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Would the World Be Better Off Without Religion? A Skeptic’s Guide to the Debate

Science and Religion

Scott O. Lilienfeld and Rachel Ammirati

Volume 38.4, July/August 2014

The widespread assertion that the world would be better off without religion is a reasonable hypothesis. Yet data suggest that skeptics should attach no more than a modest level of probability to it.

If you Googled the question constituting the title of this article—or minor variants of it—as the first author of this article did on Christmas Day of 2013, you’d end up with more than 650,000 hits. This high number attests to the keen public interest generated by this age-old question. Indeed, few topics have generated more impassioned discussion among religious believers and skeptics alike. For example, in 2007, the British organization Intelligence-Squared hosted a lively debate on the proposition that “We’d be better off without religion,” with proponents of the motion—Richard Dawkins, A.C. Grayling, and Christopher Hitchens—squaring off against the opponents Julia Neuberger, Professor Roger Scruton, and Nigel Spivey. Over the past decade, a seemingly never-ending parade of books and articles have tackled “the question,” as we dub it, from various angles; entering the phrase “better off without religion” into an Amazon.com book search yields over 130 results.

Skeptical Inquirer magazine cover: Science and Religion

Arguably, what is most striking about responses to the question by many prominent partisans on both sides is their extremely high level of confidence in the answer. For example, in a 2011 interview with Slate magazine, author and political commentator Dinesh D’Souza opined that “For a truly secular society, we should look to Stalin’s Russia or Mao’s China. But that’s the tip of the iceberg … The result [of these societies] has inevitably been repression, totalitarianism, persecution of the churches, and just a miserable society” (Weingarten 2011). Turning to the opposing side, in an interview with journalist Laura Sheahen (2007), evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins embraced the unequivocal position that the world would be a far better place without belief in God, contending that religion increases the chances of war and political discord. Sheahen asked him, “If you had to make a case for religion—one positive, if minor, thing religion has done, what would it be?” Dawkins responded, “It’s true that some kind, nice, sympathetic people are also religious, and they might say that their kindness is motivated by religion. But equally kind people are often not religious. I really don’t think I can think of anything; I really can’t.” (emphasis added; http://salmonriver.com/environment/dawkinsinterview.html). Later, in a 2013 interview with CNN, Dawkins maintained, “The very idea that we get a moral compass from religion is horrible” (Prager 2013).

In this article, we address the overarching question of whether high levels of certitude are warranted among partisans of either position. In the interest of full disclosure, both authors of this article are atheists. At the same time, we have become concerned by what appears to be unjustified dogmatism by both religious skeptics and believers in discussions concerning an exceedingly complex and multifaceted question. Therefore, we attempt to demonstrate that (a) scientific data bearing indirectly on the question have routinely been neglected by many individuals on both sides of the debate; (b) such data, although informative, do not permit anything approaching conclusive answers to the question of whether religion makes the world a better or worse place. At the same time, such data cast serious doubt on broad-brush contentions (e.g., Dawkins 2006) that religion is usually or always associated with a heightened risk of immoral behavior, including violence. Hence, we view our article as a modest call for greater epistemic humility on the part of ardent defenders of both positions.

Is the Question Even Answerable?

In practice, the question posed here is probably not answerable with certainty because a genuine experimental test of the question is impossible. For both pragmatic and ethical reasons, we could never randomly assign individuals to a condition in which they were raised in a religious environment and randomly assign others to be raised in a nonreligious environment, all the while ensuring that all participants in this fanciful Gedanken experiment experienced little or no contact with the contrasting worldview. Putting it differently, we will almost certainly never know the hypothetical counterfactual (Dawes 1994) to the question posed at the article’s outset; by “hypothetical counterfactual,” we mean the outcome that would have resulted had the world, or a large chunk of it, never been exposed to religion. That is not to say, however, that circumstantial scientific data cannot inform the question or adjust a rational individual’s assignment of probability to its answer.

