study referenced in the article that implied that people behave better under the influence of religion only in situations that have low personal cost. The other studies referenced tend to support this as well in my opinion, since playing games or cheating on tests as part of a ‘study’ really doesn’t impart much personal cost on the participants.

    This would also explain why very religious people can do things that are supposedly not in line with their religions, such as the ‘suicide bombing’ mentioned above, or engaging in shady business practices or indulging in vices such as porn, liquor or gambling.

    So, short answer, religion may make people nicer in unimportant ways but has no effect on morality in larger, more significant areas. Worse, it may be making people act more deceptively (i.e. acting nicer than they actually are, because the ‘godliness’ is only displayed in low cost ways to gain social advantage).

    I think the correlation between the size of society and religion is important, but it might be functioning more as a group identification function (us vs. them) than as a ‘big brother is watching’ thing (although it could be both).

  88. Mentally disabled people also tend to be happier. Doesn’t mean it’s better to be mentally disabled.

  89. Naga Sadow:
    Keep things in perspective. His liver grew back and he was given immortality.

    Being a titan, Prometheus was immortal anyway. It was not a net gain for him.

  90. You’re asking the wrong question. The first thing you need to know about any religion or religious belief or doctrine is this: Is it *true*? Never mind whether it is good or nice or useful or in any way beneficial, until you find out if it is *true* or not. But doubtless you began by assuming it was untrue.


  91. Ok, lets get real here! If history has taught us anything, it is that irreligious states have a propensity for creating dictatorships that employ big brother tactics to control the masses and maintain control. On the macro-level, the very same can be said for states that have been controlled by religion. But the question requires a micro-view response. on the individual level. there is no evidence to suggest that those who practice dogma-based or driven religion is any kinder than an atheist. Yet, on the macro-level, particularly within the last 300 years, it is clear that athiestic goverments create a less kind and generous population. That would make sense though for within dictatorships, people have less to share with the exception of misery. The U.S. is considered by many to be a nation born from religious persecution. Some then say that the nations cornerstone is a Christian one. Whether it is or not, it is clear that the U.S. is tolerant nation and there is no other nation in history that has been more generous to people in need. You can point at exceptions, but they are indeed, exceptions. The generosity of the American people, individuals is so exceptional that when a study was performed to determine individual contribution to the needs of people outside of their national boundaries, Americans stood at sixteen-times the giving of all other major technologically advanced countries. Maybe this is do being country that is pre-dominantly religious or maybe not. Yet, When looking at those nations in the study, where the nations individuals gave the least, each was an athiest regime.

  92. bob,
    What do the rulers “give” us, besides a nasty pain in our colons?
    so true and all the different factions of religion do the same. atheist’s inteligence see the disagreement in the different factions as i do ,which gives them good reason to disagree with religion,and this fuels the disagreement.
    look back threw history, all leaders pushed disagreement among the people, thats how they rule, because people who disagree can’t stand against them. M en have to agree to make real changes, you can see that in history ,also.

  93. Where’s Chris Hitchens when I need him? That article poses a ridiculous question.

  94. I hate it when psychologists pretend they are scientists…

    When they can control all factors influencing human behaviour save one (the one they want to measure – in this case religion), then I’ll take them seriously. Until then, this is all idle, if at times fascinating, speculation.

    But even granting these studies more validity than they warrant, since when does one type of religion become a stand-in for all religion?

    For example, the different behaviours on “religious” versus secular kibbutzim cannot be extrapolated to any other particular brand of religion – not even Amish communities in Pennsylvania (a fair parallel, one supposes), let alone Muslims in Indonesia or Unitarians in Alaska.

    Generalizations may be useful to focus discussion but they should not be part of what passes for predictive science.

    To give but one example of a variance at the dogma level from the “evolutionary” theme in this discussion, what is the evolutionary advantage to the Samaritan who stops to help an injured Jew, his avowed enemy? Even more to the point, why would a religious leader (Jesus) praise the Samaritan as his “neighbour”?

    Long way to go on this stuff…


  95. Seen at the bottom of the article:

    > Help Reason celebrate its next 40 years. Donate Now!

    …guess they should have put some eyes, or some “god concepts” there.

  96. This article is one of the best arguments for atheism I’ve read in a long time.

    Religion obviously makes people suckers.

  97. “whacky?” Can’t anyone spell anymore?

  98. Did the researchers ask whether religion encouraged altruism, ie. a belief in goodness for its own sake quite separate from enlightened self interest?

  99. This reminds me of benthams Panopticon and Foucault analysis of Betntham in his work. I’m impressed by the examples, but not necessarily enthousiastic about it

  100. I have lived almost three quarters of a century and I remember, in my twenties, pondering this question. I had moved to a big city (where no one watched) from a small town (where everyone watched) … and came to the conclusion it is an internal code that probably comes from early training … that, if you are dishonest it mostly affects you and not the person you have cheated. I am not religious today – like Little Big Man I went through my religious period.

