Remember ME - You Me and Dementia

Monday, October 6, 2008

Religion can spur goodness—but it depends

Be­lief in God en­cour­ages peo­ple to be help­ful, hon­est and gen­er­ous—but only when re­li­gious thoughts are fresh in their minds or when such be­hav­ior en­hances reputa­t­ion, re­search­ers say.

Those are the con­clu­sions of a study based on an anal­y­sis of re­search span­ning the past three dec­ades. The stu­dy, by Ara Noren­za­yan and Azim Shar­iff at the Uni­ver­s­ity of Brit­ish Co­lum­bia in Can­a­da, appears in the Oct. 3 is­sue of the re­search jour­nal Sci­ence.

The pa­per first re­views da­ta from an­thro­po­l­ogy, so­ci­ol­o­gy, psy­chol­o­gy and eco­nom­ics. The au­thors then ex­plore how re­li­gion, by en­cour­ag­ing coop­era­t­ion, con­tri­but­ed to the rise of large, sta­ble so­ci­eties of un­re­lat­ed in­di­vid­u­als.

Among the find­ings:
  • An­thro­po­log­i­cal da­ta sug­gests there is more coop­era­t­ion among re­li­gious so­ci­eties than oth­ers, es­pe­cially when group sur­viv­al is threat­ened.

  • Eco­nom­ic ex­pe­ri­ments in­di­cate that re­li­gios­ity in­creases trust among par­ti­ci­pants.

  • Psy­chol­o­gy ex­pe­ri­ments show that thoughts of an om­nis­cient, mor­ally con­cerned God re­duce lev­els of cheat­ing and self­ish be­hav­iour.

“Religiously-motivated ‘vir­tu­ous’ be­hav­iour has likely played a vi­tal so­cial role through­out his­to­ry,” said Shar­iff, a doc­tor­al stu­dent. “One rea­son we now have large, co­op­er­a­tive so­ci­eties may be that some as­pects of re­li­gion – such as out­sourc­ing costly so­cial polic­ing du­ties to all-pow­er­ful Gods – made so­ci­eties work more co­op­er­a­tively in the past.”

Across time, ob­serve the au­thors, the no­tion of an all-pow­er­ful, mor­ally con­cerned “big God” usu­ally be­gat “big groups” – large-scale, sta­ble so­ci­eties that suc­cess­fully passed on their cul­tur­al be­liefs.

To­day, re­li­gion has no monopoly on kind­ness and gen­eros­ity, the re­search­ers not­ed: in many find­ings, non-be­liev­ers acted as help­fully as be­liev­ers. The last sev­er­al cen­turies have seen the rise of non-re­li­gious mech­a­nisms that in­clude ef­fec­tive polic­ing, courts and so­cial sur­veil­lance. “Some of the most co­op­er­a­tive mod­ern so­ci­eties are al­so the most sec­u­lar,” said Noren­za­yan. “Peo­ple have found oth­er ways to be co­op­er­a­tive – with­out God.”

By University of British Columbia


Forget yourself for others, and others will never forget you.

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