It has long been posited that religion is necessary because it encourages people to behave morally, that is, to behave altruistically toward others. Some say that without religion, it is impossible to have a moral society. Now, a new study out of the University of California Santa Barbara may challenge that notion. The study found that merely thinking about science causes moral behavior. The findings were recently published in the peer-reviewed journal PLOSOne.
Researchers conducted four individual studies with a total of 156 participants. According to the study, the methodology was as follows:
Study 1 used naturalistic measures of exposure to and belief in science and tested whether it predicted the likelihood of enforcing moral norms. Studies 2–4 manipulated thoughts about science and examined the causal impact of such thoughts on both imagined (Studies 2, 3) as well as actual moral behavior (Study 4). Across studies, we examined the effects of science on a broad array of domains, including interpersonal violations (Studies 1, 2), prosocial intentions (Study 3), and economic exploitation (Study 4).
According to the publication Scientific American, the researchers “hypothesized that there is a deep-seated perception of science as a moral pursuit — its emphasis on truth-seeking, impartiality and rationality privileges collective well-being above all else. “
The study conclusion bore out this hypothesis. It seems that the mere action of thinking about science, and not necessarily taking any direct action, triggers a strong morality response in the brain. An interesting twist to the study was that while the researchers set up controls for religious belief or non-belief, they did not account for political association, which has been found in the past to influence the perception of science and morality being connected. Scientific American points out that this could skew the study results, because liberals tend to make a stronger connection between science and morality than do conservatives. Because of the study having taken place at a university attended by more liberals than conservatives, the outcome could have swayed more in favor of science being connected to thoughts of morality than if the study had been performed at a predominantly conservative college.
However, the results were strikingly clear. Scientific American explains: “Across all these different measures, the researchers found consistent results. Simply being primed with science-related thoughts increased a) adherence to moral norms, b) real-life future altruistic intentions, and c) altruistic behavior towards an anonymous other. The conceptual association between science and morality appears strong.”
There’s no doubt these study results will lead some to question whether religion is needed for morality or if science will eventually nudge out religious doctrinewhen it comes to designing a personal set of beliefs about right and wrong. Blogger Lior Rabi posits this question in his post Can Science Replace Religion or Philosophy? Science and Morality. He asks “Who can become the moral leaders of the future? Those who focus on morality, critical thinking and ideals? Or maybe scientists whose framework is materialistic?”
This new study may help to shed light on some of those questions and it will undoubtedly create a great deal of debate. Thinking about science causes moral behavior, but what implications, if any does that fact have for the future of religion?
By: Rebecca Savastio