Posts Tagged ‘Delayed Consequences’

The Psychology of Morality: Religion vs Atheism

January 20, 2012

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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