How Big is Religion’s Impact on Moral Judgment? June 8, 2009

How Big is Religion’s Impact on Moral Judgment?

This post is by Jesse Galef, who works for the Secular Coalition for America.  He also blogs at Rant & Reason

Is religion the primary source of people’s moral judgments?

It looks like a nation’s culture plays a larger role than religion itself.  ‘David Hume‘ had an interesting post on last week examining data from the World Values Survey on abortion opinions between religions and  between religions within a country:

All things equal there was an international tendency for Catholics to be somewhat more anti-abortion than non-Catholics, but a far better predictor of attitudes was not religion but nationality. In other words Catholic Germans resembled Protestant Germans while Catholic Chileans resembled Protestant Chileans.

But what about religion and irreligion more generally on the international level? That is, do religious and irreligious people within a nation tend to correlate in their attitudes toward abortion? Do atheists in Germany resemble religious people in Germany more than they do atheists in Nigeria?

Lo and behond, atheists in Germany DO resemble religious people in Germany more than they do atheists in Nigeria.

It turns out that there’s huge variability between nations’ views on abortion, and it’s a better predictor than religion.  To put it another way:  If religion were the primary source of moral judgments, the best way to guess an individual’s views on abortion would be to know that person’s religion.  But country is more closely tied – it’s more helpful to know what country the person is from than his religion.

He doesn’t include the trendline’s equation in his blog post, but he was helpful enough to include the raw data, which I used to create my own scatterplot:


Here’s an explanation of what you’re looking at:

Each data point is one country.  Its horizontal position is what percent of the religious population in that country said abortion is never justified.  The country’s vertical position is what percent of the NON-religious population said abortion is never justified.   The red line is what we would expect if religion had no effect on people’s opinion.  If a country is below the red line (as almost all are), then its religious population is more opposed to abortion than the non-religious population.

On average, those who identify as religious in a country are 13.2% more likely than the non-religious to say that abortion is never acceptable.

What should we take away from this?  Well, as always, correlation is not the same as causation. Religious individuals are more likely to interact with their community, which could shape their opinions.  People opposed to abortion could be more likely to seek out religious groups.

I suspect that these are true, but it also seems likely that religion does influence opinion.  If you believe that a god spoke out against homosexuality, you’ll be more likely to oppose gay relationships.

… It’s just not the biggest influence.  Secular society has a culture of its own, one with a huge impact on views.  I’d bet it even influences how people interpret their scripture.  People might claim to derive moral values from a holy book, but it looks much more as if they get their views largely from society and then skew them a bit based on their book.

What do you get from the data?

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • anothermike

    Not to change the subject but, hasn’t it been established, by some study or other, that secular humanists are far less likely to be imprisoned for violent crimes than religionists? Does anyone have a cite to one of these studies? I have read hundreds of pre-sentence reports, and remember only a handful of criminals who didn’t claim a religion. Of course, the others may have thought that such a claim would help them out with the judge. After all, their thinking prior to their crimes was equally skewed.

  • Justin jm

    What the graph implies to me is that non-believers (with the exception of “David Hume” and the others at tend to be more left-wing. Only two countries on the graph show more non-believers than believers opposed to abortion, and only by a tiny amount.

    I say that the graph “implies” this because a single social issue isn’t nearly enough to establish a person or group’s political leanings.

  • Aj

    There are other factors than religious vs nonreligious. I suspect loyalty and obedience to doctrine are factors, and predict a correlation between those and the state of liberty, education, and secularisation.

    Religion is culture, a nation’s culture includes the religions of that nation. Even if people are non-religious, religion can still influence them culturally. Tradition, nationalism, conservatism can take religious values and retain them in a secular society.

    Religions aren’t contentless, there is variation at almost every level. Where religions take no, or limited, position on abortion, you see that represented in no, or limited, difference between religious, non-religious, and atheist. Religious doctrine positions are complex, it’s not good lumping all “Protestant” groups together without the context of how they’re related to other groups.

