For centuries, perceptions of morality have used the framework of ‘piety’ and ‘sin’. It is an enduring image of the holy man in his monastery, giving to the poor, abstaining from lustful vices and devoting himself to study, while the corrupted masses indulge their licentious pleasures in brothels and taverns. Though many of the more archaic elements of this model are now obsolete, the association between religious belief and moral fibre remains.
A recent global study, however, is threatening to overturn these stereotypes.
12 000 children were tested for signs of altruism, and perhaps contrary to expectation it was the 4 000-strong ‘no religion’ group that came out on top. Religious children were found to be less generous, less empathic and far more judgemental of their peers. This trend became more pronounced the older the children were, implying that growing up in a secular environment can provide just as effective a moral education as the Bible or the Qur’an. In short, religious belief is far from a prerequisite for good behaviour.
Clearly this is a relatively small study, so to suggest that the religious of the world – 84 per cent of the global population – are being led into immorality would be a gross exaggeration, but evidently humankind does not need the carrot of heaven or the stick of hell to behave well. At the very least, it should provide some counter to those religionists who believe that the moral high ground is their God-given right.