Does being religious make us behave more morally has long been debated. Of interest to psychologists and philosophers, according to one scholar it really can’t be reduced to a simple yes or no. In fact, his theory is that it is not so much a question of believing as it is a matter of doing.

Church prayer

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In an April 20 oped in The Wall Street Journal, David DeSteno, a psychologist at Northeastern University, argues that among most of the world’s religions the idea of what it means to be religious doesn’t just revolve around belief or a creed.

Rather, “rituals and practices that permeate daily life” characterize religion, DeSteno writes: “When we pray and sing together, listen to readings from scripture, or give offerings and blessings of thanks to God, our minds and bodies aren’t passive. They’re subtly being nudged toward virtue.”

Charity, says DeSteno, is a useful illustration of this phenomenon. An extensive 2017 study by the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University showed that while 62 percent of households in the U.S. that were religiously active gave to charity—donating an average of $1,590—only 46 percent of nonreligious households engaged in charity, their donations averaging $695.

In fact, increased attendance at religious services is correlated with greater generosity. DeSteno cites a 2010 Harvard Business School study of the so-called “Sunday effect” in which researchers found that when people attend a religious service, they donate more to secular charities when asked.

The author cites a 2019 study published in the journal Religion, Brain and Behavior, which found that despite their belief in the supernatural, God included, respondents were still likely to cheat on a task but that prayer diminished this tendency.

“Without doubt, some of this better behavior comes from simple reminders of God,” writes DeSteno, who is the author of the 2021 book, How God Works: The Science Behind the Benefits of Religion, and the host of a podcast of the same name.

“Like a string tied around your finger, prayer and worship practices make it difficult to forget that God is watching,” DeSteno adds. “But these practices work in another way, too: Besides changing what we’re thinking about, they also change what we’re feeling.”

This is where the collective practice of religion helps: When individuals run into a moment of temptation, the belief that God is watching them is harder to ignore because that is something they have frequently been reminded of during prayers and rituals.

“That’s why people who believe in God often work harder to resist temptation the more they practice their faith,” DeSteno writes. “This kind of religious influence isn’t easy to replicate in a secular context, since no parent or other authority figure is as all-knowing as God.”