Does religion make us more moral?

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Does religion make us more moral?

Does religion make us moral? If so, will morality disappear as belief weakens? The answer might be, surprisingly, ‘no’.

Religion, the fountain of morals?

Religiosity, tradition would have it, helps establish morality. But do religious rules and maxims, like the Ten Commandments or ‘turn the other cheek’, truly make us more ethical? This question becomes all the more relevant as data from the past decade continues to show declining religiosity throughout Europe.[1] [2] A new analysis joins a growing set of data that suggests the answer may be, perhaps surprisingly, no.[3] [4]

The unique German case-study

In a January 2022 paper, three German researchers examined the effects that removing religious education from schools had on German society.[5] The team chose Germany in particular, as the end of religious education happened in a staggered manner across the states. This allowed for easier comparisons across states.[6]

The paper concludes that the presence of religious education can affect religiosity, but not so much morality. In terms of religiosity, those who had required religious education in school tended to be more religious. This was measured by levels of prayer, church attendance, and church membership.[7]

Areas without religious education tended to have lower incidences of traditional familial and gender roles. This led to a more equitable gender participation in the workforce, fewer marriages, and less children on average.[8]

Yet, strikingly, the study found no evidence of a change in “ethical-value outcomes such as reciprocity, trust, volunteering, and life satisfaction.”[9] Similarly, there was no effect on “political-value outcomes such as political interest and leaning, voting, and satisfaction with democracy.”[10]

Further studies: religious morality in the US and Canada

The German report, though influential, is not the first to make such claims about religion and morality. In 2014, researchers at the University of Illinois in Chicago (UIC) conducted a study of hundreds of American and Canadian adults to see whether religious belief had an effect on morality.[11] The study, which had a novel focus on moral experiences in everyday life, as opposed to in a laboratory/controlled setting, found that religious and irreligious people experienced about the same amount of moral and immoral deeds in their day to day. The hundreds of respondents would be prompted at random intervals to record a moral or immoral deed they had performed or witnessed within the previous hour.[12]

Interestingly, the only major recorded difference came in the form of emotional responses to the moral and immoral deeds witnessed. Those with a religious background professed to have stronger emotional responses, i.e. more gratitude and pride for moral deeds and more anger and disgust at immoral ones.[13]

Ultimately, individuals from both groups expressed equal levels of concern for fairness, honesty, and other ethical indicators.[14]

The stickers controversy

Around the same time as the UIC study, a large international study of children’s behaviour emerged, claiming that religious backgrounds made children less likely to share. In the study, children were given a certain number of stickers and were then allowed to share however many they felt fit with others. Initial results found that those raised in a religious household tended to share less than those from a secular one.[15]

The study quickly generated controversy – some for its claims, some for its methodology. Eventually, the authors retracted the study, as they found that a stronger correlation existed based more on the children’s home countries. That said, however, the authors clarified when retracting that their finding that religiosity leads to less sharing nonetheless remained significant and should not be discarded.[16]

Autonomy versus self-interest

In 2016, British sociologist Ingrid Storm similarly concluded that religious decline did not spell moral decline after analysing data from the European Values Study.[17] [18] That said, there were differences in values between religious and nonreligious. To better understand the differences, Storm created a helpful framework for sorting the values: personal autonomy values and self-interest values.

Personal autonomy values embody those that allow the individual to challenge traditions, e.g. by breaking with sexuality norms or ideas on abortion. Self-interest values embody values that can justify illegal actions that could harm others, like stealing or cheating.[19]

Religious and nonreligious scored about the same, other factors included, regarding self-interest values. However, religious individuals tended to value personal autonomy less.[20] This, understandably, maps well with the results from the German study, which found differing values regarding family and work life between the religious and irreligious.[21]

Problematising religion

On the whole, therefore, any fear that decreasing religiosity in Europe will lead to decreasing morality seems to be unfounded. That said, however, ‘religion’ is a broad, flexible, and fiercely individualistic term. While traditional methods of evaluating religiosity (like tracking church attendance) may show a declining trend, that does not necessarily mean that people on the whole are less religious. They simply might be manifesting their beliefs in a less formal manner. Either way, more research into this fascinating and growing field will need to be done before more conclusive answers can be reached.

Tyler Mikulis

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[1] Losing our religion: Christians poised to become a minority

[2] Most Germans find religion unimportant, survey shows

[3] Can Schools Change Religious Attitudes? Evidence from German State Reforms of Compulsory Religious Education

[4] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4345965/

[5] Can Schools Change Religious Attitudes? Evidence from German State Reforms of Compulsory Religious Education

[6] Can Schools Change Religious Attitudes? Evidence from German State Reforms of Compulsory Religious Education

[7] Can Schools Change Religious Attitudes? Evidence from German State Reforms of Compulsory Religious Education

[8] Can Schools Change Religious Attitudes? Evidence from German State Reforms of Compulsory Religious Education

[9] Can Schools Change Religious Attitudes? Evidence from German State Reforms of Compulsory Religious Education

[10] Can Schools Change Religious Attitudes? Evidence from German State Reforms of Compulsory Religious Education

[11] Study finds moral equality between religious, nonreligious

[12] Study finds moral equality between religious, nonreligious

[13] Study finds moral equality between religious, nonreligious

[14] Study finds moral equality between religious, nonreligious

[15] RETRACTED: The Negative Association between Religiousness and Children’s Altruism across the World

[16] RETRACTED: The Negative Association between Religiousness and Children’s Altruism across the World

[17] Does religion have any impact on morality in modern Europe?

[18] Morality in Context: A Multilevel Analysis of the Relationship between Religion and Values in Europe

[19] Morality in Context: A Multilevel Analysis of the Relationship between Religion and Values in Europe

[20] Does religion have any impact on morality in modern Europe?

[21] Can Schools Change Religious Attitudes? Evidence from German State Reforms of Compulsory Religious Education