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Does religion yield a stronger moral compass?

The question of whether believers, in all their forms, have a stronger moral compass than non-believers, is unpacked here by Sarah-Leah Pimentel. She presents both sides of the argument, leading us to understand that “religious and non-religious groups were both able to exhibit compassion in a range of scenarios”. 

The results of a study reportedly showing that children raised without religion are kinder and more empathetic has recently been doing the rounds on several social media sites.  Predictably, it has elicited varied emotional reactions from believers and non-believers alike. Non-believers feel justified that the study confirms their distrust in organised religion, while believers dismiss it as nonsense.

The study is not new and dates back to a 2015 project carried out by the University of Chicago. According to the study, 1,170 children aged between 5 and 12 years, from Canada, China, Jordan, Turkey, USA and South Africa participated in activities that tested, among other things, their levels of generosity, attitude to judgement and punishment for wrongdoing, and sensitivity to injustice.  Of these, 23,9% of the children came from Christian households, 43% came from Muslim homes, 27,6% were from non-religious homes and the remaining 5.5% of the children came from a range of other religious backgrounds.

The results showed that the children who came from religious backgrounds were less generous, less empathetic and more judgemental than children who came from non-religious homes.

Reading the study from within the paradigm of my own Christian upbringing, my initial reaction is to look for holes in the study, to question how the children were selected, and to look for biases. Surely, it can’t be right? Christianity, which is often summarised by its call to love God and one’s neighbour (cf Mark 12:30-31), epitomises, to me at least, a religion that is generous and merciful, qualities that are contrary to the outcomes of the study.

However, if I step back for a moment, I must admit that there is a niggling feeling that perhaps there is a measure of truth to the study. Perhaps that is why it is still making the rounds some three-and–half-years after its publication.

I have met Christians who judge people and situations on a two-point scale: good or bad.

I have encountered Christianity that is both generous and mean-spirited. I have met Christians who judge people and situations on a two-point scale: good or bad. But I also know Christians who look beyond the rules at the real lives of people, using empathy and generosity rather than strict judgement. 

Similarly, I know atheists who would give the shirt off their back to help a stranger. And I know non-believers who also judge people harshly based on their lifestyle, their race, and their background.

The point is that in every generation there are people who, irrespective of religious background, judge the world uncharitably — in black and white — and then there are those who have the courage to inhabit the large grey space in between. 

More often than not, our ability to show empathy, generosity, mercy, and compassion is dependent on context and our own personal history. At best, religion can help us to make the choice towards kindness and empathy a habit rather than simply an arbitrary emotive response. 

This, in fact, is the finding of a 2012 game-based study by the Greater Good Science Center, a department of the University of California dedicated to the study of the roots of happy and compassionate individuals, strong social bonds, and altruistic behaviour. 

The results showed that religious and non-religious groups were able to exhibit compassion in a range of scenarios but the religious group appeared to be more consistent in their application of compassion than the non-religious group.

These results seemingly negate the Chicago study, suggesting that religious people have some kind of internal moral compass that guides their behaviour. In contrast, the non-religious group’s displays of compassion was largely based on their feelings at the time.

These studies, in and of themselves, do not prove anything. But they are worthy of reflection, especially in context of what appears to be an increasing distrust of organised religion on the part of secular society. That distrust is largely the result of people who claim to follow the guiding principles of their religion and use it to justify merciless and uncharitable behaviour.

Many heinous acts and attitudes have been committed by those who hold religious authority and their followers.

Sexual abuse of children by priests and pastors from a range of Christian churches. The largely prevalent lack of acceptance for LGBT+ people within religious communities. Victims of rape being sentenced to death for adultery while their rapists escape punishment. Harsh judgement, rejection, and sometimes violence towards divorcees, single parents, some social activists, addicts, the poor, prisoners. 

Non-believers look at us with distrust.

Non-believers look at us with distrust. Believers turn away because the behaviour of those who should stand as witnesses to the faith ranges from the incongruent to the criminal. 

In a time when the credibility of religious institutions is at stake, faith communities can no longer discard the results of the Chicago University study as drivel perpetuated by groups with anti-religious agendas. These studies stand as a stark reminder that if religion truly wants to create a society that is more loving, generous, and empathetic, it needs to relook at the formation of its leaders and its faithful. 

This does not mean changing the moral values or truths of the faith but rather seeing how they can be applied to the questions and issues of the day. Instead of judging people for their poor choices, a truly empathetic faith community is called to find ways to accompany them in the task of rebuilding their lives or simply accepting them as they are. 

Ultimately, the social role of religion is not to assume that we know the mind of God and speak on his behalf.

Ultimately, the social role of religion is not to assume that we know the mind of God and speak on his behalf. The role that religion plays in society is to create a more cohesive, just, and altruistic community characterised by strong social bonds, not just among those who are of like mind but of all humanity. The role of religion is to marry the search for the transcendent with the search for meaning and happiness in the physical world.

Belief in God, Allah, Y-hweh or a higher power should foster “spiritual strengths that lead to healthy habits and build their social network,” according to a recent Harvard study, which found that young people who participate in religious activities are less likely to succumb to addiction, depression and self-destructive behaviour. 

Similarly, these spiritual strengths that are conducive to building social bonds, offer a genuine opportunity for compassion, generosity and mercy. Any religious teaching or fervour that rejects this, reduces faith to little more than a lofty sentiment and becomes irrelevant in a post-religious world.

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.