Religious people are ‘morally superior’ to nonbelievers — but only in relatively secular countries

New research has found that religious people are more likely to engage in moral behaviors than non-religious people — but only when living in a society that does not enforce religious norms.

“Paradoxically, the more freedom people have to choose not to believe, the stronger is the prosociality of those who chose to believe,” Olga Stavrova and Pascal Siegers wrote in their study, which was published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

The study used data from the International Social Survey Project, World Values Survey, European Values Study, and European Social Survey to examine the relationship between religiosity, moral behavior, and culture. Overall, religious individuals were more likely to participant in charitable organizations, less likely to justify egoistic behaviors like lying in their own interest, and less likely to have committed insurance fraud or traffic offenses than non-religious individuals.

But culture emerged as an important mediator.

The prosocial effects of religiosity were consistently weaker in countries where religious behavior was imposed by social norms. In very religious countries like Georgia or Indonesia, religious individuals were no more likely to be members of charitable organizations, and no less likely to justify lying and to commit fraud than non-religious individuals.

It appears that people who freely adopt the tenets of a given faith are internally motivated to act in accordance with that faith, the researchers said. People are far less motivated to act morally when a religion is forced upon them.

“In other words, individuals are more strongly committed to their values if they believe those values to be personally chosen rather than socially imposed,” Stavrova and Siegers explained. “Drawing on this argument, we proposed that the commitment to religious values is strengthened in contexts that allow for the freedom of choice. When individuals are free to choose whether to follow a religion, their personal religious choices are characterized by stronger commitments and a stronger intrinsic orientation than when religious beliefs are imposed on them in the form of social norms.”

Previous research on religiosity and moral behavior have produced mixed results. Some studies have found that religion increases prosocial behavior, but other studies have found religion has no effect on prosocial behavior.┬áStavrova and Siegers wrote that “much of the current debate about the prosocial effects of religiosity has been fuelled by divergent findings from self-reported and actual behavioral data.”

To rectify this, they believe “studies measuring the actual prosocial behavior of religious and non-religious individuals in countries with different levels of religiosity enforcement should be conducted.”