Moreover, the question as commonly phrased (“Would the world be better off without religion?”) is probably not strictly answerable with scientific data because the word better necessarily entails a series of value judgments. Reasonable people will surely disagree on what would make the world a better place. Would the world be “better” with more political conservatism, invasive animal research, modern art, McDonald’s hamburgers, or Justin Biebers? The answers to these queries are matters of personal preference and lie outside the boundaries of science (although we would dispute the rationality of readers who reply “yes” to the last option). Nevertheless, when scholars have pondered whether the world would be better off without religion, the lion’s share have almost always referred, either implicitly or explicitly, to a world that is more humane—one in which people treat each other kindly. For provisional research purposes, we can operationalize this propensity roughly in terms of lower rates of aggression and higher rates of altruism. In this article, we therefore address the more tangible question of whether a world devoid of religion would witness (a) lower levels of criminal and antisocial behavior1, including violence, and (b) higher levels of prosocial (altruistic) behavior than a world with religion.

It should perhaps go without saying that the question of whether the world would be better off without religion has no logical bearing on the ontological question of God’s existence. It is entirely possible to maintain that (a) God does not exist, but belief in God makes the world a more humane place on balance, or (b) God does exist, but belief in God makes the world a less humane place on balance. Indeed, a group of scholars who are sometimes encompassed under the rubric of Atheism 3.0 have recently lobbied for (a). They maintain that although there is no God, belief in God makes the world a kinder and gentler place (e.g., Sheiman 2009).

In any case, it should be beyond dispute that the question of God’s existence is logically and factually independent of the question of whether belief in God’s existence is beneficial for the human species. Nevertheless, it is all too easy to conflate these two questions, and we suspect that many partisans on both sides of the debate have done so, at least implicitly. If one concludes that belief in God is rational, one may be tempted to assume that belief in God would make the world a better place; conversely, if one concludes that belief in God is irrational, one may be tempted to assume that belief in God would make the world a worse place. At the risk of adding yet another logical fallacy to lengthy lists of such fallacies (e.g., Bennett 2012), we term this the argument from existence/nonexistence fallacy.2 In essence, this fallacy is the inverse of the familiar “argument from adverse consequences fallacy” (see Sagan 1995), in which one erroneously reasons backward from the adverse effects of a belief to gauge this belief’s veracity (e.g., “Lack of belief in God has negative consequences, so therefore God exists”). In contrast, the individual committing the argument from the existence/nonexistence fallacy incorrectly presumes that accurate beliefs regarding the existence of an entity (e.g., God) will always or usually lead to more salutary real-world outcomes. Yet, as the psychological literature on positive illusions suggests (Taylor and Brown 1988; but see Colvin and Block 1994, for a dissenting view), inaccurate beliefs may in some cases be tied to more adaptive outcomes, including higher levels of well-being and more satisfying interpersonal relationships.

The Neglect of Research Evidence

Surprisingly, the extensive body of social science data bearing on the links between religion and both moral and immoral behavior have typically gone unmentioned in public discussions regarding the merits or demerits of religion. Two high-profile examples from religious skeptics are especially striking. In his 447-page book, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, philosopher and prominent atheist Daniel Dennett (2006) devotes at most two pages (pp. 279–280) to the question of whether religion helps to makes people more moral, dismissing it peremptorily:

I have uncovered no evidence to support the claim that people, religious or not, who don’t [emphasis in original] believe in reward or heaven and/or punishment in hell are more likely to kill, rape, rob or break their promises than people who do. The prison population in the United States shows Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims and others—including those with no religious affiliation —are represented about as they are in the general population. (p. 279)

Later, Dennett quips that

. . . Nothing approaching a settled consensus among researchers has been achieved, but one thing we can be sure of is that if [emphasis in original] there is a significant positive relationship between moral behavior and religious affiliation, practice, or belief, it will soon be discovered, since so many religious organizations are eager to confirm their demonstration underlines the suspicion that it just isn’t so. (p. 280)

For unclear reasons, Dennett neglects to review several dozen studies and at least two large-scale reviews bearing directly on this question (Baier and Wright 2001; Ellis 1985), including substantial bodies of data on the relation between religious belief and criminal behavior, which we examine in the following section.

