Character  &  Context

The Science of Who We Are and How We Relate
Editors: Mark Leary, Shira Gabriel, Brett Pelham
Dec 20, 2019

When Our Religious Beliefs Make Us Bad

by Joshua Conrad Jackson and Kurt Gray
Woman with rosary

In 2014, three roommates in New Paltz, New York bought a couch from the Salvation Army. At first glance, the couch was nothing special. In fact, it was uncomfortable and lumpy. But the roommates soon realized that the couch’s lumps were bundles of $100 bills. After much debate, the roommates decided to return the cash to its rightful owner. The roughly $40,000 turned out to be the life savings of a widow who had forgotten about the money after her husband’s death. When the widow got her savings back, she said that “this is my husband looking down on me, and this was supposed to happen.”

The story of the lumpy couch is heartwarming, but it also poses thorny questions about religion and morality. Intuition and some scientific studies teach us that belief in God makes us good. But would the roommates have done the morally good thing and returned the money if they had shared the widow’s religious intuitions? Or would they have kept the cash, believing that it was sent from above to help them pay debts and take care of family?

In our recent research, we explored such questions and shed new light on how religion shapes morality. Across 13 studies, we found that religious belief can prevent “active” immorality—cases where people engage in unethical behavior such as lying, cheating, or pickpocketing. But religious beliefs can also encourage “passive” immorality—cases where people decide not to undo an event that helps them but harms others. The couch scenario is one clear case where people could have responded with passive immorality. By doing nothing and keeping the cash, the roommates would have failed to prevent an injustice.

In our studies, we had research participants reflect on several cases of passive immorality. One scenario described finding a lost wallet brimming with cash. By doing nothing, you would get the cash. But most people would agree that the right thing to do would be to track down the wallet’s owner and return the money. Another scenario described getting a promotion because your boss was fired unjustly. Although you benefit from the promotion, most people agree that it would be more ethical to step in and defend your boss.

For each of these scenarios, religious people were more likely than less religious people to say that they would keep the cash in the lost wallet and take the job at their boss’s expense. Religious people were also more likely than less religious people to justify times that they had behaved in ways that involved passive immorality.

This difference between religious and nonreligious people emerged because religious people often believed that God had divinely intervened, guiding them toward the lost wallet or giving them the new job, for example. Since God’s morality is beyond question, it seemed perfectly ethical to accept his otherwise questionable gifts.

We also explored real-world cases of passive immorality. In one study, we examined which sections of a large library had the highest rates of overdue books. Stealing library books is a perfect example of passive immorality because it only requires doing nothing once you have taken out the book. You aren’t actively stealing a book—just passively not returning it.  We found that books that dealt with the topic of “Christianity” had the third highest rate of overdue books out of 109 subject areas. Ironically enough, one of the two topics with even higher overdue rates than religious books was library science. Apparently, many readers of library science skipped the section on ethics.

In another study, we found that cars with religious decorations—such as religious vanity plates—were more likely to park across multiple spots in a parking lot than cars with either secular decorations or no decoration. This may have been because parking poorly is another form of passive immorality. By failing to correct an initial poor parking attempt, you may be robbing someone else of an open parking space or blocking in another car.  

Our studies do not mean that the net effect of religion is to make people immoral but rather than that religiosity can encourage passive forms of unethical behavior. In fact, our studies showed that religious people were more likely than non-religious people to avoid “active” immorality. For example, religious people were more likely than non-religious people to say it is wrong to pick-pocket a wallet or actively get their boss fired in order to get a promotion.

Our research also suggests that beliefs in divine intervention—the idea that God actively intervenes in people’s daily lives—might be the “active ingredient” in religion that can increase passive immorality. Religious people in our studies who didn’t believe in divine intervention were no more likely than non-religious people to condone passive immorality.

These findings may shed new light on a long-standing debate about “God” and “goodness.” On one side of this debate, some atheists argue that religion promotes misery, selfishness, and violence. On the other side, many evangelicals argue that people cannot be moral without God. Our research suggests that both sides are wrong. Religion’s impact on morality depends both on the form of religion, and the form of morality. Beliefs in divine intervention can lead people to permit and perpetrate immorality. But other religious beliefs promote moral integrity. Similarly, religiosity may encourage “passive” immorality but may discourage “active” immortality.

To understand the complex link between religion and morality, we must take a closer look at different kinds of religious beliefs—and dissect many different kinds of ethical and unethical behavior.  

For Further Reading

Jackson, J.C., & Gray. K. (2019). When a good God makes bad people: Testing a theory of religion and immorality. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 117(6). DOI: 10.1037/pspp0000206


Joshua Conrad Jackson is a graduate student at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, where Kurt Gray is an Associate Professor of Psychology.


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Why is this blog called Character & Context?

Everything that people think, feel, and do is affected by some combination of their personal characteristics and features of the social context they are in at the time. Character & Context explores the latest insights about human behavior from research in personality and social psychology, the scientific field that studies the causes of everyday behaviors.  

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