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Monday, October 6, 2008

Religious Believers Are Nicer—Sometimes

People who believe in God tend to be more honest, helpful, and generous than those who aren't believers—but only when they think such acts will enhance their personal reputation or when religious thoughts are freshly activated (even subconsciously) in their minds, according to a new study published in the journal Science. In other words, religious people are on their best behavior when they think God or others are watching.
To reach this conclusion, University of British Columbia social psychologists Ara Norenzayan and Azim Shariff looked at anthropology, sociology, psychology, and economics research from the last 30 years. They found that across the disciplines, religion and belief in a morally concerned God are shown to foster cooperation and trust, and make people more likely to engage in prosocial behavior (acts that benefit others at a personal cost). "One reason we now have large, cooperative societies may be that some aspects of religion—such as outsourcing costly social policing duties to all-powerful Gods—made societies work more cooperatively in the past," says Shariff. These large, stable societies, the researchers explain, were then able to successfully pass on their cultural beliefs.
But the study also finds that in many cases, those who don't believe in God act as prosocially as religious believers do, and there are certainly nonreligious institutions that involve effective policing and social surveillance. "Some of the most cooperative modern societies are also the most secular," Norenzayan says. "People have found other ways to be cooperative—without God." —Heather Wax