Similarly, in his 405-page book, The God Delusion, Dawkins (2006) devotes approximately two pages (pp. 229–230) to this question. Dawkins approvingly cites Dennett’s aforementioned conclusions and refers only in passing to correlational data on the relation between religion and morality. Without citing any references to the substantial psychological and sociological literature on the topic, Dawkins maintains that “such research evidence as there is certainly doesn’t support the common view that religion is positively correlated with morality” (p. 229). Instead, on the same page, Dawkins cites only one observation, from neuroscientist Sam Harris (2006), that U.S. states that tend to be more socially conservative (and that are also characterized by higher levels of religiosity) are marked by higher levels of violent crime. We agree with Dawkins and Harris that such data may inform the debate. Nonetheless, these findings are difficult to interpret in view of the “ecological fallacy,” the error of drawing inferences regarding individual-level associations (in this case, the relation between religion and violence) from population-level data. It is well-established that this fallacy often (Piantadosi et al. 1988), although by no means always (Schwartz 1994), results in erroneous conclusions regarding the relation between two variables. 3 Because more informative data derive from examinations of the associations between religion and criminal behavior at the individual level, we examine such data next.

Correlational Data

Does religion make good people behave badly? When approaching this question, it is all too easy to “cherry-pick” historical instances in which religion, or the lack thereof, is tied to violent, even horrific, acts. Unquestionably, some of the world’s greatest atrocities have been perpetrated in the name of religion. In the opening pages of The God Delusion, Dawkins (2006) recites a plethora of examples:

Imagine, with John Lennon, a world with no religion. Imagine no suicide bombers, no 9/11, no 7/7, no Crusades, no witch-hunts, no Gunpowder Plot, no Indian partition, no Israeli/Palestinian wars, no Serb/Croat/Muslim massacres, no persecution of Jews as “Christ-killers,” no Northern Ireland “troubles”… Imagine no Taliban to blow up ancient statues, no public beheadings of blasphemers, no flogging of female skin for the crime of showing an inch of it. (pp. 1–2)

The difficulty with this line of reasoning becomes evident, however, when considering an at least equally lengthy list of historical counterexamples. Even setting aside the contentious question of whether Hitler was inspired by religious doctrine, a topic that falls outside of our expertise to evaluate (see Dawkins 2006 and Evans 2007 for discussions), one can just as readily invoke scores of cases of heinous nonreligious violence on a grand scale. For example, radio–talk show host and political columnist Dennis Prager (2011) contends that “. . . far more people have been murdered—not to mention enslaved and tortured—by secular anti-religious regimes than by all God-based groups in history.” In support of this contention, he cites Mao Tse-tung’s murder of between forty and seventy million people, Stalin’s murder of at least twenty million of his own citizens, Pol Pot’s murder of approximately one in four Cambodians, the North Korean regime’s slaughter of millions of its citizens, among numerous other examples. It is safe to say that extremism of many kinds, religious or not, can predispose to large-scale violence, especially when conjoined with the deeply entrenched belief that one’s enemies are not merely mistaken but deeply evil (Lilienfeld et al. 2009). Whether religious belief makes such hate-fueled aggression more or less likely on average is far from clear.

Indeed, the question of whether religion increases or decreases the risk of genocidal and other large-scale violence may never be answered to our satisfaction. Nevertheless, the more circumscribed question of whether belief in God specifically, and religiosity more generally, are correlated—statistically associated—with criminal and antisocial behavior, including violence, has been investigated in dozens of studies.

The results of a few early investigations suggested little or no relation between religiosity and crime (e.g., Hirschi and Stark 1969). In contrast, more recent studies, as well as meta-analyses (quantitative syntheses) of the literature, have converged on a consistent conclusion: belief in God bears a statistically significant, albeit relatively weak, association with lower levels of criminal and antisocial behavior, including physical aggression toward others (a statistically significant finding is one that would be extremely unlikely to be observed if the null hypothesis of a zero correlation between the variables were true). For example, in a meta-analysis of sixty studies that yielded seventy-nine correlations, Baier and Wright (2001) found a statistically significant, but weak, negative correlation (r=-.12) between religiosity and crime (correlations range from -1.0 to +1.0, and a correlation with an absolute value of .1 is typically regarded as weak in magnitude). Notably, all seventy-nine correlations were negative, although most fell in the range of -.05 to -.20. These findings run counter to Dennett’s (2006) claim, seconded by Dawkins (2006), that there is no statistical association between religiosity and criminality.

Still, this link appears to be qualified by other variables. The results of several studies suggest that the correlation between religiosity and crime is moderated by attendance at churches or other places of worship, with more frequent attenders being at especially low risk for crime (Ellis 1985; Good and Willoughby 2006). In addition, the diminished risk for aggression and antisocial behavior appears to be more closely associated with intrinsic religiosity, in which individuals view religion as personally important for its own sake (e.g., “I try hard to live all of my life according to my religious beliefs”) than with extrinsic religiosity, in which individuals view religion as a means to a personal end (e.g., “The primary purpose of prayer is to gain relief and protection”) (Bouchard et al. 1999).

