The Lack of Evidence Supporting Relating Religion to Morality

Last Updated on May 7, 2022 by Shaun Snapp

Executive Summary

  • It is commonly stated that religion promotes morality. However, where is this assumption supported?
  • In this article, we review the evidence of a correlation between religion and morality.

Introduction

One of the common questions regarding religion is whether it positively impacts morality. Religions universally propose that the output of their particular denomination does increase morality. Although they strongly differ on whether other religions increase morality. Therefore, their opinion of the relationship between religion and morality is inconsistent, but they do propose an increase in morality from the “home” religion.

Testing for The Relationship Between Religion and Morality

The broader question is whether religion overall tends to lead to improved morality. This is the most important question because we all clearly benefit from more morality.

There are three general options for the relationship between religion and morality:

  • Religion Increases Morality: If the relationship between religion or between specific religions and morality can be proven, then we can begin to increase the amount of religion, and reap the corresponding benefit of more morality.
  • Religion Decreases Morality: On the other hand, if the opposite relationship can be proven, then policies can be supported that attempt to reduce the amount of religion that is consumed. For instance, most governments presently promote religions through the simple act of not taxing them.
  • Religion Has no Impact on Morality: If on (the third hand?) religion can be seen to be independent of morality, so neither increasing nor reducing morality, then the steps outlined in the previous point would make sense. This is because people worldwide pour large amounts of resources into religion, through donations, time, and accepting religious doctrines as promoters of particular government policies. If religion’s effect on morality is neutral, then these resources are being wasted.

Why is Testing for the Relationship Important?

There are some who might say that simply viewing religion as a promoter of morality is too narrow an interpretation of what religion does. Religion makes people better able to deal with difficult times, makes them more optimistic, etc. That may be true for each person who is religious. However, the primary “output” of religion for society as a whole is morality.

That may all be true for each person who is religious. However, the primary “output” of religion for society as a whole is morality. There is little doubt that religion makes people feel better about themselves.

Therefore, it is quite appropriate to ask the question and to test the question of how good a job it does at achieving this goal.

The Bias of Religions

There are also those that may prefer that the test not be performed. This is an untenable position to hold if the person is, in fact, religious. The reason for this is that religious people routinely propose that their religion does increase morality.

Therefore, if a concept is repeatedly proposed, then the proposer should not have any issue with the evidence for the concept or theory being tested. However, most religions will contest a test of the relationship between religion and morality. And this is for the simple reason that religions have a financial bias.

Religions run the gamut from Scientology, which extracts hundreds of thousands of dollars from devotes all the way down to Buddhist sects, which are far less extractive. However, money has always gone hand in hand with religion. An entity like the Vatican, which has roughly $50 billion in assets at the Vatican Bank, can be forgiven if they do not share a scientific interest in determining the relationship between Catholicism and moral outcomes. To almost all religions, testing of claims is likely to be bad for business.

Testing Morality and Religiosity per Country

The best way to test the hypothesis of morality and religion is by comparing countries. Countries can be scored on moral outcomes, and by their degree of religiosity.

But, one of the problems in doing this is that desperation leads to lower moral outcomes.

A person who is impoverished and desperate cannot be expected to act the same when confronted with temptation versus someone who is in a less desperate condition. That is simply common sense. As an example, if you have plenty of money to buy food, you are far less likely to steal food than if you don’t have the money.

Therefore, this complicating factor undermines the validity of comparing mortality by country.

Secondly, religiosity is inversely correlated with income.

Religiosity and Income

The relationship between religiosity and national income.
Per Capita IncomeYesNo
$25,001 + 47%52%
$12,500 to $25,00070%28%
$5001 to $12,50082%17%
$2001 to $500092%7%
up to $200095%5%

There are several outliers to this relationship.

  • The US is more religious than one would expect based upon income.
  • Italians, Greeks, Singaporeans, a Persian Gulf states are also more religious than one would expect based upon their income.

The British Humanist Association explains this linkage.

New research has demonstrated that personal insecurity associated with income inequality is a major reason that some countries, even wealthy ones, are more religious than others.

In the example of the US, the US is one of the only well-off countries to have no mandatory vacation and no paid maternity leave. It also has extremely high job insecurity.

Taken as a whole, the US has the weakest social programs and weakest social net of any country reaching a similar level of wealth and advancement. Therefore, it should not be surprising that it is more religious than one would predict based upon its average income.

The finding may explain why conventional theories about the causes of religion have always fallen short. Conventional theories on why religion varies from place to place claim either that modernization leads to loss of faith, or that states that interfere with religion actually make people disenchanted with it. However, neither of these theories can explain the differences between wealthy countries.

