How Does Religion Influence Our Behavior?

A friend once told me he and his business partner refused to do business with extremely religious folks on the grounds too many of them were irrational when it came to interpreting the contract. “They don’t think straight”, was the way he put it.

He then told me of a real estate deal the two of them had cut with a Texas man.  Unfortunately, the man went bankrupt before he could pay up, so his debts were rescheduled.  My friend and his partner resigned themselves to getting paid very late.  But it was then the Texas man found God and was born again.

When my friend and his partner contacted the man, they found him filled with the spirit of the Lord and absolutely convinced the Lord did not want him to pay off his debts.  “The Lord wants me to put the past behind and get on with my new life”, the man said, “He has given me a second chance.  Hallelujah!”

I suspect many people, religious or not, behave irrationally when under extreme stress — such as the stress brought on by bankruptcy.  Yet, in the case of the Texas man, it almost seems his religion encouraged an irrational response.  I’ve been wondering about that this morning — along with some related questions.

To what extent — or in what ways, if any — do religions influence our behavior?

I think that question is surprisingly difficult to answer.  Of course, we routinely teach children the answer is straight-forward and clear cut.  That is, we tell our children they must learn our religions in order to become better people, which implies religions are quite influential.

Children buy that version of things because they are, after all, children.  However, by the time we become adults, many of us recognize religions are not always that influential in shaping behavior — even when someone says he or she has been hugely influenced by their religion.  As a practical matter, an adult who wants to accurately predict the behavior of an eighteen year old boy with his sixteen year old daughter had best take into heavy account many factors other than the boy’s professed religion.  A landlord is much better off checking up on the rental history of his prospective tenants than checking out which religion they belong to.  And many a woman who has married a religious man thinking that guarantees she won’t be abused by him has learned the hard way her husband’s religiosity guarantees nothing of the sort.

Most of us, by the time we become adults, have figured out thousands of clues for predicting what someone will do in a given set of circumstances.  Most of those clues have little or nothing to do with a person’s religion.

Yet, there are still some of us who, for one reason or another, never seem to catch on.  A friend of mine belongs to a small, non-denominational church run by a pastor who believes a conversion to Christianity cures any kind of criminal disposition.  Consequently, he has convinced several of his congregation, including my friend, to do such things as invite just-released-from-prison pedophiles to family suppers where small children are present.  In my opinion, both the pastor and my friend are foolish to think a conversion to Christianity, no matter how sincere, is adequate insurance a convicted pedophile will not molest one’s children.  The myth that religion is always the trump card — is always the most crucial factor — in someone’s behavior is still alive in many naive minds.

While religion can occasionally be thought of as the crucial factor, religion usually seems to be just one factor among many in determining how an individual will behave.  I think that’s very well illustrated by the life and actions of Mohammad Atta.  It’s often said religion was extremely influential in Atta’s decision to fly a plane into a tower of the Word Trade Center on 9/11.  Yet his personality, for instance, was probably far more important than his religion in motivating him.

Atta was an intensely introverted and closed minded person who, from and early age, retreated socially.  He grew up in a well educated but reclusive family headed by a father described as “austere, strict, and private”.  It seems probable most people would describe Atta as severely lacking in social skills or, very likely, anti-social.  For instance:

Atta lived in an apartment at Centrumshaus in Harburg, from 1993 to 1998. During that time, he had two roommates who in the end were “so aggravated” with Atta, who almost never cleaned, seldom washed dishes, and such behavior. Atta would walk in and out of a room “without acknowledging anyone else in it”. His roommates described Atta’s personality as “complete, almost aggressive insularity”.

As one might expect of such a person, he had no love affairs worth speaking of.  Although Atta was very religious, his personality probably shaped how he understood his religion more than his religion shaped his personality.  Thus, I think it’s fair to say his personality was most likely a greater factor in his murderous crime than his religious beliefs.

I have not tried to argue in this post that religion has no influence on our behavior.  Instead, I have merely expressed my hunch that religion is seldom a crucial factor in our behavior –even for very religious people — when compared to a great many other more frequent factors.  So, for instance, I suspect the Texas man who went bankrupt, found God, and then wouldn’t pay his debts was either weak-minded, or something of a con artist, but at any rate unreliable to begin with.  And that Mohammad Atta was probably more inclined  to murder by his personality than by his religion.  Yet, I am certain the issue of how and to what extent religion influences us is far more complex than I’ve been able to lay out here.

