“Beware of the false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits.” — Jesus Christ, as quoted in Matthew 7:15-16
Most arguments about religion—pro or con—have to do with what we feel the relative accuracy of our metaphysical speculations, prejudices, and traditions to be. These arguments are generally pointless, increasingly so when the participants have little in common. But if we look at religion as a social institution, we can reasonably ask whether it’s working in that secular capacity. And the secular role of religion is that it is supposed to promote sound moral values and make adherents better people than they would otherwise be.
The near-consensus view seems to be that it works quite well in that capacity. Last year, the Pew Research Center published a study that found U.S. residents are about evenly divided on the question of whether it is necessary to believe in God in order to be a good, moral person (45% said yes, 53% said no), not even to speak of whether it’s helpful to the enterprise. But the question tends to serve as a funnel for personal prejudices—antireligious people tend to believe religion is harmful to morality, enthusiastically religious people to believe that it’s helpful to it. There are no doubt many people, though poll data has not taken them into account, who may believe that religion in general is harmful to morality but that their particular religion or denomination isn’t. All of this, like the debate over the existence of God, is peripheral to the question we never seem to ask: Does religion ordinarily succeed or fail in its secular role, which is to make us better people?
There’s no way to know for certain (as we don’t know how moral religious people would be if they weren’t religious, and vice versa), and there’s evidence that could be used to support almost any answer, but on the whole the answer seems to be a firm no. In fact, in most instances religion seems to make people worse. For example:
1. Religion makes children mean and selfish.
Earlier this year, an international group of scholars led by the University of Chicago’s Jean Decety discovered something shocking:
[W]e assessed altruism and third-party evaluation of scenarios depicting interpersonal harm in 1,170 children aged between 5 and 12 years in six countries (Canada, China, Jordan, Turkey, USA, and South Africa), the religiousness of their household, and parent-reported child empathy and sensitivity to justice. Across all countries, parents in religious households reported that their children expressed more empathy and sensitivity for justice in everyday life than non-religious parents. However, religiousness was inversely predictive of children’s altruism and positively correlated with their punitive tendencies.
Put more simply: While parents in religious households thought their children were more moral than average, the children themselves were less empathetic and morally grounded on average than children raised in non-religious households. It’s not a good look.
But at least children raised in these households have a better-than-average understanding of the rich traditions they’ve inherited from their parents, right? Well, now that you mention it...
2. Religious people generally know less about religion than non-religious people do.
In 2010, some 3,412 people took on the Pew Forum’s 32-question U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey—an overview of religious beliefs, history, and doctrine. The average Christian respondent answered fewer than half of the questions correctly. But one category of respondents outperformed all others, with 82% of its respondents answering more than half of the questions correctly, and that group was made up entirely of respondents who identified as atheists and agnostics.
3. Large-scale studies tend to consistently find that non-religious people are at least as virtuous, in every quantifiable way, as religious people.
Numerous studies, most notably Wilhelm Hofmann’s 2014 self-reported moral behavior study and Vern Bengtson’s large-scale U.S.-based Longitudinal Study of Generations, have confirmed this. And the fact that they’re just as moral as religious people in a religious country like the United States should probably surprise us a little, because...
4. Living in a majority-religious country appears to take a psychological toll on non-religious people.
Whether this is due to prejudice or simple non-participation in religion-based social groups is hard to say, but there is a definite happiness benefit to religion for religious people in majority-religious countries that isn’t present for religious people in majority-secular countries. This suggests that the reason religion makes people happier is because it rewards religious people for conformity, and not because religion intrinsically has that effect. Also: Since there is a direct correlation between happiness and ethical behavior, the fact that non-religious people who live in these countries aren’t less moral than their religious counterparts is striking.
But this could be because religion can contribute to patterns of behavior that have a well-documented inverse correlation with moral conduct.
5. Religious people are more likely to hold prejudices, and more likely to have (and/or develop) authoritarian personalities.
Bruce Hunsberger’s 2010 study of religion, authoritarianism, and prejudice summarizes “a considerable body of research suggest[ing] that, at a general (and simplistic) level, religion and prejudice are positively correlated” and notes that this correlation may be “especially meaningful in light of an association with right-wing authoritarianism.”
Collectively, these studies should remind non-religious people that—public opinion to the contrary—they are, in fact, part of a lineage that has shown itself to be as supportive of moral behavior as any religious group. But the studies also suggest that religious groups, if they are to have a constructive role in this increasingly secular world, need to do a better job of rejecting fashionable prejudices and embracing more long-term, enduring moral doctrines that have a clearer positive effect on human behavior.