Does Morality Make Us Make God In Our Own Image?

According to a recent survey, almost half of all Americans suppose that belief in God is necessary in order to be moral. (In fact, this number is down from previous iterations of the survey.) But how, exactly, does morality relate to a belief in God?

One idea, with roots stretching back to the ancient world, is that belief in God motivates people to conform to moral demands. After all, he carries a big stick (punishment in Hell) while also brandishing a juicy carrot (reward in Heaven). And while both tools could do the job, the big stick seems more effective. Studies show that belief in a punishing God predicts lower rates of cheating (to earn extra pay for an experimental task), and belief in Hell correlates with lower crime rates at a country level (even when controlling for other predictors of crime). Belief in Heaven, by contrast, had no predictive value in the first study, and in fact correlated with higher crime rates in the second. So one way that morality relates to belief in God is via its effect on a person’s behavior.


But could belief in God not only change one’s behavior, but also one’s more basic sense of the nature of morality itself? Dostoyevsky famously maintained that without God not only would people’s behavior devolve into the pursuit of naked self-interest, but morality itself (conceived of in absolute, law-like terms) would simply not exist. This suggests a deeper connection between God and morality — namely, that God alone can provide an objective foundation for morality. If ordinary people share Dostoyevsky’s basic perspective, then they might suppose that in the absence of God, “morality” could refer only to local and parochial ways of organizing human life, akin to manners or customs.

Do people share this perspective? Some recent research seems to suggest that they do. For example, Onurcan Yilmaz and Hasan G. Bahçekapili found that, in a primarily Muslim population, priming God-concepts (through a sentence unscrambling task) led to greater endorsement of moral objectivism and greater rejection of moral relativism.

Yet a more fine-grained hypothesis is suggested by the studies on moral behavior mentioned previously — namely, that certain features of God — his punishing nature, in particular — would be more likely to foster belief in an absolute morality than would other features. Consider the following quotations from the Bible, for example.

Exodus 34:6-7 “The Lord, The Lord God, merciful and gracious, long-suffering, and abundant in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving inequity, transgression and sin.”


Nahum 1:2-3 “The Lord is a jealous God, filled with vengeance and wrath… The Lord is slow to get angry, but his power is great, and he never lets the guilty go unpunished.”

Passages that cast God in these radically different lights are abundant in scripture. The merciful God seems to tell us that sins can be forgiven. The vengeful God seems to tell us that sins are wrong and merit punishment. Is one of these more important to foster a sense of moral absolutism than the other?

In some research recently published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, we found that belief in a punishing God and endorsement of moral objectivism are indeed related: among self-avowed theists, those who believe in the existence of Hell tend to reject the idea that there could be more than one correct answer to moral questions. But what sort of causal story explains these results? Two explanations seem possible. It’s possible that belief in a punishing God leads believers to suppose that God must follow objective standards of right and wrong. (Indeed, a God who punished arbitrarily would not be deserving of worship or praise.) But it’s also possible that belief in an absolutist morality comes first, leading believers to conceive of God as a cosmic judge, jury, and executioner. Of course, both these explanations might be true. So, we tested them in turn.

First, we had religious participants unscramble sentences containing concepts related to the Divine (e.g., “divinity”), punishment (e.g., “revenge”), and combinations of them, but found no evidence that this priming procedure caused theists, in general, to endorse moral objectivism in a subsequent experimental task at higher rates than control groups. However, when we dug more deeply into the data, we found an interesting effect: followers of the Abrahamic faiths in particular (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) did show a greater tendency to endorse moral objectivism when primed with Divinity concepts, and this held true regardless of whether God was described in loving or punishing ways.

What about the second hypothesis: Does belief in an absolute morality lead believers to conceive of God as a punisher? Here, things were more clear-cut. We first asked religious participants to consider the idea that moral rightness and wrongness exist independently of one’s culture and beliefs. In a subsequent task, these religious participants endorsed a punishing conception of God to a greater extent than those who were asked to consider the idea that moral rightness and wrongness are dependent on one’s upbringing and cultural orientation, and those in a control condition.


