Research Shows Religious People Believe They Are Morally Superior, But Their Motivations Are Largely Egoistic

Young religious woman praying.
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By a variety of measures, Americans are more religious than Europeans. According to a Pew Research Center study published in September 2018, even though the majority of people on the both sides of the Atlantic consider themselves religious, there are significant differences between Europeans and Americans.

For instance, nearly 70 percent of American Christians pray daily, and only 18 percent of self-described Christians in Europe say that they pray every single day.

Countless studies investigating the religiosity across demographic groups in both the United States and Europe have been published over the years, but only a few have probed the relationship between religiosity and morality.

As Professor Jim Davies of Carleton University wrote in The Conversation, research has suggested that cultural and genetic components influence morality — at least to an extent, according to Davies, this equation applies to non-believers as well, given that a society’s sense of morality is at least somewhat influenced by religion.

Investigating the link between religiosity and morality are two new studies conducted by Sarah J. Ward, a postdoctoral research scholar at Columbia Business School, and Professor Laura A. King.

For a study (“Moral stereotypes, moral self-image, and religiosity”) published in Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, the researchers conducted three surveys of 1,667 participants in an effort to investigate how religiosity and moral stereotyping influences moral self-image.

Ward and her team of researchers established that religious people tend to consider their religious group more superior to others, finding that “the association between religiosity and moral self-image was partially explained by impression management and perceptions of the morality of one’s religious ingroup.”

As Ward explained in statements supplied to PsyPost, religious people tend to believe that they share characteristics with members of their religious group, which they view as moral. This is why the perceived morality of a religious group can “rub off” on its members, according to the researchers.

For a related study (“Moral self-regulation, moral identity, and religiosity”) published in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Ward recruited 992 individuals to investigate how religious and non-religious people respond to having their moral-self image threatened.

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Compared to atheists and non-believers, according to the study, religious individuals are more likely to compensate for “past transgression.” Their motivations appear to be largely egoistic, however.

Photograph showing three crosses during sunrise.
  Geralt / Pixabay

“Indeed, the highly contextualized nature of religious prosociality suggests that the motivations underlying religious people’s sense of morality may be more in service of egoistic concerns.”

“People may pursue moral identity (or religion) for self-enhancing motivations, such as feeling that one is morally superior to others or displaying one’s prosociality publicly in hopes of social acclaim,” Ward said.