More generally, religiosity is moderately and positively associated with self-control, a trait closely tied to impulse control; again, this association is especially pronounced for people with high levels of intrinsic religiosity (McCullough and Willoughby 2009). In work from our laboratory recently submitted for publication (Lilienfeld et al. 2014), we even found a slight but statistically significant tendency for religious nonbelievers (including professed atheists and agnostics) to report higher levels of certain traits relevant to psychopathic personality (psychopathy), especially weak impulse control and lack of empathy, relative to religious believers. Needless to say, however, the weak magnitude of these associations in no way implies that most atheists are psychopathic, let alone psychopaths.

Other correlational data point to a consistent association between religion and prosocial behavior. For example, in a meta-analysis of forty studies of adolescents, religiosity was moderately and positively associated with prosocial behaviors, such as volunteer work, altruistic acts, and empathic concern toward others (Cheung and Yeung 2011). Broadly mirroring other findings on the intrinsic-extrinsic religiosity distinction, the relation between religiosity and prosocial behavior was most marked for participants with high levels of private (rather than public) religious participation, such as individuals who pray when alone.

In a study of high-school students, Furrow and colleagues (2004) similarly found a strong association between religiosity and prosocial interests, including empathy and a sense of responsibility toward others. Most, although not all, investigators (e.g., Kohlberg 1981) have also reported positive correlations between individuals’ religiosity and their level of moral reasoning (Ellis and Peterson 1996), meaning that more religious individuals tend to reason in slightly more sophisticated ways about moral problems compared with nonreligious individuals (although moral reasoning and moral behavior tend to be only moderately correlated; e.g., Stams et al. 2006). Still other investigators have found that unconsciously priming participants by asking them to unscramble sentences containing words relevant to religion (e.g., God, sacred) makes them more financially generous to other subjects compared with unprimed participants (Shariff and Norenzayan 2007). The extent to which these laboratory findings can be generalized to real-world altruism remains to be seen, however.

Scholars have proposed numerous causal explanations for the link between religion and moral behavior (see Baier and Wright 2001 for a review). Among these hypotheses are that (a) fear of God’s wrath in the afterlife makes believers refrain from unethical actions (the so-called “hellfire hypothesis”); (b) consistent with the generally accepted etymology of the word religion as reflecting “tying together,” religious beliefs bind individuals more closely to communities, families, and others (social control theory); and (c) religious beliefs foster shame and guilt regarding unethical actions, thereby deterring people from engaging in them (rational choice theory). At the risk of oversimplifying an exceedingly large and complex body of literature, we can conclude that there is no definitive or even especially compelling evidence for any of these explanations, although none has been falsified. For example, in a study of 2,616 twins, Kendler and colleagues (2003) reported that a set of items reflecting belief in God as a punitive judge of one’s actions was significantly and negatively associated with risk for drinking and drug problems but was not significantly associated with risk for disorders associated with antisocial behavior, thereby offering inconsistent support for the hellfire hypothesis. The authors did find, however, a negative association between general religiosity and antisocial behavior disorders, corroborating the other correlational findings reviewed here.

Caveats

Although extant correlational data are broadly consistent in demonstrating a statistical association between religious belief and (a) decreased levels of antisocial and criminal behavior and (b) heightened levels of prosocial behavior, such findings do not and cannot demonstrate causality (Galen 2012). As statisticians remind us, correlation does not by itself imply causation. Hence, the aforementioned hypotheses regarding the causal effect of religion on moral behavior may be explanations in search of a phenomenon. Authors who interpret these correlational data as demonstrating “the effect of religion on crime” (e.g., Baier and Wright 2001, 3) are therefore going well beyond the available evidence. Moreover, these findings leave us with the at least equally complex question of whether we can generalize from individual-level correlations between religion and crime to the broader implications of religion for society as a whole.

