From Where Do We Get Our Morality? From Religion or Intuition?


Purzycki (2013) has compared two cultures with different religions (American Christians and Buddhist-animist Tyvans). The author wanted to examine cross-cultural variations in the representations of their gods, and how these relate to (religious) prosociality.

Clearly, the Christian god is omniscient with concerns about interpersonal, social and moral behaviors. In contrast, the Tyvan spirit-masters are not explicitly concerned with morality (i.e., ideas about cooperation, generosity and cheating etc.).

More specifically, the author wanted to find out, whether people have a predisposition (sensitivity) towards prosociality that is independent of their religious beliefs. In fact, this is what the research shows. Even though the Tyvan spirit-masters are not explicitly concerned with morality, people who believe in them, still show prosocial behaviors (Purzycki, 2013).

The author suggests that, we may have developed a moralization bias, which means that we intuitively moralize gods’ minds. For example, we endow gods with concerns about morality, despite the fact that the god is not concerned with morality.

As a result, Tyvans will show prosociality despite the fact that moral is not among their collectively held concerns. Indeed, it is likely that some religious and cultural behaviors, such as rituals and resource maintenance, indirectly promote prosocial behaviors.

Here is an example of how we intuitively attribute morality to supernatural agents:

“Indeed, when children believe that a ghost is watching them, they cheat less in games even though no explicit moral concern is attributed to the ghost.” (Purzycki, 2013, p. 176).

The author suggests that we may have evolved a repertoire of cognitive systems that make us especially sensitive to prosocial behaviors. In an evolutionary perspective, prosocial behaviors inhibit self-interested behaviors and free-riding, and it strengthens cooperation that, in turn, fosters survival.

Researchers have also suggested that, under particular circumstances, moralistic and omniscient gods are culturally selected, simply because they promote prosociality that is needed for the culture to remain.

In closing, despite religious diversity, social behaviors play a major role in religious cognition, and the representations of gods’ minds. Gods may not explicitly care about morality, however, morality lies beneath the surface, since we intuitively think in such ways, when we think about supernatural agents (i.e., gods). Therefore, morality may stem from religion as well as intuition, according this author.

Photo: Nathan Rupert