Monday, February 13, 2012

Is Religion Still an Effective Control for Human Behavior?

I originally wrote this paper for my Philosophy-200 class. The views expressed are my own.

Among the most persistent charges hurled at religion is that it primarily exists as a means for a small group of philosophical oligarchs to control great masses of other people. Atheist writer Austin Cline (2005) states, “It has been argued that one of the reasons for the existence of religion is that it's an effective means for society's powerful to control everyone else.” Religious belief, however, has long served as an effective means of behavioral self-constraint for individuals, providing a ready-made, usable moral philosophy for the non-philosopher to use in his daily life. From the relentless assault on abortion rights from Christian conservatives to the practice of Sharia law even in Western Islamic enclaves, it would seem that religious control of the individual is alive and well. Nevertheless, while large-scale religious control both of adherents and of non-adherents may still be of major cultural, legal and interpersonal importance, the capacity for religion to regulate individual behavior and self-control appears to be waning, and this loss of influence is detrimental to society.

Is religion still relevant? Is its ability to control the masses on the rise, or on the wane? Has our modern world of technology, science, and myriad media role models dampened the influence that organized religion and personal faith hold over our society?

To the atheist, the waning of religion as a dominant cultural, social, and governmental influence would be a welcome development. They assert that religion primarily exists as a means of controlling others, citing as evidence both ancient and modern history from the Crusades and the Inquisition to modern Islamic fundamentalism.  They may believe, as does Austin Cline, that the attempt among the religious to control the lives, beliefs and behavior of unwilling others “…seems to be increasing.” (Cline, 2005) To the worried atheist, the American Religious Right is a group of irrational, superstitious yokels who want to institute a theocracy designed to deprive atheists, agnostics, and those of other belief systems of their civil rights.

These fears are not baseless; large-scale intervention in politics and reproductive rights by the Religious Right has been on the rise for more than 30 years.  Pastors of conservative churches, as well as the Roman Catholic Church, urge their congregations to go out and vote for candidates based on their positions on abortion, the death penalty, contraception, stem cell research, and gay rights. Republican-Party candidates tailor their messages to court the support of these religious and social conservatives, attacking other officials and office-seekers considered too “liberal” for those audiences. Elections have been won and lost based on candidates’ appeal to religious groups, and those decisions in turn affect such things as judicial appointments (including the composition of the Supreme Court) and lawmakers’ support for the Religious Right’s agenda with regard to pending legislation. To the secular segment of American society, such influence seems undue, disproportionate, and even frightening.

            If one asks the Religious Right, however, they might say that society is out of control, having lost the moral compass that religious faith once provided.  Peer-reviewed psychological studies have found that religion is a means of self-control for individuals.  Michael McCullough and Brian Willoughby (2009) quote one such study as stating, “…The researchers found that parents who frequently attended church and who frequently discussed religion in the home rated their children as having higher self-control and lower impulsiveness.”  McCullough and Willoughby examined the mechanisms by which religion and self-control affect one another, opening their own study’s report with the statement, “Many of the links of religiousness with health, well-being, and social behavior may be due to religion’s influences on self-control or self-regulation.” (McCullough and Willoughby, 2009)  

McCullough and Willoughby determined that religion influenced both self-regulation and self-control behavior in subjects. They quoted researchers Baumeister and Vohs as defining self-regulation as, “how a person exerts control over his or her own responses so as to pursue goals or live up to standards.”  Regarding self-control, McCullough and Willoughby stated, “We reserve the term self-control for situations in which people engage in behaviors designed to counteract or override a prepotent response (e.g., a behavioral tendency, an emotion, or a motivation),” giving examples such as overcoming the urge to hit someone who has given one offense. (Ibid.)

McCullough and Willoughby state that prior evidence demonstrates that religion and self-control interact with each other in the following ways:

First, personality research shows that people with higher scores on measures of self-control and personality dimensions that subsume self-control also tend to be more religious. Second, family research shows that religious parents and families have children with high self-control and low impulsiveness. Third, several longitudinal studies shed light on the causal relations between religiousness and personality variables that subsume self-control. Fourth, a single published experiment suggests that religious cognition is automatically activated as a form of self-control in the face of temptation.” (Ibid.)

The authors concluded that religion influenced self-control by regulating goal choice and formation and the selection of principles, as governed by peer pressure, by principles learned under religious auspices, by the sanctification of goals involving greater self-control, and by influencing how goals are internalized. Religion, they stated, also promotes self-monitoring, a key element of self-control, via peer pressure, the fear factor (the fear of going to Hell, for example), ethical instruction, and reinforcement through rituals which activate self-monitoring. (McCullough and Willoughby, 2009)

             In spite of organized religion’s influence on American culture and government, some still believe that Americans have lost their moral compass and spun out of control.  “As a society, we are out of control,” complained Yvette Dombrowski (2011), continuing that America’s “…capitalistic me-first attitudes have made us the laughing stock of the entire world.” 

        According to the Washington Post, church attendance is down nationwide, and congregations are growing older. (Banks, 2011) As a result, the boons to individual self-control offered by organized religion have given way to impulsive behavior affecting workplace ethics, sexual activity, and interpersonal relationships.  Peer pressure against unethical or immoral activity often gives way now to peer pressure in favor of such activities. Among the young, athletes, musicians, actors, and other celebrities have replaced parents and spiritual leaders as role models. In the 1990s, the Gallup survey of Most Admired persons often featured religious figures such as Mother Teresa, Pope John Paul II, and evangelist the Rev. Billy Graham. (, 1996-2011) More recently, role models have more likely been Presidents and First Ladies, or celebrities like Oprah Winfrey. (Ibid.)  A survey by the Pew Forum (2010) showed that young people are less religious and less are religiously active than older Americans.