Although the correlational data are consistent with a potential causal influence of religion on moral behavior, many other explanations are possible. For example, what statisticians term the causal arrow could be reversed: higher levels of moral behavior might contribute to higher levels of religiosity. Longitudinal studies, which track participants over time, may eventually help to adjudicate between these competing hypotheses. The quite limited longitudinal data available thus far are mixed, with some studies finding that changes in people’s religiosity predict a lower risk of future delinquency and vice-versa (thereby suggesting a bidirectional relation), but with others finding no association in either direction (Eisenberg et al. 2011). In addition, much of the prosocial behavior exhibited by religious individuals is directed toward other religious individuals, so this behavior could partly reflect what psychologists call “in-group bias (Galen 2012).

Alternatively, one or more “third variables,” such as personality traits, could be responsible for the statistical association. For example, religiosity tends to be moderately associated with high levels of agreeableness and conscientiousness (Lodi-Smith and Roberts 2007; McCullough and Willoughby 2009). The literature already reviewed linking religiosity with self-control is consistent with this possibility, as conscientiousness is strongly associated with self-control. Therefore, religiosity per se may not contribute directly to higher levels of moral behavior; instead, religiosity may merely be a proxy for personality traits that are themselves related to morality. Indeed, twin data indicate that at least some of the association between religiosity and altruism is in part genetically mediated, meaning that some of the same genes that predispose to religiosity predispose to prosocial behavior (Koenig et al. 2007). These genes may contribute to personality traits that boost the chances of both religiosity and prosocial behavior, although this hypothesis awaits future research.

Another hypothesis is that devout and steadfast adherence to any meaningful worldview, rather than a religious worldview per se, is the genuine causal factor. As noted earlier, research points to a robust negative correlation between attendance at religious services and risk for crime. For example, it is possible that one would observe a comparably high correlation among atheists who are regular attendees at meetings of secular humanists. This intriguing hypothesis similarly warrants systematic investigation.

Moreover, even setting aside the crucial issue of causality, the reported correlations are almost always weak or at most moderate in magnitude. Hence, if there is a causal relation between religion and morality, it is most likely either (a) modest in size or (b) large in size but suppressed statistically (masked) by undetermined variables. The middling correlations also tell us that many religious individuals engage in high levels of immoral behavior, and that many nonreligious individuals engage in high levels of moral behavior, a point acknowledged by political and religious commentator Dennis Prager (2013): “None of this [the assertion that God informs morality] means that only believers in God can be good or that atheists cannot be good. There are bad believers and there are good atheists.” Furthermore, we are unaware of any data indicating that the relation between religiosity and morality takes the form of a threshold effect, whereby a “critical” level of religiosity is needed to be moral. Hence, we can safely answer a different—and widely asked—question with a high level of certainty: “Does one need religion to be moral?” The correlational data permit as close to a definitive answer as one can probably achieve in social science: No. Many nonreligious people clearly exhibit high levels of moral behavior and thinking.

Religion as a Protective Factor against Immoral Behavior

Arguably, somewhat more compelling evidence for a potential causal role for religion in moral behavior derives from studies on the potential protective effects of religion on antisocial behavior. In these designs, investigators typically examine individuals at elevated risk for immoral actions, such as those who possess high levels of personality traits (such as impulsivity) that increase risk for such actions, or those reared in high-crime areas. The hypothesis tested in such studies is what researchers term a statistical interaction, which mathematically is a multiplicative rather than additive effect. In more concrete terms, investigators are testing the hypothesis that religion is especially likely to attenuate the risk of antisocial behavior among individuals who are most predisposed to it. This hypothesis carries a certain surface plausibility. Most individuals may not need religion to behave morally, but certain individuals—namely, those with potent dispositional or sociocultural pre­dispositions—may need religion as a buffer of “line of last defense” against their antisocial propensities. These may be the very people for whom a moral compass offered by religion is necessary, or at least helpful.

Regrettably, this important hypothesis has been examined in only a handful of studies. Still, the admittedly limited findings are reasonably, although not entirely (Desmond et al. 2013), consistent. In many cases, religious belief appears to play a protective role against antisocial behavior among high-risk individuals. For example, in a study of young adolescents (average age of thirteen), Laird and colleagues (2011) found that the importance of religion to participants was related to a lower risk of rule-breaking behavior, including physical aggression. Notably, this decreased risk was highest among adolescents with low levels of impulse control. Similarly, in a large-sample study of adolescents, investigators found that high levels of religiosity exerted a buffering effect on the risk of alcohol and illicit drug use following negative life events (Wills et al. 2003; see also Bodford and Hussong 2013). In still another study of adolescents and young adults involved in gangs in El Salvador, Salas-Wright and colleagues (2013) reported that both religious coping and spirituality (especially the latter) were tied to lower rates of certain delinquent behaviors, including carrying a weapon, vandalism, and theft. Still, because the authors did not directly test a statistical interaction between risk-status (such as weak versus strong impulse control) and religiosity, the existence of a protective effect in this study can only be inferred indirectly.