Therefore, it is difficult not to be religious if one is poor, and if one’s situation is tenuous. This is easily understandable, as well as predictable. The most impoverished both lack material goods, and in many cases, even adequate nutrition. They have little control over their lives. Therefore a religious belief can be seen as a way to increase the perceived control over one’s life.

  • The relationship between income and religion is very well established.
  • The fewer resources one has, the more likely they will be religious.

And this is an important relationship to understand because when one looks at the countries and how they score on the UN Human Development Index, they are inversely related to religion.

Best Countries on UN Human Development

What are the best countries on UN Human Development?
CountryScore
Germany82
Austria82
Australia83
Netherlands84
New Zealand85
Finland87
Norway87
Denmark87
Iceland88
Sweden89

Now let us look at the bottom performing countries.

Where Did Slaves Go To?

Where were the slaves sent?
Area SentNumber of SlavesPercentage
Totals12,500,000
Died on Route1,800,00014.4%
Africa155,5691.24%
Brazil4,864,37438.9%
Spanish Americas1,292,91210.3%
Danish West Indies 108,999.0087
Dutch Americas (Dutch East Indies)444,7273.5%
French Caribbean1,120,2158.9%
British Caribbean2,318,25118.5%
Mainland North America388,7473.1%
Europe8,860.0007

Analysis of Countries

The top-scoring countries are some of the least religious countries in the world. On the other hand, the bottom scoring countries are highly religious. However, what is also related is, of course, income.

  • The top-performing countries are some of the most prosperous in the world.
  • And the bottom performing countries are the least prosperous. This is explained by the British Humanist Association.

Dr Rees also confirmed that, “more religious nations have more indicators of social disharmony, with lower life expectancy, higher infant mortality, higher murder rates, more corruption, and a higher number of abortions. They also scored worse on the Global Peace index, that is, they are less peaceful both internally and in their external relations. What’s more, the research shows that nations with high levels of belief in God, Hell and the Devil (‘passionate dualism’) have higher murder rates.

The picture this paints is that religion is merely a response to poor living conditions. But the increase in religiosity does not improve these conditions. Instead it appears to be a reaction to them simply. Modern-day religions deny environmental limitations — preferring to present reality as if it is a virtual reality creation by a deity, which is under the control of that diety. For example, in discussing overfishing with students in Pakistan, I was told.

“No fish is not a problem, God can just create more fish.”

Any religion is a coping mechanism.

The British Humanist Association has welcomed the research. Naomi Phillips, Public Affairs Officer at the BHA, said, “This is a great contribution to a growing body of research which examines the sociology of religious belief, and demonstrates a clear correlation between religious belief and social ills.

“The lesson here is not that individual religious people don’t or can’t make great and positive contributions to society; of course they can and do, just like everyone else. However the lesson, especially for policy makers, is that they cannot take for granted the notion that religious belief is a positive influence on society, or that the advancement of religion is a public benefit.

“And this research shows that when government privileges religion, far from fixing social dysfunction they are in fact encouraging the symptoms of social dysfunction.”

Therefore we do not have a relationship between being religious and being more moral. What we have is a need to explain the cross-correlative factor of income or wealth.

One question that naturally should arise is how strong this proposed religious effect on morality is? Whatever its power, it is certainly not strong enough to combat economic insecurity. And we can say that the more effective way to increase morality is not to focus on raising more religion but instead of increasing income.

Should The Most Desperate Countries Increase their Religiosity?

As an example, does anyone think that the most effective way to increase moral outcomes in the Congo, Afghanistan, or Somalia is to increase the investment into religion? If the answer is no, then it is time to acknowledge the limitation of religion’s ability to lead to more moral outcomes.

Is the problem with morality in Afghanistan due to Afghanistan having too little religion? If the problem is a shortage of a religion, then programs can be initiated to increase the religiosity of the Afghanis. For example, on burka might be ok, by why not two? In Pakistan and Afghanistan, women are allowed out of the house occasionally.

However, why even allow this?

With more religion, and enough effort being expended, women could be kept permanently underground in these societies. With women forced into underground habitation — wouldn’t this improve the moral outcomes of societies? Many Muslims think so.

The Problem with Overpopulation and Resource Limitation

If one looks at the countries on the top of the humanitarian list, we not only see more income but better infrastructure and better institutions. So is morality related to infrastructure and better institutions? From looking at the list, it would appear so. When looking at the list and the countries contained within it, one may come to the reasonable conclusion that religion is negatively correlated with morality.

