Sunday, Jul 1, 2012 3:00 PM UTC

Don’t trust the Godless

Even as an atheist, I have more confidence in religious people. And now science is backing me up


 (Credit: Kzenon via Shutterstock)

This article is excerpted from the new book, "Why Is the Penis Shaped Like That?" to be published in July.

This is a difficult confession to make, because on the surface, I’m sure it sounds wildly hypocritical. Still, here it goes: I trust religious people more than I trust atheists. The hypocritical part is that I happen to be an atheist with unshakably strong godless convictions. In my book “The Belief Instinct,” I’ve tried to explain at considerable length, in fact, why I feel this particular way. But for our purposes here, the only important thing to know is that I’ve not a sliver of agnostic hesitation in my belief that there is no intentional God — at least not a very intelligent one. I also suffer some trepidation before religious people, in general, when discussing anything of moral substance, since it’s long been my opinion that God is the Great Obfuscator, unnecessarily complicating many otherwise straightforward humanistic matters.

So now that I’ve come out of the atheistic closet, entirely undressed, how can I possibly say that I trust those who believe in God more than those whom I’d otherwise consider to be sympathetic and like-minded thinkers? Well, trustworthiness is a different thing altogether from intellect, and I suppose I’m ever the social pragmatist in my dealings with other people.

Take, for example, a situation I found myself in outside a rail station in an Irish seaside town years ago. My luggage in hand, the cold gray sky windy and threatening rain, I was confronted with two taxis at the curb waiting for passengers. One of the cars had a crucifix dangling from the rearview mirror and a dog-eared copy of the Bible on prominent display on the console.

The other taxi showed no trace of any religious icons. Now, all else being equal, which of these two taxis would you choose, considering also that you’re trying to avoid being overcharged, a practice for which this part of the country is notorious — and that being an American during the “W.” administration, I might add, elevates you one step above our forty-third president in respectability? Both drivers are in all probability devout Catholics — this is Ireland, after all. Still, there’s no way to know for certain.

Unless you’re trying to make a point about how “atheists are good people too” or you happen to despise the Catholic Church, it’s really a no-brainer: Go with God. Why is this so obvious? As the political scientist Dominic Johnson has argued, “If supernatural punishment is held as a belief, then this threat becomes a deterrent in reality, so the mechanism can work regardless of whether the threat is genuine or not.” In other words, from a psychological perspective, the ontological question of God’s actual existence is completely irrelevant; all that really matters in the above case is that the taxi driver is fully convinced that God doesn’t like it when he cheats his passengers.

This theoretical supposition that believers behave better because they feel that God is watching them and because God presumably communicates His displeasure about their sinful deeds in the shape of various misfortunes is one of the most compelling scientific arguments for the sheer stickiness of religion in society today. God just won’t go away, and much of the reason He won’t, goes this purely mechanistic evolutionary logic, is that the cognitive illusion of a punitive God functions to stem the selfish behaviors of individuals and helps to sustain social harmony.

A number of studies have offered empirical support for this supernatural monitoring hypothesis. This is a term coined by Ara Norenzayan, who in multiple studies has found that when participants are implicitly primed with God-related words (“spirit,” “divine,” “sacred” and so on), they become both more “prosocial” and less antisocial. By contrast with nonreligious or neutral words, people who see such religious words, for example, donate more money to a charity after completing a word-scramble task in which they cobble the words together into some coherent sentence. Although he and his collaborator Azim Shariff favored the interpretation that participants behaved more altruistically in the religious condition because the religious words reminded them that God was watching and therefore judging them, Norenzayan had always been cautious not to conclude prematurely that this was caused simply by concerns about heavenly spying. It’s also possible, of course, that these religious words simply activated related social concepts such as “benevolence” and “good deeds,” priming altruistic decision making independent of worrying about God’s fretful glares.

More recent work, however, has allowed Norenzayan to put those concerns to rest. Getting people to think about God — even unconsciously and even, interestingly enough, among nonbelievers — indeed triggers very specific reasoning about their being the targets of someone’s visual attention. Norenzayan and Will Gervais found that this basic effect of religious words making people feel visually exposed panned out across a variety of experimental conditions. In one study, for instance, the investigators used the same implicit God-priming method as before, assigning either a religious or a nonreligious word-scrambling task to believers and atheists. The participants then completed something called the Situational Self-Awareness Scale, and, remarkably, regardless of their explicit belief or disbelief in God, all those who’d been exposed unconsciously to the religious words — but not to the neutral words — showed a spike in their public self-awareness. That is to say, they became significantly more cognizant and concerned about the transparency of their social behaviors from an audience’s point of view.

