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Bad Gods Make Good People

In a recent study of the impact of religious beliefs on human behavior* researchers found that those who believe in a punishing god are more likely to avoid cheating than those who believe in a loving god.

The reasoning is simple: If you think God is watching over you and ever ready to condemn you for sinning, chances are you are not going to sin. I get this. Whenever I’m driving and see a police car, I immediately make sure I’m not exceeding the speed limit. I don’t want a ticket. If I thought the officer would only give me a wink and a warning, hell, what’s 20 miles over the limit anyway?

Researchers call this the supernatural punishment hypothesis, or SPH: “The SPH specifically predicts that it is the punishing aspects of gods and the threat of divine punishment, rather than any loving or compassionate traits, which are responsible for keeping adherents from crossing ethical boundaries in anonymous situations where they would otherwise be tempted.”

Basically science says fear works, and that believing in a punishing god keeps you more moral than believing in a loving god. This is good news for the religious unless, of course, you’re the kind of religious who believes in a punishing god who will punish you for believing in science, in which case you are massively conflicted.

This must also be troubling to people like me who just can’t muster this kind of fearful belief. But there is hope!

The study also found that there was no statistical difference between believers and nonbelievers when it came to cheating. Both believers and nonbelievers cheated, on average, 11 out of 20 times. But believers who believe in a god of love cheated more that believers in a wrathful god and those who did not believe in god at all.

What does this mean? First, people cheat. And we do so over 50 percent of the time. Second, God has nothing to do with it: Religious people are no more moral that unreligious people. Third, among religious people, the frightened are more moral than the beloved. And fourth, science proves the power of god! Unless of course you’re an atheist, which the study shows, is just as good.

*(Shariff, Azim F. and Norenzayan, Ara ‘Mean Gods Make Good People: Different Views of God Predict Cheating Behavior’, International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, 21:2, 85 – 96)


Rabbi Rami Shipiro

Rabbi Rami Shapiro is an award-winning author, essayist, poet, and teacher. In the print version of our magazine, he has an advice column, “Roadside Assistance for the Spiritual Traveler,” addressing reader questions pertaining to religion, spirituality, faith, family, God, social issues, and more. His latest book is Surrendered—The Sacred Art. Rabbi Rami hosts our podcast, “Essential Conversations.”

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