On the other hand, as I have pointed out, it is comingled with income. In most cases, religion is seen as independent of wealth and income, but is it?

If income, which can be loosely translated into the availability of resources, is the primary factor that drives morality, then why are we spending time and resources on religion, if it cannot be shown to be positively correlated to morality?

This moves us back to the introduction of this article. Religion is not free. Religion consumes the time and resources of the religious. Monies that are invested in churches could be spent on facilities that could be used, rather than used for congregating and praying.

Religion also serves as a placebo. The religious pray and attend churches or temples feel better and more moral for having done it. But what if there is no increase in morality from these behaviors and investments of time? Secondly, are there other investments in time that could lead to increasing moral outcomes?

Was this the best use of money regarding directing the congregation to behave more morally? 

Religions tell their congregations that they should donate resources to the respective church because it will lead to better outcomes. But what if it doesn’t? What if that time and money are better spent on development, building infrastructure, educating oneself, etc.

Could these people be doing something different with this time that would result in better moral outcomes? Most of these people traveled from a great distance to travel to Saudi Arabia. What if they hadn’t and instead invested locally? Is this all simply a placebo, and does the investment in this result in less, not more morality? 

Is this all simply a placebo, and does the investment in this result in less, not more morality? 

Conclusion

There are a tremendous number of assumptions related to the relationship between religiosity and morality. However, reviewing countries does not show any positive correlation between religion and morality. The correlation is negative.

The most reliable way to increase morality in a country is to increase its wealth, which reduces the level of desperation. Although, highly concentrated wealth, such as in the Gulf countries, which import borderline slave labor to do the work, while the connected elite lounge around is not the answer. The lower the income inequality in the country, the less likely people are to engage in underhanded techniques to obtain wealth.

However, the problem is that humans can only increase wealth through leveraging technologies, technologies which are destructive to the environment. At least this is the only way that has been devised thus far. Therefore in order to increase standards of living, the world population must be small relative to what it is today, which means shrinking the world population massively.

However, religion interferes with doing both, which is increasing standards of living and reducing the population. Religions are not only ignorant of ecology, but they are also aggressively hostile to it, declaring that this or that God is higher than the biological world, and that furthermore, God can increase resources by simply snapping his fingers (although he never seems to do this).

Notice the following quotation, which is fairly representative of how most religions view the ecology.

““Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth” (Genesis 1:28).”

The message is clear, the ecology is there for you to plunder, and you need not worry about anything but extracting more from it. That is, of course, why God put it there….for the egocentric needs of humans. One might say that this is due to the fact that religions tend to be pre-scientific. However, American Indian tribes did have a concept of living in harmony with the land or the environment. Some of this could also said to be intitutive.

  • Some religions like Catholicism, as well as Buddhism, teach that the present life is transitory, and one need only focus on the afterlife where the true rewards lay.
  • Religion opposes living within the ecological constraints of the environment.
  • Religions universally oppose mechanisms for reducing population growth, which leads to increased levels of desperation, which directly leads to lower mortality outcomes. In Christian countries, many children are born to parents that lack resources, leading to increased desperation. In India, a nation of 1.4 billion, of which roughly 1/2 live in severe poverty, Muslims have been notable for their strenuous objections to very light birth control initiatives introduced by the government.

Something else quite interesting from reviewing moral outcomes per country is that both religion and parents claim to influence the morality of children strongly. The review of moral outcomes by country seems to contradict this perspective. The idea that parents pass on morality to their children is appealing to parents, but it is also biased and self-reinforcing. And it is problematic as it is nearly impossible to find parents who will go on the record to state that the immorality of their children is due to their parenting. And once again, if no relationship can be found, perhaps the emphasis should switch to increase the incomes of the countries rather than promoting or emphasizing parenting as where morality naturally flows from.

This article has proposed that improving moral outcomes are a desirable goal. Religions state this as one of their goals. The evidence does not match the rhetoric on the part of religions on this topic. The scientific approach is to first identify the goal. This has been done. The second step is to attempt to find relationships between causal factors and the desired outcome. Then to engage in policies that increase the factors that are positively related to the end goal and to reduce the factors that negate the end goal. This has not been attempted. Instead, we are using untested and unproven levels in attempting to improve moral outcomes.

Research

https://www.gallup.com/poll/142727/religiosity-highest-world-poorest-nations.aspx

https://www.vexen.co.uk/countries/best.html

https://humanism.org.uk/2009/07/29/news-332/