Monday, September 22, 2014

Who's more righteous?

A recent study (published 12 Sept 2014) has found that Religion Doesn't Make People More Moral. This has been reported in various ways, often in words similar to the title of the article by Elizabeth Palermo at LiveScience, linked above.

I agree with  Macrina Cooper-White's conclusion "So much for religious people being more righteous than non-believers." Religious people are not more righteous, even though some religious people think so. But that doesn't tell the whole story (and Macrina tells the story with traditional Huff Post spin).

According to Palermo, the study was conducted in this manner: "Researchers asked 1,252 adults of different religious and political backgrounds in the United States and Canada to record the good and bad deeds they committed, witnessed, learned about or were the target of throughout the day." Further explaining, she writes, "For three days, participants received five text messages a day that included a link to the study's mobile website, where they could record any moral phenomena that they had experienced in the past hour via their smartphones."

Reports of the study state that religious or non-religious people committed both moral and immoral deeds with “comparable frequency.” The same held true of regardless of the participants' political viewpoints.

One benefit of the study is that it takes such study out of the "lab" and moves it into real life experience -- perhaps the first study to do so. "As far as I know, this is the first study that's used this kind of lived-experience approach to track morality as it's happening," said Dan Wisneski, a professor of psychology at Saint Peter's University in Jersey City, and one of the leaders of the study. Perhaps it will also have some benefit in combatting "Phariseeism", though Phariseeism usually seems to produce the fuel on which it runs.

But there are some problems I see (or think I see) with the study. Researchers used Craigslist, Facebook, Twitter, etc. to recruit over 1200 people with the incentive of winning an iPod Touch. By this method they apparently recruited a diversity of participants -- in some ways. But it seems like the not-so-social media savvy folks who aren't interested in an iPod Touch got left out! Could that skew the results? Though it is not clear who determined what was "moral" behaviour, it seems very likely that along with the self-reporting was a certain amount of "self-classification" -- that is, the reports by the individuals are skewed by their own views of their behaviour. One false conclusion that some will have is that religion does not have any direct effect on morality and is therefore not beneficial. (Or more likely, those who already have that view will point to this study as proving it.)

In the end it will be well that we all remind ourselves that "all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags."

The study can be found here:
* Morality in everyday life and can be read if you have a "sciencemag" account.

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