Together, the above results paint a complicated picture of the relationship between believers’ conceptions of God and their views about the absolute nature of moral edicts. To be sure, one’s particular faith seems to influence one’s perspective on moral absolutism. Thus, followers of Abrahamic religions, reminded of their God (and, perhaps, his moral commandments) tend to endorse an absolutist perspective on morality. But a more general phenomenon also presents itself. Theists of all stripes who are disposed to view morality as absolute also tend to emphasize God’s punishing attributes.

Undoubtedly, it is too soon to say in light of this limited evidence that believers tend to shape God to serve whatever purpose their own, personal views require. But other studies show a similar tendency. For example, researchers have found that American Christians project their own moral ideals onto the figure of Jesus, taking their own ideological orientations (fellowship and caring for liberals, moral teaching for conservatives) to be central to Christianity. Our study suggests that this might hold true for other religions as well.

Perhaps we are now justified in claiming, as Freud once did, that absolutist believers end up conceiving of God as a supernatural “supreme court of justice” who ensures that “all good is rewarded and all evil punished,” because that is just what the absolutist morality with which they imbue the world requires.

These findings are described in the article entitled Moral objectivism and a punishing God, recently published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

Comment (1)

  1. I think everyone has the right to have any spectrum of religious and moral beliefs. I have some issues with the thought that religion dictates morality. I think the workplace scenario parameters could have been explained more. But if half the country believes that morality is a pivotal requirement for morality I have some questions to that.
    1.You shall have no other gods before Me. (Religious dogma)
    2.You shall not make idols. This makes me question the validity of the idea of stringent following of the commandment. American currency uses his name. Numerous paintings and figures of Jesus, and God. Why is modern day capitalism contravene this rule?
    3.You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain. It seems that the two interpretations of this are: to avoid profanity, and to use God’s name to wish misfortune to others. Do the religious half of the population refuse to use profanity? Also the idea of hoping God will be a catalyst to the misfortune of others is seen in modern Christian Media. How is the violation of this commandment explained.
    4.Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Does the half of the religious in the United States refuse to work on the Sabbath? Or have the religious half of the population conformed to modern day capitalism?
    5.Honor your father and your mother.
    6.You shall not murder. I find this commandment very difficult to discuss with those who are religious. I’d like to first discuss the idea of people being killed in the name of Nation. Is killing in war acceptable in the opinions of the religious? Also I would like to discuss capital punishment. Is it acceptable for the citizens of a country to kill those who have committed crimes? If it is acceptable to kill criminals; what crimes did God determine are punishable by death. Are Christians in pacifist? There isn’t a provision in this commandment of defense or territorial expansion.
    7.You shall not commit adultery. Modern day promiscuousness is portrayed in modern abundantly in modern media of all forms. This glorification of promiscuousness is found in: music, television, or literature. I’m wondering does engaging in the participation of said media acceptable?
    8.You shall not steal. I think most people condone stealing regardless of religion. But we have allowed stealing for modern society to function. Stealing land from indigenous peoples’ for manifest destiny. For the expansion of corporations if they can better use property. Companies over billing and over charging.
    9.You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. To what degree do we not allow rumors to be spread. What is the severity of the rumor to be allowed? What type of evidence is needed in order to discuss a purposed claim? I’ve heard rumors being spread in work places that I’ve worked, and in school. I wonder is a part of “not bearing false witness”, being able to stop people from discussing rumors?
    10.You shall not covet. Modern day capitalism is about coveting. Why are the Super Bowl commercials so expensive? Because of the revenue generated from the commercials. Capitalism is about the power of the dollar, which does state “in God we trust”! Ironic how the object of purchasing power, states “in God we trust”. Most employment in modern day is retail or derived from retail.
    I do like how the author identified that religious dogma can be interpreted numerous ways. Is this to increase the population size of religious organizations? I would find it very difficult in modern times to follow such doctrine that contradicts modern society. But in the end, most of these dogmatic ideas, many atheist believe in as well. The caveat is that many religious have additional philosophical beliefs.
    11. Thou shall not rape
    12. Thou shall not Mutilate the genitalia of others
    13. Thou shall help those with medical conditions
    those are to list just a few, that should be inclusive in any dogma regardless of religion.



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