The Psychology of Morality: Religion vs Atheism

The Psychology of Morality: Religion vs Atheism

There are clear reasons why secular-based moral behavior is likely to be weaker than religiously based moral behavior.

Psychologists know, and generally teach their students that immediate consequences (reinforcement and punishment) most powerfully influence behavior. However, Dr. Richard Malott (A professor of psychology at Western Michigan University) has made a special exception to that rule for humans who have mastered the use of language and who can well experience, read about and hear about the past, present. Humans can also imagine, or be informed of future probable events, and they can estimate the size and impact of those consequences for themselves and others.

Professor Malott observes (and so can you), that immediate consequences that are small and not certain are not so likely to influence our behavior. Familiar examples of this weak control would be wearing a seat belt to avoid injury in case of an automobile collision, exercising regularly to avoid a host of possible health difficulties, or brushing our teeth three times a day to avoid cavities, etc..

The control of our behavior is much more powerful when consequences that are delayed, are also very large and very certain. We would be unlikely to attempt to fly to airplane to a destination if we did not know, for certain, that we had enough fuel to arrive safely. A mariner would most likely avoid voyaging in the direction of a developing hurricane.

Of course immediate, large, and very certain consequences control our behavior best. Humans normally avoid stepping in front of a speeding automobile, walking of cliffs, and petting rattle snakes.

But more to the point, for those who believe in God, both immediate cognitive-emotional (guilty thoughts and feelings), social (social disapproval) consequences;  and delayed spiritual consequences (Heaven or Hell) related to moral and immoral behavior can be very big, and very certain .

For non believers, there are no spiritual consequences. Furthermore secular social consequences are often small, delayed, and improbable for religiously based moral prescriptions (tell the truth, treat others kindly, don’t steal, etc.).

On the other hand immoral behavior earns relatively immediate, large, and certain physiological reinforcement (pornography and sex = novel stimulation and orgasm, ingestion of drugs and alcohol = reduced anxiety and rewarding changes in states of consciousness, Gambling and violence = physiological excitement and dominance). Furthermore, individuals  will easily find social contexts in which to behave in immoral ways and gain positive reinforcement from others.

To the believer, “the wages of sin is death”. To the secularist humanist, all too often, the wages of sin are more immediate, larger and more certain reinforcement.


V. Thomas Mawhinney, Ph.D.,  1/20/12

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3 Responses to “The Psychology of Morality: Religion vs Atheism”

  1. Latesha Says:

    The truth just shines thougrh your post


  2. Brice Petgen Says:

    There are a few weaknesses in your argument. First among them agnostics, atheists, faithful, and fools are all capable of guilt. Only psychopaths are guilt free. Guilt is a powerful social consequence for anyone. The power of guilt often drives many to make the meaningful changes they need in their lives. The second weakness is that many many Christian faithful engage in those sins of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. This points to the notion that even those certainties of Hell are lacking when controlling behavior. For most of human history, in which the populace was largely illiterate, uneducated, and scared into their faith, using God as the ultimate purveyor of consequences was very effective. Western society is now largely literate, educated, and making more informed decisions regarding faith. This being the case religious based consequences have lost a great deal of their power.
    Also these faith based consequences are largely self serving and somewhat egocentric. People are not behaving well and treating others with respect as an acknowledgement of the other person’s innate human rights. They are behaving well for their own personal reward on the next plane of existence. I look to eastern cultures that have been largely influenced by Buddhism and Hinduism and other eastern philosophies, the populace is much more respectful of the human rights of the other individual (governments and those in power are exceptions because power corrupts). I feel strongly that this is a result of the strong emphasis on the struggles on this plain of existence and the innate humanity of every individual. While reincarnation is a part of the belief system of some of these philosophies, the emphasis is placed on this world and not the next. Thus the motivation for right behavior is much less self-serving and much altruistic.
    All this being said the question remains on how to teach and encourage moral and ethical behavior. But to answer that question we must first decide on what is ethical and moral. Currently there are no agreed upon universal moral codes, even among the Christian faith tradition. We, the people, need to have a serious and in depth conversation on what constitutes moral conduct and how to balance that with liberty.


    • vtmawhinney Says:

      Thanks for your comments, Brice.

      1. I do not doubt that there are a few weaknesses in my argument. It is not hard to identify weaknesses in arguments on this eternally vexing topic. It should then logically follow that there are a few weaknesses in your argument.

      2. Of course, you are right about the guilt thing. However, too much guilt can be very psychopathogentic. In the main, conditioning histories dictate what is bad behavior and how much guilt such actions lead to in the actor. For the believer, in most traditional religions, true remorse and repentance is forgiven by the spiritual entity. But to receive absolution, one must be a person of faith. I wonder what the agnostic and atheist corollary of that is, perhaps you could argue that it is rational cognitive therapy (Albert Ellis was an Atheist) But, I think it is “catch as catch can”, and that is not a very reassuring strategy.

      There is significant research evidence that those who attend church are physically healthier, live longer, stay married longer, and are emotionally more healthy than those who do not. That evidence has been accumulating over the past 20 years or so. Parsing the causes and effects will be challenging, it is true…but there appears to be something especially beneficial in the evidence.

      3. I would like to know exactly how modernity helps us “make more informed decisions” about faith. Given that some of our leading scientists have adopted a faithful approach to living their lives, your argument seems weak. Frankly, it would appear that a Post-Modern philosophy has led to increasing bad behavioral contagion and more behavioral chaos..contrary to your assumptions.

      4. I understand that it seems self-centered that one would strive for spiritual after-life rewards. However, Judeo/Christian ethics, especially in the New Testament, teach Agape Love (a love of others..not ones self), the Golden Rule, and the pretty clear code of conduct identified in the Ten Commandments. The focus of the main teachings is in selflessness. It is also taught that by faith in God and true dedication to His Ideals that one gains ever-lasting life…not simple “earn the brownie points” through good works. It is not that your allegations on this matter are always wrong, they are just an inaccurate portrayal of the teachings of Christianity.

      5. I will not bicker about which religion is superior to others. It seems to me that most of the worlds successful religions share some common valuable features, not least among them is a code of moral conduct with many similar features, that works a beneficial influence upon people.

      6. You are right about your last point, for sure. That is what I am arguing for in my series of blogs. “We, the people, need to have a serious and in-depth conversation on what constitutes moral conduct and how to balance that with liberty.”

      In my view, America must solve this problem and how to teach such a moral code to our youth, or we will continue on the path of our precipitous decline.

      I will soon post such a moral code for your critique. Thanks for you thoughts..I appreciate your time and effort. Such debate is worthwhile.

      Tom Mawhinney


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