Imagine you walk into a room and are offered ten $1 coins. You can take as many coins as you wish, just know that after you leave the room another person will come in and get the rest. How many coins would you take?
If you are like most people you will take most if not all of the coins, leaving little or nothing for the next person. This is true whether or not you say you are religious. Religions talk a good game: “Do unto others what you want others to do unto you,” but in real life the rule reads more like “Do unto others before others do unto you.” At least this is the finding published in a recent issue of Psychological Science by two researchers, Ara Norensayan and Azim Shariff of the University of British Columbia. My God, if Canadians act this way, just imagine what we Americans would do!
Norensayan and Shariff wanted to see if belief in God had any impact on morality. In the control group it did not. Believers and nonbelievers alike were more than happy to take most of the coins, the next player be damned. But results changed when players were asked to unscramble sentences containing words such as “God,” “divine,” and “sacred” before deciding how many coins to take.
Without the “God prime” only 12% of players split the money evenly. With the God prime, 52% did so. Similar results were achieved with a secular prime: unscrambling sentences containing the words “civic,” “contract,” and “police.” In fact, the results were more evenly dispersed across religious and nonreligious lines with the secular prime than with the God prime.
What does all this mean? To me the message is clear: for most people guilt and fear are the primary motivators behind religion and ethics. The word “God” and the word “police” work to change people’s behavior from the selfish to the more generous because they remind people of the best they are capable of and what might happen to them if they fail to live up to it.
Norensayan and Shariff’s findings don’t surprise me, but they do depress me. Sure, when I walk into a bank I always check to see where the bank guards are before making the decision whether or not to rob the bank, but I thought that was just me. I had hoped that other people were motivated by altruism, honesty, and love. Now I know differently.
But there is a bright side. I worry about being mugged. While some people avoid walking by males of certain racial or ethnic groups. I avoid walking by nearly anyone over the age of ten regardless of gender, race, religion, or ethnicity. But now I have a way of protecting myself.
I am making a special popgun. When you pull the trigger a flag with the words “God,” “divine,” “love,” and “civic” printed on it drops down from the barrel. I am hoping that the sight of this long barreled pistol will cause the would-be mugger to pause just long enough to read the words on the flag and come under their spell. Then I will ask them for five $1 coins and go on my way a little richer for the transformation. I am not patenting this gun; so if you want to make one of your own, go ahead.