Religious People Cheat

This week is full of commitments and deadlines. Rather than try to meet all my blogging commitments with new work and failing, I’m pulling out some old posts. Given how my audience has grown, most of you won’t have read them at the time. This post was originally published here.

Jesse Bering has an article up at Slate this morning on whether nonbelievers should marry believers. His argument in favor?

On the one hand, I’d no doubt be irritated by my very religious wife’s supernatural beliefs. On the other hand, the very fact that she believes strongly in some divinely imposed morality should influence her behavior behind my back. She may well be suffering a very bad case of the dreaded God delusion, but perhaps this isn’t such a bad thing for her atheist husband. After all, my faithful, imaginary wife would then be operating under the assumption that cheating on me would not only hurt her family if the affair ever came to light, but would result in eternal damnation or perhaps an unhappy plague of this-worldly misfortunes even if it didn’t. Never mind if she’s crazy. I’m a pragmatist, so what she believes to be true is all that matters.

[Evo psych argument for why this should be important elided.]

Now, now, Dawkinsian atheists, I know what you’re thinking: You certainly don’t have to believe in God to be faithful to your spouse; marriages are built on mutual trust; religious people cheat, too; and so on. Of course you’re right about these things, but we’re still in the emotionless realm of the hypothetical, remember, and all else being equal, if you’re simply trying to minimize the chances of landing an adulterous partner, you might as well stack the deck in your favor by marrying the woman who “knows” that God would get really mad at her if she misappropriated her genitalia. This isn’t just my being a contrarian, either. There really is evidence from controlled experiments showing that religious thinking and church attendance leads to moral behavior.

For the record, he does recognize this as a bit of cold calculus, done for the purposes of writing the article. That’s not my problem with it. My problem is that the research he cites (the “controlled experiments” link) doesn’t say what he seems to think it says about cheating.

This is not research on belief. It’s research on priming, in which an idea is called to mind in a study participant and the effects on behavior are studied. We can tell it’s not research on belief, because doing something like recalling the Ten Commandments works in atheists too, as does the use of secular exhortations to good behavior. When a participant is primed to be thinking about good behavior, they tend to exhibit good behavior–usually.

A scrawny, crucified Jesus bleeding from his wounds.
While hanging this guy on the wall of your bedroom might prevent sex, it probably won’t prevent cheating specifically.

Then, Darley and Batson varied the subject of the talk that the students were supposed to deliver. Some were told to say something about the existence of God. Others were told to discuss the Trinity. Still others were told to talk about the parable of the Good Samaritan. Finally, as the students were given directions to the other building, a few of them were told by the experiment that they were late, and “that they had better get moving”.

So which students helped the man in need? You’d assume that the students who had just prepared a lecture on the Good Samaritan parable would be more likely to stop and help. Or that the students who entered the church to help others might be more likely to actually help others. But you’d be wrong. As Darley and Batson wrote, “Indeed, on several occasions, a seminary student going to give his talk on the parable of the Good Samaritan literally stepped over the victim as he hurried on his way.”

According to the data, the only variable that mattered was whether or not the students were in a rush. While only 10 percent of those who were told to hurry offered help, 63 percent of those who had a few minutes to spare offered aid.

Even priming doesn’t always have the desired effect, because our behavior isn’t determined that simply. Nor is complex behavior, like cheating on a spouse, generally decided on the spur of the moment, when priming would be the most powerful. When researchers correct for priming, as one of those cited by Bering did in a study released earlier this year:

In line with many previous studies, it found no difference between the ethical behavior of believers and nonbelievers. But those who believed in a loving, compassionate God were more likely to cheat than those who believed in an angry, punitive God.

That’s cheating on a math test, but cross-group studies in the general population show that the overall lack of difference in moral/ethical behavior stands across several areas. In order to reasonably believe that the effects of the studies Bering cites could have any effect on your spouse’s marital fidelity, you would have to create a world in which those religious cues for good behavior were ever prevalent.

I don’t know about you, but I’ll settle for respect and open communication to keep my marriage properly sorted.

Image: “Giovanni Teutonico, Crucifix, c. 1470” by clairity. Some rights reserved.

Religious People Cheat
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5 thoughts on “Religious People Cheat

  1. 1

    A problem that is particular to the Christian god is the whole notion of forgiveness, which can be nice but which can easily be abused as a get out of jail free card for any sort of behaviors, and where the victims are told that if they don’t forgive, it’s wrong.

  2. 3

    And after that, she’ll claim they steal.

    Jesse Bering’s rather narrowly drawn hypothetical still isn’t right for the reasons Stephanie points out.

    I’d like to mention that the better solution is to work with your spouse on open communication and being clear about what you need, want and would like to have. (Don’t be surprised when your spouse may want surprising things in return.)

  3. HFM

    If your view of relationships and marriage is so blinkered that your #1 priority is finding someone who won’t “misappropriate their genitals”, then you have no business inflicting yourself on anyone, godless or otherwise.

    That said…when I was on the market, one of my few absolute deal-breakers was religiousness. I can deal with religious friends and relatives – freedom means that consenting adults can waste their time and money however they like. But I want kids someday, and you can’t half-raise a kid to believe in nonsense. You have to make a choice. I know people who get by with “Daddy believes X, Mommy believes Y, you can decide when you’re older. I just don’t think I could do it. The first time my kid shows up crying because some asshole told them they (or I) were going to hell, and it’s my own fault they didn’t know enough to laugh in their face, it’s over. There is no amount of tolerance, rational thinking, and concern for family harmony that would keep me from telling everyone involved precisely where to shove their imaginary friend.

    (Save a divorce lawyer, ride an atheist.)

  4. 5

    Doesn’t read to me like a way of approaching choosing a partner to share your life with.

    Reads more like a way of approaching purchasing a reliable appliance.

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