Two research psychologists have contributed an Opinion paper based on the empirical finding “that individuals presented with unfamiliar moral dilemmas show no difference in their responses if they have a religious background or not”. The data used was obtained from an online web questionnaire which is open to any volunteer participants (including myself). Findings are reported elsewhere and in their Opinion paper the authors provide only a summary:
“These studies, carried out using the web-based Moral Sense Test (http://moral.wjh.harvard.edu/), recruit thousands of male and female subjects, with educational levels that range from elementary school to graduate degrees, with political affiliations that range from liberal to conservative, and religious backgrounds that range from devout to atheist. In each of these studies, subjects read and judged the moral permissibility of an action on a 7pt-Likert scale [. . .]. Each scenario presented a contrast between a harmful action and a significant benefit in terms of lives saved.”
The hypothetical scenarios in the test present dilemmas where actions that are evidently harmful to human life considered in isolation result in significant benefits to other humans (whose lives are saved). The generalized results are as follows:
“More specifically, in dozens of dilemmas, and with thousands of subjects, the pattern of moral judgments delivered by subjects with a religious background do not differ from those who are atheists, and even in cases where we find statistically significant differences, the effect sizes are trivial.”
This conclusion is the anchor-point for the author’s wide-ranging discussion of the origin of morality and, as indicated in their title, the origin of religion. In evaluating their paper, we need to consider whether their empirical starting point is robust enough to carry such far-reaching conclusions.
[. . .]
The first thesis developed in the paper is that “moral intuitions operate independently of religious background” and are therefore not explained by religion. The authors develop an analogy with linguistics, where the concept of innate ability for language acquisition is widely held, and this innate ability is independent of the cultural background. Ball describes this thesis in this way:
“The paper [ . . ] challenges the assertion commonly made in defence of religion: that it inculcates a moral awareness. If we follow the authors’ line of thinking, religious people are no more likely to be moral than atheists.”
Whenever there is only one hypothesis on the table, there should be concern! Scholars should be cultivating multiple working hypotheses and looking for ways of testing them. To show the significance of an alternative conceptual framework, consider a perspective that understands mankind as made in the image of its Designer. Innate abilities are imparted by this Designer: we speak because the Designer speaks; we have a moral awareness because the Designer is the reference point for what is right and what is wrong. These innate abilities affect all people – whether they are atheists or religious, whether they are pantheists or theists, whether they are male or female, young or old. This is a hypothesis that explains the data and scholars who “tacitly adopt an atheistic framework” are excluding this alternative purely on ideological grounds.
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