Does Belief in a Vengeful God Make You More Honest? April 21, 2011

Does Belief in a Vengeful God Make You More Honest?

For all the non-atheists out there: Do you believe in the God of the Old Testament or the New Testament? A vengeful God who must be feared or a loving God who wants what’s best for you?

According to psychology researchers Azim F. Shariff (University of Oregon) and Ara Norenzayan (University of British Columbia), your answers to those questions could tell us whether or not you’re likely to cheat on a test.

“Taken together, our findings demonstrate, at least in some preliminary way, that religious beliefs do have an effect on moral behavior, but what matters more than whether you believe in a God is what kind of God you believe in,” Shariff said. “There is a relationship: Believing in a mean God, a punishing one, does contribute to non-cheating behavior. Believing in a loving, forgiving God seems to have an opposite effect.”

No differences in cheating were found between self-described believers in God and non-believers. However, students who specifically perceived God as punitive, angry and vengeful showed significantly lower levels of cheating.

Others can be the judge of whether this study was carried out properly, but superficially, anyway, I’m not surprised.

Non-religious people are no less moral than religious people. We all know that.

But if you fear that a god is watching every single thing you do, you may very well force yourself to “act right.”

If you need that image in your head to do the right thing, maybe it’s good that you’re a believer… Meanwhile, the rest of us can try do the moral thing because that’s just the kind of society we want to live in.

I should also note that the subjects in this particular study took a math test. And there’s no need to ever cheat on a math test.

GOT THAT, STUDENTS?!

(Thanks to Sean for the link!)


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  • If you have to be threatened or made paranoid that someone is going to do (insert some horrible thing here) unless you are a good person, then you aren’t a good person.

    You are a fake, fraud, phony.

    Behaving like a human being, honesty, integrity, etc are not something that can be scared into a person. You have to truly want to do the right thing.

    I don’t know how else to put it… Maybe I’m being harsh, or unfair…

    As both an Atheist and Buddhist, I enjoy being a good person, and helping others without needing an ulterior motive behind it.

    What’s so hard about that for the religious folks to understand?

  • Drew M.

    Agreed. The true test of one’s character is what you do when you know you won’t be caught.

  • Dan

    I am not a good driver because I obey the speed limit when there is a police car driving next to me. The same is true of these people.

    Additionally, of course you don’t need to cheat on a math test. Math doesn’t require the complex thought of other topics. ;p

    -English Teacher Atheist

  • @Brielle: I think you put it very well, but there is something I’d like to add…

    If you are religious, and feel your god is vengeful – so you don’t cheat out of fear – but supposedly your god already knows you better than you know yourself – then won’t your god know what is really in your heart and mind, no matter what you do or how you act?

    One would think such a being would make a judgement based on that, not on external displays of “good morals”…

    Basically, the main argument against “Pascal’s Wager” (from a theistic perspective – an omnicient god required and all that)…

  • Cortex

    I think this might have more to do with why people believe in a certain kind of god, rather than how that belief influences their behavior.

    If you want to believe that there is such a thing as real justice, and people end up suffering for their transgressions, you’d be more likely to both believe in an authoritarian god, and avoid cheating.

    If it’s more important to you to just feel good about yourself, then a forgiving god is probably just another way for you to shrug off the bad things you’ve done.

  • Richard Wade

    There’s whether or not you do the right thing, and then there’s the reason why you do the right thing.

    If you are raised all your life to do the right thing only because a god will punish you if you don’t and reward you if you do, you will not mature emotionally because you are kept at a child-like level of responding only to an outside motivation. Your morality is never internalized. The moment you think you won’t get a punishment or reward, you’ll misbehave.

    This is the lowest level of Lawrence Kohlberg’s stages of moral development. Grown ups should move beyond that, but sadly many never do. There are much better reasons to do the right thing, including it becomes completely second nature for you. Doing the wrong thing hardly, if ever even occurs to you. Yes, there are people like that. They are in the rare state of maturity called Adult.

  • I’m a little confused about something. If non-religious and religious people were overall equally moral, then was the non-cheating behavior of the vengeful-god believers not a large enough effect to make an overall statistical difference? Or were the believers in a loving, forgiving god sufficiently immoral that they canceled out the effects of the vengeful god believers?

  • I believe it’s understood that those that do the “right” thing for the wrong reason are not good people, and that all they’re interested in the behavior. Which is important in a society. So, is religion, vengeful god religion, beneficial to those with sociopathic tendencies? Could be. The article didn’t say what their method was for determining who cheated, observation or survey. They may have just lied about their cheating.

  • Rose

    I agree with the comments but I do see the point of the study. If you just consider christian behavior, those that take the Bible literally, without the added fanatacism, are more likely to choose to behave well because they may respectfully fear god. I saw that kind of behavior with my Mother. She respected both the loving, and vengeful god and I have always respected her though I didn’t agree with her. Today’s fundamentalist use fear rather than respect the fear of god.

    On the other hand, most moderate christians that do not take the bible literally only want to see the side of god that is loving and forgiving. They ignore the rest and find it quite convenient to do whatever actions they can “rationalize” with their belief system knowing that they can go to confession or just pray for forgiveness.

  • Miko

    the rest of us can try do the moral thing because that’s just the kind of society we want to live in.

    It does happen to be true that that’s the kind of society that I’d like to live in (although I wouldn’t say it describes our society especially well), but that’ not why I’m moral: I live in a moral manner because I personally want to do so. The fact that my morality has positive externalities for the rest of society is just a happy coincidence for the rest of you.

