Justifying Morally Questionable Behaviour

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(Photo via Steve Granger)

Over the last few years I have become increasingly concerned with the power of religious doctrine to persuade people to behave in morally questionable ways. By morally questionable behaviours, I simply mean those that directly or indirectly jeopardize the well-being of conscious creatures (e.g., discrimination against homosexuals or female-genital mutilation). Based on my own research and experiences, I noticed that religion can act as a sort of loophole that bypasses our inherent desire to be good. This may seem obvious when most religious demagogues demand that their followers adhere to ancient text that was apparently in some way dictated by an inerrant omniscient deity or deities.

However, what may seem less obvious is the influence of religious justifications for morally questionable behaviours on observers or witnesses to the behaviour. I hypothesized that people would be more accepting of beliefs and behaviours if the perpetrator gave religious reasons in comparison to personal or no reasons at all. In order to test this hypothesis, I ran a brief online survey where participants read descriptions of fictitious characters endorsing a morally questionable behaviour (e.g., Ingrid feels that homosexual individuals should not be allowed to attend her school) and were then asked how acceptable they find the behaviour. However, one caveat to these descriptions is that participants were randomly assigned to read that the fictitious characters gave religious or personal or no justification at all.

The results showed that those born in Canada and self-reported religious individuals were more accepting of potentially harmful behaviour if the characters gave religious justifications in comparison to personal or no justifications at all. Among the many reasons for these findings, well-intentioned tolerance for religious beliefs and similarity-hypothesis (you like those similar to yourself) appear to give the best explanation. However, most people most of the time rated the morally questionable behaviours as unacceptable and that religious justifications only made it slightly less unacceptable. Although this may be no news for many (as the hangman in Mel Brooks’ Robin Hood said), “You know what they say, no noose is good news.”

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