    Categories “religious”, “not religious” are vague and unhelpful. Religious perhaps should be continuous not discete, as there’s definitely variation in passion vs apathy. Even the definition of “atheist” is much debated.

    70% of China, religious, non-religious, and atheists say abortion is never justified? Apart from the state’s policy of mandatory aborting unauthorized pregnancy and advocating abortion of fetuses with heredity illness, that same state had to ban selective abortion of females because of its popularity.

  • Miko

    Aj’s comment sums up my thoughts nicely.

    Religious communities encourage uniformity, but are not the only group in society that does so. I predict a strong positive correlation between percentage of population attending public/charter schools (or equivalent with a systematized and uniform shared curriculum) and agreement between the religious and non-religious on the issue.

  • Robert Wright’s new book addresses Moral Imaginations — these mirror neurons are used by the religious and atheists alike — but only when they don’t go haywire !

  • rowanth

    I personally believe that abortion extends further than being a religious issue and should be debated robustly by the non-believing community also. As a very staunch atheist and active campaigner for secularism here in Ireland I always wondered why I had conflicting opinions on abortion. Certainly culturally you can feel the apprehension surrounding this issue here but on the other hand you are surrounded by, as an atheist, the staunchly pro choice sentiments from that community and so as an atheist in Ireland the question is one in which time must be invested in order to come up with an objective view. Ireland is one of the very few countries in western Europe where abortion is still illegal, it is also illegal to travel abroad for such services.

    Personally I have come to the opinion that abortion, certainly, should be legal but and it is a big but, that the concept of the unborn child is not without merit, that a certain level of trepidation and apprehension surrounding the issue is a good thing and finally that we have all gotten the chance to experience and enjoy this brief and beautiful spark of existence, so really there should be a good reason if you would deny that to another.

  • Anticontrame

    I love graphs!

    Anothermike, I’ve seen the prison statistics claim posted around the intertubes, but I haven’t been able to find any decent sources that back up that interpretation. If anyone knows of one, please let me know.

  • I’d bet that a similar graph would exist for those who support the death penalty. Something that I would consider to be morally abhorrent.

    Also “never” justified? As in not ever? That’s a frightening thought. What if the pregnant woman was going to die unless she had an abortion? What if she’d been raped or was pregnant through incest? What if the fetus was severely disabled and was expected to live for only a few hours after birth? Are these circumstances that the anti-choice people would really be comfortable in denying an abortion for?

    Very moral. 🙄

  • Monkfishy

    I definitely agree that the values and morals people are raised with inform their religious choices, versus their religion creating their values and morals. However, it’s too generic to lump whole countries together – especially countries as large and diverse as the U.S. The whole red state/blue state scenario is a good example of what a huge difference there can be between specific regions and communities within a country.

  • Aj

    …so really there should be a good reason if you would deny that to another.

    If people were logically consistant on this point they’d advocate maximizing chance to conceive and bring to term as if it was some sort of duty to have as many kids as possible. Contraception or choosing to not have sex deny the chance of existence as well.

  • anonymouse

    Hoverfrog- People who don’t believe abortion is justified-in any circumstance-do not equate women with being human beings. They are merely breathing incubators. At least their intentions can’t be construed as thoughtful or love-based by anyone who looks past the superficial rhetoric. It’s about controlling womens’ bodies and sexuality.

  • Morgan

    I’m writing a paper on the difference and relationship between Jonathan Haidt’s Social Intuitionist Model and moral theorists’ justification of morality through religious doctrine. I’m having some trouble portraying my theory that Intuitionism (the process of using moral reason and then, when defeated through discussion, saying “I don’t know why, I can’t explain it, I just know it’s wrong”) is just as excusing and concluding as religion is in moral argument. I figure there is a difference in the two but am having trouble illuminating it as well as I’d hope. Any suggestions?

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