Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Scientific Survey: Religion Gives Self Control?

Does religion give believers more self control? That's what the authors of a scientific survey conclude, based on a survey of 30 years of scientific articles. According to John Tierney's blog on the New York Times, Michael McCullough and Brian Willoughby (University of Miami) surveyed 80 years of scientific literature and found that, "... devoutly religious people tend to do better in school, live longer, have more satisfying marriages and be generally happier."

Tierney then goes on to challenge his readers: Are McCullough and Willoughby right, or have they overlooked something? I posted an answer, but there are rather a lot of respondents so I'll repeat it here for the record:
The answer to Q3 is simple: People in ANY situation have more self control if they think someone is watching them. You can see this over and over in sociological studies. My favorite example is hand washing in a public restroom: Most people will wash if someone else is in the restroom, but will skip it if they think they are alone.

Since all of the Abrahamic religions promote the idea that God is watching ... all the time ... it is hardly a surprise that Christians, Jews and Muslims exercise more self control than Atheists and Agnostics. It has nothing to do with religion specifically; Orwell's "Big Brother" might be just as effective.

Note that I say "exercise more self control" rather than "have more self control." I'd be willing to bet that if you could create a situation where all of the test subjects thought a human was observing them, the apparent differences in self control would disappear. In fact, it wouldn't surprise me if the Atheists could exercise MORE self control, since they've had to learn to self control based on their own internal moral compass, not because the mythical, magical man in the sky is watching.
If you have any thoughts on this, I encourage you to go to Tierney's blog and add a reply. The first few dozen respondents were mostly non-religious and quite insightful, but then Christians took over for a while. I suspect a Christian blogger got hold of the article and sent his/her readers over to Tierney to add their voices to the debate.


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  3. As they say, ignorance is bliss.


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