Perhaps it is even true there is no general rule for all people and we must instead examine the question on a case by case basis.  But what do you think?

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Recommended:  Do Religions Teach Morals?

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14 Comments

Filed under Abrahamic Faiths, Islam, Judeo-Christian Tradition, Religion, Values

14 responses to “How Does Religion Influence Our Behavior?

  1. But then religion acts somewhat as an enabler either by giving meaning to actions or by taking advantage of personalities and weak minds.

  2. I have been wrestling with this for a long time; religion serves a social purpose as an external marker of legitimacy, of good intentions, of trustworthiness. Of Truthiness. But does it correlate to any of those things at all? Or is that a common social fiction?

    It’s an important question because people are desperate for reliable external markers of character. But my best guess on reality is that there aren’t any.

  3. Faisal

    That’s a very smart way of putting it. I think many things in this life are relative and we usually fail to see that and rush into blind judging of others just because we want to finish it up, nothing more and nothing less.

  4. Faisal

    I also believe that people might change their behavior once they start to believe in a certain religion or a certain belief, not because of that belief, but because they wanted something to be the trigger of change which they were ready for long time before even thinking to adopt that particular religion.

  5. In addition to SG’s very good essay, there are some interesting comments on this subject and post here.

  6. @ Webs: I agree! I think that religion is a great enabler. Some people it enables to do ill. Some people it enables to do good. It seems pretty much up to the individual whether they use religion to enable them to do good or to do ill.

    @ DOF: Unfortunately, I agree with you there seem to be no reliable external markers of character. It therefore seems a bit puzzling to me that so many people do indeed believe religion is a reliable marker.

    @ Faisal: Your observation that many people change behavior when they adopt a religion — not because of the religion per se — but because of they were looking to change anyway — that strikes me as a deeply insightful observation. Thank you for that!

    @ SG: I think the notion that confirmation bias has a lot to do with how we interpret our religion is a very profound insight indeed! Thanks for blogging about that!

  7. Do you think it’s “religion”? I don’t. I think it’s faith. I think when one accepts faith as a way of knowing and understanding the world, the door is open for blatant dishonesty to be condoned as not only essential to the human experience, but ethical as well. That’s a huge problem when one grants one’s own autonomy and self-interest to one he/she thinks is the monitor of thoughts. I mean, if these people can be convinced that if they believe something “hard enough” with no evidence, then it’s automatically true, well then, what’s stopping them from taking whatever anyone else says on faith alone?

    Or, I don’t know, maybe faith and religion are isolated elements. Maybe a god existing “makes sense,” but they rationally know no one can sell them the Brooklyn Bridge. But when reason ends, myth begins. I guess it just depends on where the person allows reason to end.

  8. @Paul – My comment on a different article really belonged her. Thanks for your response to my page and starting the discussion.

    @Kelly – Faith is such a complicated issue. I think the religion and faith tend to interconnect though I know many people who go through the habits of religion without a real faith in their God whereas there are many people who are full of faith without practicing any religion.

  9. Hi Kelly! Welcome to the blog! :)

    I think faith might be one of the mechanisms whereby religion influences behavior.

    @ SG: You’re welcome!

  10. Chris

    It’s certainly extremely complicated to say why anyone does anything. So what DO we know? Well, it’s safe to say religiosity isn’t a positive sign of rationality. Yet many religious people are otherwise quite rational, e.g. Sir Isaac Newton. So, as a 1st approximation, it’s irrelevant.

    Also it’s been experimentally established that it doesn’t correlate with ethical behavior. (At least as early as Milgram’s Obedience To Authority, 1963.)

    A useful analogy seems therefore to be to, say, extreme sports fan behavior. It’s not uncommon, it can be ritualistic, it’s hard for outsiders to understand, it varies in intensity across cultures, but is seen relatively consistently through the millennia, from chariot racing to football, and it has nothing to do with ethics or reason. The only big difference is we find that last part surprising.

  11. I had the pleasure of using your entry to help me write a nine page paper for my college English class. Thank you very much.

  12. Musoke Andrew

    The teaching of life after death helps to uphold correct behaviour in society several religions teach that the way we live determine our lives here on earth after death. In this case of the christian teaching, it means will either be in heaven or hell.

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