Shariff et al
offer an interesting review of the ways in which the moral concerns of theists and nontheists both overlap and are different, as a result of psychological differences in social investment, motivations for prosocial behavior, meta-ethics, and cognitive styles. Some clips:
Many aspects of religions – such as their emphasis on credibility-enhancing displays of commitment – serve to create an ideologically aligned and cohesive ingroup… this tighter social connection may also lead to more parochial moral attitudes – selectively favoring the ingroup and actively derogating the outgroup.
Religious groups exert strong pressure on group members to conform to the requirements and moral ideals of the community. Although the drive to appear virtuous to others is all but universal, it is especially pronounced among theists. An extensive meta-analysis found theists scoring consistently higher than nontheists on measures of socially desirable responding…A recent meta-analysis revealed that nontheists, by contrast, are generally unaffected by invocations of supernatural agents; compared with baseline, nontheists tend to be no more prosocial when primed with god concepts…Nontheists do, however, show increases in prosocial behavior when primed with concepts relating to secular institutions, such as courts and the police.
For believers, God is not just the ultimate arbiter of justice, but the author of morality itself. This meta-ethical belief provides theists with a unique foundation for thinking about moral issues, distinct from their nonreligious counterparts. Recent research suggests that theists are moral objectivists; that is, they tend to believe that when two people disagree about a moral issue, only one person can be correct…religious individuals appear to moralize a wider range of actions beyond those pertaining to harm and injustice, including disobedience of authority, disloyalty to one's ingroup, and sexual impurity… By contrast, nontheists are more inclined than theists to view morality as subjective or culturally relative. Critically, however, this difference is more pronounced with regard to moral issues that have little to do with harm or injustice (e.g., sexual conduct).
Although theists and nontheists disagree whether obedience to authority or sexual impurity are morally relevant concepts, there is much greater consensus about moral issues involving harm and injustice. For example, both religious and nonreligious individuals take a predominantly deontological stance toward torture and both groups find acts of unjust harm (e.g., killing an innocent for no good reason) to be objectively wrong. All world religions defend some version of the Golden Rule, a doctrine that reflects evolved inclinations toward fairness and reciprocity. Recent studies suggest that individuals, independent of religion, exhibit an impulse to behave cooperatively and that they manage to override this immediate prosocial impulse only on further reflection. This universal preference toward prosociality is apparent even in infancy. Thus, although theists and nontheists may be divided through differences in sociality, earthly and supernatural reputational concerns, and meta-ethics, the two groups are united in what could be considered ‘core’ intuitive preferences for justice and compassion. Although the two groups may sometimes disagree about which groups or individuals deserve justice or their compassion, these core moral intuitions form the best basis for mutual understanding and intergroup conciliation.
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