Religious people internalize stereotypes about moral superiority and are more responsive to identity threats

Research indicates there is “extreme moral prejudice” against nonreligious people around the world, which appears to be rooted in intuitions about religion’s role in morality. Whether religious people are actually morally superior to their less religious counterparts, however, remains unclear.

Two new studies, which focus on how religion influences a person’s perception of his or herself, provide some new insights into the association between religiosity and morality.

“It is fascinating to understand where people’s sense of morality comes from: Why do some people view themselves as more morally good than other people?” said Sarah J. Ward, a postdoctoral research scholar at Columbia Business School and the corresponding author of both studies.

“Across the world, religious people are often viewed as more moral than nonreligious people. People who are religious also have a tendency to think of themselves as highly moral compared to people who are not religiously affiliated (e.g., atheists, agnostics).”

“I wanted to explore whether religious people think they are highly moral because they are essentially stereotyping themselves as members of their religious ingroup, which they also view as moral,” Ward said.

In research published in Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, the researchers conducted three surveys of 1,667 participants in total to examine how religiosity influenced moral self-image.

Ward and her colleague found evidence that religious people internalized stereotypes regarding the moral superiority of their religious group. They also found that religiosity was positively associated with impression management, referring to an individual’s efforts to influence other people’s perceptions of themselves as moral.

“We often view ourselves as sharing characteristics with members of groups to which we belong. Part of the reason religious people view themselves as highly moral is due to simply being members of a group — their religion — that they view as very moral. In a sense, the morality of one’s religious group can ‘rub off’ on them,” Ward explained to PsyPost.

The study helps to examine the relationship between religiosity and moral self-image. But many other factors are likely involved.

“There are several ways that religion may influence people’s sense of morality. It is important to understand whether participating in religious services, rituals, or simply praying might make religious feel moral on a daily basis,” Ward explained.

“It is also crucial to examine religion’s influence on morality within varied religious affiliations, which I was unfortunately not able to do in the present studies.”

But does this moral self-image influence actual behavior among religious people?

In a related study of 992 participants, which was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Ward found that religious people were more responsive when their moral self-image was threatened.

Compared to less religious people, more religious people tended to donate more money to charity after being asked to write about a time when they acted immorally. In other words, religious people were more likely to try to compensate for a past transgression.

But among participants in the control condition — who wrote about the path they took the last time they went to the grocery store — religiosity was unrelated to subsequent donations to charity.

“This pattern of results suggests that religious motivations toward life and belief in God do not promote moral behavior in a straightforward way,” the researchers noted.

“Indeed, the highly contextualized nature of religious prosociality suggests that the motivations underlying religious people’s sense of morality may be more in service of egoistic concerns. People may pursue moral identity (or religion) for self-enhancing motivations, such as feeling that one is morally superior to others or displaying one’s prosociality publicly in hopes of social acclaim.”

The studies, “Moral Stereotypes, Moral Self-Image,and Religiosity” and “Moral self-regulation, moral identity, and religiosity“, were authored by Sarah J. Ward and Laura A. King.