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Who is More Moral: the Religious or Non-Religious?

Who is More Moral: the Religious or Non-Religious?

It really is one of those controversial questions: is a religious person, in fact, more moral than an atheist?

You may very well already have your opinion on that matter, but new research from Germany, the Netherlands and the US might surprise you…

Religious and non-religious people are just as moral – and immoral – as each other.

Previous psychological studies about morality were through laboratory observations, but this latest study aimed at a different approach. Led by Professor Dr Wilhelm Hofmann from Germany’s University of Cologne, the team sought to assess just how morality plays out in people’s everyday lives and were able to catch a glimpse into how people really think about it.

The study involved more than 1,250 people between the ages of 18 and 68, and all were from either Canada or the US. To begin with, they were all surveyed to find out how religious they felt they were, ranging from “not at all” to “very much”. They also indicated where they fell on the political spectrum, from “very conservative” to “very liberal”.

The next phase of the study saw the participants going about their everyday lives for three days. During that time, they received five texts a day asking them if they had heard of, experienced or committed any moral or immoral acts. If they replied with a “yes”, the team sent back follow-up questions so that the subject could describe their experience and their reaction to it.

In total, the team received more than 13,000 responses from the study participants, nearly 4,000 of which were actual moral or immoral acts. There was also a broad range of acts described, from “I gave a homeless man an extra sandwich I had” to “Hired someone to kill a muskrat that is ultimately not causing any harm”.

Several judges, who didn’t know anything about the study nor the participants involved, independently rated each of the acts that were texted through. On average, the judges only differed in opinion to the participant about the morality of an act less than 1% of the time.

Publishing the results in Science, the team found that subjects were more likely to admit carrying out moral acts than committing immoral ones, but relayed that they heard about immoral acts more frequently.

Overall, the team concluded that the religious members of the study reported experiencing more or less the same number of moral acts as their non-religious counterparts. The only real differences that were found between the two groups were that religious people tended to be more emotional in their reaction to an event, while non-religious people seemed calmer about them.

It was a similar story when comparing liberals and conservatives. “Liberals more often mention moral phenomena related to fairness and honesty,” explained study co-author Professor Daniel Wisneski from New Jersey’s Saint Peter’s University. “Conservatives more often mention moral phenomena related to loyalty and disloyalty, or sanctity and degradation.”

The findings provide us with a small peek into how moral people are, and psychologists are hoping to use more smartphone surveys in the future to further investigate how we interact with each other in the real world, outside of a laboratory environment.

So there you have it. Neither religious nor non-religious people can claim to have the moral high ground because everyone is just as bad (and good) as each other.

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