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Yesterday I was discussing with a colleague the role religion has in guiding moral behavior among individuals and groups. Is it possible to demonstrate empirically that religion lowers rates of crime and anti-social behavior? My thought was that the question is too broad, that the more interesting and precise question is: What kind of religion has proven effective in lowering rates of crime and anti-social behavior? There are all kinds of religions, dogmatically speaking, and variations on how these religions are practiced, and how lightly or tightly they are held. What’s more, there are cultural variables at work. Will Catholicism in Ireland have a different affect on the population’s behavior from Catholicism in Uganda? What accounts for those differences?
We see in this example evidence that religion itself is no guarantee of moral behavior — after all, whatever one’s religious identification, Brazilians are religious people — but the particularities of the religion make the difference. Is the religion more emotionally comforting, or more morally prescriptive? This matters.
This came to mind this morning when I was listening to a fascinating NPR report on the drive to work. Check it out here. In brief, the piece talks about scientific evidence that the rational part of our brains can only juggle so many demands at a time; when we ask too much of it, the emotional part of our brains kicks in, and guides our decision-making. This makes sense, actually: when you’re too confused, tired or mentally overburdened to reason your way through a problem, you go with your gut.
Wall Street Journal reporter Jonah Lehrer, who is quoted in the NPR piece, explored these themes in a longer story about neurology and free will late last year. Excerpt:
Research by Walter Mischel at Columbia University and others has demonstrated that people who are better at delaying gratification don’t necessarily have more restraint. Instead, they seem to be better at finding ways to get tempting thoughts out of their minds.
For instance, Prof. Mischel has found that four-year-old children who are better at resisting the allure of eating a marshmal low–they get a second marshmallow if they can wait for 20 minutes–are the ones who sing songs, play with their shoelaces or pretend the marshmallow is a cloud. In other words, they’re able to temporarily clear the temptation out of consciousness. (Prof. Mischel has also shown that these “high delayers” go on to get higher SAT scores and have lower body-mass indexes as adults.) Because they know that willpower is weak, they excel at controlling the spotlight of attention: When faced with candy, they stare at the carrots.
While this willpower research can get dispiriting–the mind is a bounded machine, defined by its frailties–it also illustrates some potential remedies. Prof. Baumeister figured that it might be possible to strengthen willpower by exercising it, and in 1999, he asked a group of students to improve their posture for two weeks. Interestingly, these students showed a marked improvement on subsequent measures of self-control, at least when compared to a group that didn’t work on sitting up and standing straight.
The lesson is that the prefrontal cortex can be bulked up, and that practicing mental discipline in one area, such as posture, can also make it easier to resist Christmas cookies.
All this has interesting implications for reason, religion and moral behavior. This latter finding offers scientific validation for the Orthodox Christian tradition of frequent fasts as a way to build self-control (N.B., in Orthodoxy, a goal of the moral life is to overcome the passions — not, to be clear, to live in total denial of the passions, but to gain control over them, lest they control you). Lehrer indicates that whatever one believes about the life of the spirit, to practice routine self-denial amounts to an exercise in increasing one’s neurological faculties of self-control.
The former finding — that the emotional brain kicks in to guide behavior when the rational brain is overwhelmed — tells us something important about religion, especially in an age of torrential information. Religion that engages the emotions, and trains them to react in particular ways, will be more likely to get better behavior out of its adherents than a religion lightly held, and that makes fewer demands on those who profess it. It’s an obvious point, I suppose, but there appears to be scientific data showing that people whose religious faith trains their emotions to respond and conform to a particular behavioral code will be more successful at convincing people to live out its moral teachings than a religion that remains mostly analytical/cerebral, or that doesn’t bury itself deeply in the “heart” (= a metaphor for the emotional part of the brain).
Given that we live in a world in which the conscious brain is overwhelmed by information and stimuli as like never before, forming the emotional brain to give the morally correct response to problems presented it is perhaps more important than ever for parents and religious educators. This information also suggests strongly that reason, while important to moral behavior, is not nearly as important as emotional instinct.