    Richard Wade:

    This is the lowest level of Lawrence Kohlberg’s stages of moral development. Grown ups should move beyond that, but sadly many never do.

    An interesting theory. Perhaps it describes how people do develop moral sentiments, but it doesn’t really describe how they ought to. For example, the third step is just a refined understanding and/or restatement of the second step, the fourth step is a reversion to a state worse than the first step (as it suggests that morality should be abandoned entirely in deference to authority), and definitions of the fifth and sixth steps are just poorly thought out. As the wiki link says, the last two stages are often “mistaken” for a reversion to step 2, but that’s what they are, really. It’s like the monomyth: the hero has gone out to the unknown, only to be transformed and learn that the proper place to be was the place that the hero originally started from. Or, translated to this case, we need only consider collectivist understandings of morality so that we can realize why we should abandon them.

  • So there’s no difference between cheating (a suitable proxy statistic for general morality) for non-believers and believers. Seems reasonable.

    But non-believers tend to come from the more law-abiding segment of the population – more educated, intelligent, less prone to pathology like teen pregnancy, etc.

    These people don’t really need a restrictive edifice to dictate their behavior. But for the general masses, maybe strict religion, as epitomized by a vengeful God, is constructive. And not only constructive, but necessary.

  • Bargain

    I believe in a “loving God who wants what’s best for you.” Vengeful god would obviously cause people to want to lie to cover up their mistakes

  • Lana

    I never cheated on math tests, even though I regularly got awful grades no matter how hard I studied. Not because I feared the vengeful wrath of god, though — even as a believer, that wasn’t my motivation. It was because I hated the idea of succeeding on someone else’s merits and intelligence. I would rather study hard and barely pass than cheat and get an A.

    Once I brought home a “C” on my math test and my parents took me out to dinner to celebrate. In retrospect, that’s pretty sad.

  • Non-Litigious Atheist

    These people don’t really need a restrictive edifice to dictate their behavior. But for the general masses, maybe strict religion, as epitomized by a vengeful God, is constructive. And not only constructive, but necessary.

    @OneSTDV: This has always been an argument made by some theists and atheists alike.

    The question is, are people like Richard Dawkins violating an unspoken taboo to let sleeping dogs lie? If so, do the costs (unrestrained sociopaths) outweigh the benefits (atheists feeling good about themselves for being atheists)?

    For the grown ups who never evolve beyond the lowest level of moral development, is something better than nothing at all, for the rest of us who have to live with them?

    I’m not suggesting an answer, just that the question needs to be considered.

  • Min

    Allow me to make the obligatory “correlation is not causation” remark. Just because a correlation was found between not cheating and believing in a vengeful god does not mean that the restraint from cheating is because of a fear of vengeance. It’s quite possible that the opposite is true; the type of person who is scared of cheating on a test could also be more willing to believe in a god who will punish them for doing so.

  • Nakor

    @Fiona: I expect that was the case, yes.

    It sounds from this that there is some average number of people willing to cheat on exams. Atheists or other non-believers tended to fall on that average, and the research didn’t control for any factors that would separate this group from the religious. The religious were skewed based on the sort of gods they believed in — vengeful ones caused a lower average, but forgiving ones caused a higher average, but the overall average coming up even.

    @Min: It’s an interesting point, but when you consider the small number of people who, in their lifetime, convert between significantly different religions, it seems that the single biggest determiner of a religion is what religion you’re raised with. Certainly some personality traits can tend a person away from or toward such, but to this point that has tended to be the exception and not the rule. (On the other hand, that number has seemed to be climbing, but that might just be my perception of it.)

  • cat

    @non-litigous, there are few true sociopaths and psycopaths, an incredibly discrete minority, and both show a strong ability to be deterred by legal and other secular systems of punishment. Setting up a rules system that would have a decent likelihood of catching and punishing their bad behavior would be just as good, most likely better. Consistency is often more crucial to deterrence than severity of the potential punishment.

    Moving on, I want to second Min’s correlation and causation concern. In addition, the extremely small study size and limited sampling (like most starting psycology studies, it is heavily populated by early twenties upper class white folks) create issues.

  • Lauren S.

    @Dan: math doesn’t require critical thinking??? NO! you don’t need to cheat on math tests because you can rederive everything.

    in other subjects you must remember facts. that is what is boring. (which is also why people view math as boring when it isn’t. theuy don’t see the connections because it seems like a bunch of disconnected rules… :\ sigh)

  • Steve

    @Miko
    Replacing deference to a god to a deference to law indeed seems like the same thing. And from the point of view of the individual it is . You replace fear of one thing with another. Though in reality, I’d say following social norms is a combination of one’s innate morality and a desire to not come in conflict with the law.

    But from the point of view of society, there is a huge difference. We make our laws ourselves. They don’t come from some ancient, mythological book that’s ill suited for the modern world. In many cases people can’t say “god gave us those laws” or “it’s always been that way”. If we want to we can adapt and change our laws to (maybe) make them better. That’s not the case with divine law.

  • Thackerie

    Cheating on math tests should be perfectly acceptable by biblical standards, where Pi = 3, the number of legs on an insect is counted as 4, and a man-god is said to have arisen after 3 days in the grave even though it was actually ±39 hours.

    As an atheist, I most certainly do not fear the Wrath of God. However, I am somewhat concerned that using the Math of God in technical/scientific applications could do us all in.

  • P.

    We don’t need to cheat on math tests because Mr. Mehta’s going to give us all As anyway… right? 🙂