  101. I think that although it is rather fashionable today to be an atheist or an agnostic, it is nessecary to point out that all the great men of Reason in the past held strong religous convictions- and that they were almost universally monotheists. Aristotle, Descartes, Voltaire, and the Founding Fathers all held beliefs in God; and as a rational and freedom-loving believer in God I am required to defend that beleif on the grounds that not all who are religous do so out of ignorance or a fear of “Big-Brother in the Sky”. Religion is not just the opiate of the stupid masses.

  102. Everyone always focuses on religion vs. atheism. I think a better point to make in all of this is “Does Christian morality (or whatever religion you’re analyzing) make people better than some other religion they could belong to?”

    Yes, Christians may be charitable, but they probably would be under Buddhism or Unitarian Universalism as well. And with the latter, you get more tolerant attitudes towards gays and stuff. I’m not sure what any of this means, but it’s interesting, no?

  103. Ha, and some religions have you shove that religion in other peoples faces, being a prick and a jackass.

  104. [@Andy] America gives the most to chairty by a long shot, and is itself led by Christian organizations. Although Unitarians or Buhddists may be chairitable as well- it is worthwhile to say that unitarianism is really just accepting all relgions(not a religon itself) and that although Buhddism has good qualities it is still tied to the foundation which created the Caste system of Hinduism.

    [in general]
    Be careful in talking about “christians” do you mean Baptists, Methodists, Catholics, Pentacostals, Eastern Orthodox? Christianity is too diverse to be described in hasty generalization.

  105. The thing is that behaving yourself only because Big Brother in the sky is watching is what the Bible calls hypocrisy. It is in fact the sin of legalism and is condemned in the books of Romans and Galatians, not to mention in the gospels where the Pharisees who did just this were rebuked sternly. So maybe the world’s religions encourage this, but the Biblical christianity does not.

    You want examples? Well I Cor 13 makes it clear that if I give my money to charity (presumably out of fear of God) but have no love, then it is worthless in God’s sight

    So if you think that you have got christianity down pat with your formulaic definition of its being social control from on high, well you have not.

    And how can it be reasonable or rational to misrepresent anything you disagree with by means of a straw man fallacy?

  106. Just a note – the USA is the most generous nation in terms of the amount given to charities and foereign aid. This is directly in line with the fact that it is the world’s largest national economy. In terms of average donations per capita (per person), US citizens were the 21st most generous in the world in 2006, according to the United Nations.

  107. So now we get another paraphrase of the historian Gibbon’s two-centuries-old observation that all religions are “to the magistrate equally useful” in encouraging pro-social behavior.


  108. Be careful in talking about “christians” do you mean Baptists, Methodists, Catholics, Pentacostals, Eastern Orthodox? Christianity is too diverse to be described in hasty generalization.
    This is so true. It is also true that , those not associated with any of these are even more diverse. How many biker groups give? How many atheists give?
    Jesus chose a Samarian as an example of a nieghbor, to show this diversity with the best example he could at that time.
    He al;so showed this diversity,explaining that we all are both good and bad in some ways. No one being perfect, but the need for us to get past the diversity, and work together. The atheist, bikers,church goers and all the rest of the diversity.
    We are all losing the battle when we fight alone, instead of agreeing to fight together.

  109. I always have a good time when this discussion arises in the media or academic circles. A few years ago, at a Science and Religion conference, biologists made the same argument and representatives of certain faith systems tended to somewhat agree, but disagreed on a key aspect. Certain Christians said they had what was universally true, Muslims said what they had was universally true, and even Buddhists chimed in that what they have is universally true. This led to some tolerant animosity, but what happens after the discussion and the conferences. Which group or groups will actually look out for humanity without selfish regard? I think there will always be pain and suffering somewhere because of our selfishness. As a student of religion and philosophy, I believe it hubris that we think that we can solve this problem with science, religion, or both. To really tackle some of the pain, I think that maybe destruction of the self-survival instinct of institutions should be demolished in favor of transparency. Actually, changing one’s mind that it is an interior transformation that illuminates and transcends, not a transformation from outside, that will help start us in the right direction. The problem is very complex. I claim steadfastly that I do not have any answers.

  110. Imposing religious guilt under the guise of religious tradition, and using the civil authorities to impose religious law is a constant struggle between who shall command control of the masses: churches and religious or the state. Freedom of religion also means freedom from religion as a necessity for the Federal and State Government to maintain their right to regulate citizens, not as the handmaiden of the Church, but under their own authority under the Constitution.

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