Caveats

The results of protective studies are sparse but provocative, and they raise the possibility that religious belief buffers high-risk individuals, such as those who are especially impulsive, against antisocial behavior. Still, as in the case of correlational studies, we cannot be certain that the findings reflect a genuine causal effect of religiosity on diminished risk for antisocial behavior. The apparent protective effect of religion on high-risk individuals could again reflect the indirect effect of unmeasured third variables, such as conscientiousness or devotion to a broader worldview, that are themselves correlated with religiosity. In future research, investigators should incorporate measures of such variables to test rival hypotheses for the buffering effect.

Conclusions

The widely advanced hypothesis that the world would be “better”—more humane—without religion is entirely reasonable, and it should continue to be debated by thoughtful scholars. Contrary to the forceful assertions of some prominent atheist authors (e.g., Dawkins 2006; Dennett 2006), however, the data consistently point to a negative association between religiosity and criminal behavior and a positive association between religiosity and prosocial behavior. Both relations are modest in magnitude and ambiguous with respect to causation. At the same time, they cannot be ignored by partisans on either side of the discussion.

Our bottom-line conclusion is straightforward: any individuals who attach an extremely high level of probability to the answer to the question we have posed are placing opinions over evidence. Blanket assertions by advocates of either position can most charitably be described as scientifically premature. As in all scientific debates, humility in the face of equivocal data should be the watchword.

Moreover, we urge caution in “arguing by example,” as many influential scholars have done when addressing this question. One can readily generate compelling historical evidence that seemingly supports the hypothesis that religion makes the world more dangerous (e.g., Dawkins 2006), as well as equally compelling historical evidence that seemingly refutes it (e.g., Prager 2013). One might well suspect that there is some truth to both positions, and that religion may sometimes be a force for good and sometimes a force for evil, depending on the specific religious beliefs, specific individuals, and specific historical contexts involved.

In evaluating many of the debates concerning this question in the popular media, it is difficult not to be struck by the frequent neglect of the substantial scientific data bearing on it. Neither side has been immune from this tendency. For example, in a piece on the Huffington Post blog posted in December of 2013, pastor Rick Henderson wrote, “There is no morally good atheist, because [according to the atheist world view] there really is no objective morality” (Henderson 2013). Yet this assertion is contradicted by the correlational data we have reviewed, which demonstrate that many nonbelievers engage in high levels of moral behavior.

On the flip side of the coin, take Nobel Prize–winning physicist Steven Weinberg’s 1999 assertion, endorsed by Dawkins (2006, p. 249), that “With or without religion, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion” (see Lindner 2005). This proposition runs counter to an enormous body of social psychological data demonstrating that many, if not most, good people can be led to perform unethical acts with no religious coercion. For example, in the classic obedience studies of Stanley Milgram (1963; see Burger 2009 for a more recent replication), large proportions of participants were induced by an “experimenter” in a white lab coat (who was actually a confederate of Milgram’s) to deliver what they believed to be powerful and potentially deadly electric shocks to another innocent “participant” (who was another confederate of Milgram’s). In this study, nary a hint of religious influence was invoked. The purported experimenter carried the banner of the authority of science, not of religion. Interestingly, in the lone study to our knowledge to examine religiosity in the context of the Milgram paradigm, Bock and Warren (1972)4 found that both extreme religious nonbelievers and extreme religious believers were the least likely to comply with the experimenter’s demands to administer shocks; for reasons that are unclear, moderate believers were the most likely. Still, even the small number of nonbelievers delivered more than their share of shocks.

The Bock and Warren study, although limited in size (thirty participants in total), reminds us of how complicated the association between religiosity and moral (and immoral) behavior is likely to be. This link stubbornly resists reduction to simple formulas, probably because it is contingent on a host of still undiscovered factors. In addition, if the results of Bock and Warren’s investigation are replicable, they would imply that the relation between religiosity and moral behavior may be sometimes curvilinear or “dose-dependent,” further confounding facile efforts to equate religiosity in general with either prosocial or antisocial behavior (Galen 2012).

