Is religion Good or Bad?


Jonathan Haidt in his book The Righteous Mind provided some more shocking insights. At least to me an admitted irreligious person. At least I proved to myself that I have at least a partially open mind to consider his point of view. Actually he changed my point of view about religion more than any other person in quite some time. He began by asking a fundamental question: does religion make people good or bad?


Atheists invariably point out that religions cause a lot of wars, genocides, and acts of terrorism. They divide people when they should unite them. Religion has been used to oppress vulnerable groups like women, children (yes children), people of colour, people with perceived deviant sexual orientations, and many others. The track record of religion is far from evenly beneficial. They are not entirely bad either.

Religious believers often claim atheists and sceptics are morally bankrupt and can’t be trusted. A character in one of Dostoyevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov said, “If God is dead all is permitted.”

Where does the truth lie? Haidt has some amazing evidence. He does not rely on faith. He relies on evidence and data. He is a scientific person. I claim to be a person who makes believes contingent on evidence.

First, Haidt points out that it is not a reasonable expectation for religion to produce unconditional altruists. It’s not going to happen. But it doesn’t have to achieve perfection to be a force for good. Haidt put the case for religion this way:

“Whatever Christ said about the good Samaritan who helped an injured Jew, if religion is a group-level adaptation, then it should produce parochial altruism. It should make people exceedingly generous and helpful toward members of their own moral communities, particularly when their reputations will be enhanced. And indeed, religion does exactly this. Studies of charitable giving in the United States show that people in the least religious fifth of the population give just 1.5 percent of their money to charity. People in the most religious fifth (based on church attendance, not belief) give a whopping 7 percent of their income to charity, and the majority of that giving is to religious organizations. It’s the same story for volunteer work; religious people do far more than secular folk and the bulk of that work is done for, or at least through, their religious organizations.”


So far I was not surprised. What he told me next though did surprise me. In fact, it shocked me, because it was directly contrary to what I had always thought.

There is also some evidence that religious people behave better in lab experiments—especially when they get to work with each other. A team of German economists asked subjects to play a game. A team of German economists asked subjects to play a game in which one person is the “truster,” who is given some money on each round of the game. The truster is then asked to decide how much money, if any, to pass on to an anonymous “trustee.” Any money passed gets tripled by the experiment, at which point the trustee can choose how many rounds of the game, with different people each time, sometimes as truster , sometimes as the trustee.

Behavioural economists use this game often, but the novel twist in this study was to reveal one piece of real, true personal information about the trustee to the trustee to the trusters, before the trusters made their initial decision to trust. The information was taken from questionnaires that all subjects had filled out weeks before. In some cases, the truster learned the trustee’s level of religiosity, on a scale of 1 to 5. When trusters learned that their trustee was religious, they transferred more money, which shows that these Germans held the same belief as did Locke (about religious believers being more trustworthy). More important, the religious trustees really did transfer back more money than did the nonreligious trustees, even though they never knew anything about their trusters. The highest levels of wealth, therefore, would be created when religious people get to play a trust game with other religious people.

There is actually some real life historical evidence that corroborates this experiment.

Many scholars have talked about this interaction of God, trust, and trade. In the ancient world, temples often served an important commercial function: oaths were sworn and contracts signed before the deity, with explicit threats of supernatural punishment for abrogation. In the medieval world, Jews and Muslims excelled in the long-distance trade in part because their religions helped them create trustworthy relationships and enforceable contracts. Even today, markets that require very high trust to function efficiently (such as a diamond market) are often dominated by religiously bound ethnic groups (such as ultra-Orthodox Jews), who have a lower transaction and monitoring costs than their secular competitors.

This is good evidence that religion does serve a useful purpose. Haidt put it this way:

“So religions do what they are supposed to do. As Wilson put it, they help people “to achieve together what they cannot achieve on their own.” But that job description applies equally well to Mafia. Do religions help their practitioners by binding them together into a superorganism that can prey on-or at least turn their backs on –everyone else? Is religious altruism a boon or a curse to outsiders?”

My conclusion is simple: People trust religious people! And that is actually quite important. It helps people to do good things together!

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