Furthermore, in a follow-up experiment, Norenzayan and Gervais reasoned that “when people feel that their behavior is being monitored … they tend to cast themselves in a positive light.” This led them to hypothesize that reminders about God would not simply increase self-awareness but also encourage socially desirable responses. Participants’ responses to statements such as “I am sometimes irritated by people who ask favors of me” and “No matter who I’m talking to, I’m always a good listener” should reflect their beliefs about what God wants to hear, not the truth about these unrealistically positive social attributes. In this study, however, the only people who produced socially desirable responses to the implicit God primes were those who actually believed in God. This means that while nonbelievers might feel “exposed” in the wake of receiving implicit God primes, just like believers, this feeling doesn’t influence how atheists attempt to portray themselves socially.

For believers, in fact, additional evidence shows that God-related cues not only influence their desire to have others see them in a positive way but actually motivate them to do good deeds. Some of the best support for this is the so-called Sunday Effect, first identified by Deepak Malhotra of the Harvard Business School. Malhotra’s research has also revealed how it’s the context of the situation — particularly the presence or absence of ostensibly holy cues — that flushes out any actual differences in altruism between believers and nonbelievers. “This approach helps to shift away from seeking a simple answer to the question of whether religious people are nicer,” reasons Malhotra in “Judgment and Decision Making,” “and towards assessing when, if ever, religious people may be nicer.” Malhotra hypothesized that religious individuals would be more responsive to appeals from charities than would nonreligious people, but only on days when they had attended church prior to the appeals.

To test this prediction, the author collaborated with an online auction house that agreed to systematically alternate its scripted language for encouraging continued bidding. For online participants who’d been randomly assigned to the “charity-focused” message, the prompt read as follows:

We hope that you will continue to support this charity by keeping the bidding alive. Every extra dollar you bid in the auction helps us to accomplish our very important mission.

By contrast, people who’d been picked to receive the “competitive” message saw this:

The competition is heating up! If you hope to win, you will have to bid again.

Are you up for the challenge?

Importantly, Malhotra also had an independent measure of the bidders’ religiosity, including their church attendance habits, which he obtained six weeks after they’d made their bidding decisions in response to one of these two primes. “The effect size is compelling,” he explained. “On Sundays, appeals to charity were 300 percent more effective on religious individuals compared to non-religious individuals.” By contrast, there was absolutely no difference between the religious and the nonreligious bidders in the effectiveness of the charity appeals on any other day of the week. There’s another interesting Sunday Effect finding too, this one uncovered by chance by the economist Benjamin Edelman, also of the Harvard Business School. In crunching the salacious online numbers, Edelman discovered that the U.S. population is significantly less likely to purchase online subscriptions to pornographic websites on Sundays than they are on any other day of the week.

Although much of this may make for common sense, the fact that salient religious cues prompt neighborly decisions and curb social transgressions because they focus the believers’ attention on God’s hawkeyed view of their behaviors is tremendously important for understanding the adaptive function of religion. And such effects play out all around us. In many courtrooms across the Western world, for instance, defendants and witnesses must place their hand on the Bible and volunteer to respond to the religious oath “Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God?” And in the ancient Hebrew world, there was the similar “oath by the thigh,” where “thigh” was the polite term for one’s dangling bits, since touching the sex organs before giving testimony was said to invoke one’s family spirits (who had a vested interest in the seeds sprung from these particular loins) and to ensure that the witness wouldn’t perjure himself. I rather like this older ritual, in fact, as it’s more in keeping with evolutionary biology. But in general, swearing to God, in whatever way it’s done, is usually effective in persuading others that you’re telling the truth. We know from controlled studies with mock juries that if a person swears on — or, better yet, kisses — the Bible before testifying, the jury’s perception of that person’s believability is significantly enhanced.

After all, who in their right mind would lie before God? Well, as these findings suggest, atheists are more likely to do so. And that’s the reason — the only reason — that I’d choose a Catholic taxi driver in Ireland over one who, like me, thinks that the little book on the other driver’s console is filled with nonsense of papal proportions.

Excerpted from “Why Is the Penis Shaped Like That? And Other Reflections on Being Human” by Jesse Bering, to be published in July 2012 by Scientific American/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright ©2012 by Jesse Bering. All rights reserved.