Some nonbelievers may react to this debate by staking out an alternative position: as scientific thinkers and skeptics, we should be seeking the truth, the consequences be damned. From this perspective, if God does not exist, we should be discouraging uncritical acceptance of religious tenets regardless of whether they exert beneficial or detrimental long-term effects on society. Knowledge, Sir Francis Bacon asserted, is power. In our view, this position is both intellectually consistent and intellectually honest, and we see merit in it. At the same time, advocates of this position need to be forthright in acknowledging that it may entail unknown risks that need to be weighed in public discussions of the value of religion to society.

Other thoughtful readers may object to our article on the grounds that the very question as we and others have framed it is woefully simplistic. According to one frequently cited estimate, there are approximately 4,200 religions in the world (Dekker 2009), with countless subtle differences within many of these belief systems. And surely, individuals apprehend and apply the religious tenets of their chosen faiths in a seemingly endless variety of ways. Making matters more complicated, cultures differ with regard to what behaviors they regard as moral or immoral. For example, although virtually all individuals in all cultures agree that theft and murder should be prohibited, there are sizeable differences of opinion when it comes to certain other activities, such as homosexuality, abortion, and open government protests (Wilson and Herrnstein 1985). Hence, the objection continues, attempting to answer the question of whether “religion in general” makes society “better in general” is a fool’s errand.

The point is well taken, and indeed, to the extent that the aforementioned caveats are legitimate, and we suspect that they are, they are all the more reason to insist on humility and circumspection in our claims. Most scientific assertions, especially those in the “softer” sciences of psychology, sociology, and cultural anthropology, possess boundary conditions (Meehl 1978), and it seems implausible that the presence or absence of all religious beliefs would yield similar effects on all societies across all historical periods.

In the meantime, as the debate continues, we exhort readers to emulate the epistemic modesty of our Emory University colleague, primatologist Frans de Waal (2013), who addressed this question with the thoughtful uncertainty that it richly deserves:

I’m struggling with whether we need religion. . . . Personally I think we can be moral without religion because we probably had morality long before the current religions came along . . . so I am optimistic that religion is not strictly needed. But I cannot be a hundred percent sure because we’ve never really tried—there is no human society where religion is totally absent so we really have never tried this experiment.


Acknowledgments

The authors thank Frans de Waal, Lori Marino, Susan Himes, and Bill Hendrick for their helpful comments on previous drafts of this manuscript.

Notes

1. The term antisocial, which means “against society,” should not be confused with asocial, which means “apart” from society. The antisocial person engages in behaviors that harm others, such as criminal acts, whereas the asocial person prefers to have little to do with others.

2. In some cases, this fallacy may stem from a “representativeness heuristic,” the tendency to presume that “like goes with like” (Kahneman 2011; see also Gilovich and Savitsky’s 1996 article in Skeptical Inquirer). Individuals who perceive that a belief, such as belief in God, reflects a rational judgment may assume that this belief goes along with other positive things, such as more humane treatment of others, and vice versa for people who perceive a belief to be irrational.

3. One widely cited example of the ecological fallacy derives from the work of Robinson (1950), who identified a high correlation between being foreign-born (versus being U.S.-born) and literacy across the then-forty-eight U.S. states. Yet, when Robinson examined this association at the individual level, the actual correlation was not only much weaker but in the opposite direction: people born in the U.S. had higher levels of literacy. The reason for the fallacious ecological correlation was migration: recent immigrants to the U.S. tended to move to states with higher levels of literacy. That said, an ecological study of crime rates across thirteen nations yielded only mixed support for the Harris/Dawkins hypothesis: countries with higher levels of religiosity tended to exhibit lower levels of property (but not violent) crime (Ellis and Peterson 1996).

4. In an interesting bit of trivia, the study’s second author, Neil Clark Warren, later went on to found the religiously inspired online dating site, eHarmony.com.

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Scott O. Lilienfeld and Rachel Ammirati

Scott O. Lilienfeld, PhD, is a professor of psychology at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, and a CSI Fellow.

Rachel Ammirati, PhD, is a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Psychiatry at Emory University.