            How does this waning of religion’s influence among the young affect society as a whole? It removes the beneficial effects of religion on the hearts, minds and characters of young people, forcing them to substitute other models for ethical behavior and moral philosophy.  Schools may provide some moral and ethical teaching, while parental teaching and example solidifies the individual’s view of the world and of his place in it. If those institutions are lacking in moral philosophy lessons for the young, those youngsters may find themselves turning to peers and to such unreliable sources for ethical training as television, film, music, sports, and celebrity culture. A teen might learn through team sports, for example, that loyalty, hard work and fair play are positive ethics to hold in modern society. A child might learn the basic moral lessons taught via certain early childhood-targeted television programs. Joining the military might expose a young man or woman to virtues such as patriotism and duty. Still, the acquisition of moral philosophy would be piecemeal and sporadic, and that philosophy would not contain the explicit and systematic ethical code offered by organized religion. 

            “But,” the atheist might reason, “Religion is for ignorant bumpkins!”  Religion, however, even if false, can have benefits to society. In fact, the actual existence of God has very little bearing on whether religious observance and the societal and self-control that accompanies it has a positive effect on the world around us. When faced with the question, “Is Christianity good for the World?” posed in a debate between the late atheist author Christopher Hitchens and theologian Douglas Wilson, Russell Powell made the following point:

“Posed as a disjunction, the question assumes (and by inference, these opposing authors assume) that religion cannot be both absurd, in the colloquial sense of illogical or laughably false, and good for the world, in the sense of furthering what humans rightly value.” (Powell, 2009)

Nonetheless, the atheist line of thinking continues, for any good that religions have done in the world, they have done much more evil. The late Cornell astronomer and media personality Carl Sagan once said, “In Italy, the Inquisition was condemning people to death until the end of the eighteenth century, and inquisitional torture was not abolished in the Catholic Church until 1816. The last bastion of support for the reality of witchcraft and the necessity of punishment has been the Christian churches.” (Sagan, 1995)

Religion may have produced positive effects over the course of human existence, but it also has a great deal to answer for. The non-believer may see the controlling aspects of religion only in a negative light, because his frame of reference is only the application of human brutality to faiths presumably conceived by golden-rule-teaching pacifists. That inherent conflict is viewed by many is hypocrisy; however, an adherent to the religion in question would defend it on the ground that while those who oppressed others did so in the name of their faith, they were not necessarily practicing their faith while doing so. As the Rev. Bob Eckherd writes, “…we can see even more clearly that a religious belief is poorly defined by selecting as a sample the extreme and vocal minority who least understand or practice the central instruction within its primary texts.” (Eckherd, 2011)

According to Scott Schieman (2010), socioeconomic status is associated negatively with a belief in divine control over the world and human affairs. Schieman writes:

“Individuals who sustain a belief in divine control perceive that God has a determinative influence on the good and bad outcomes in their lives, that God has decided what their life shall be, and that their fate evolves according to God's will or plan for them (Schieman et al. 2005). Moreover, they tend to rely on God in their decision-making and more fervently seek His guidance for solutions to problems.” (Ibid.)

According to Schieman’s study, the higher one’s socioeconomic status, the lower one’s belief in an all-powerful God who directs human affairs, with whom one may have a personal relationship, and to whom one must answer for his behavior. (Ibid.)  For this reason, religious governance of moral philosophy and ethical behavior exists more prominently among poor and less-educated Americans, while those lacking the ethical directives and self-control provided by religion are more likely to be among the better-educated and wealthier classes of society who are more likely, through economic advantage, to seek higher education and to assume leadership roles in society.

Moreover, the combination of low socioeconomic status, poor educational opportunities, and lack of critical-thinking training and skill may lead those in that socioeconomic stratum to place excessive trust in the teachings and preaching of their religious leaders. This, in turn, plays into the hands of those who dismiss the role of religious belief in determining ethical behavior patterns by providing a negative stereotype of religious believers against which those of higher socioeconomic status might wish to define themselves. In other words, to the educated, well-to-do person, religious self-regulation and self-control become undesirable qualities, for the “great unwashed” rather than for the educated person in a position of authority and leadership. If those educated persons are of different faith traditions or are agnostics/atheists, that “us vs. them” mentality may become quite angry and brutal, with those perceived as the enemy demonized, and all that they represent – including faith-based self-governance – rejected and despised.

In such a climate, those who are demonized may in turn demonize their demonizers, as many in the Bible Belt appear to do toward the Northeastern US elite.  The rise of religious conservative assertiveness in the 1970s and 1980s was a reaction to the vast social changes which took place in the 1960s and early 1970s. Whenever change happens at a faster rate than some elements of society can tolerate, there is an inevitable backlash. The 1960s and 1970s brought the (religious-leader-driven) Civil Rights Movement, tremendous technological advancement, and sea-changes in the way American society dressed, spoke, and behaved. Great, charismatic leaders rose, became popular, and were assassinated. The era brought the Sexual Revolution (driven by the introduction of the birth control pill and the relaxation of social mores), advances in civil rights for minorities and women, legalized abortion, and increasingly visible ethnic and religious diversity in the culture. It also brought with it a spasm of reactionary fear from the former dominant culture, which had only recently come out of a period of unchallenged hegemony and prosperity and which seemed shocked to see it all end. This backlash from the white, Anglo-Saxon, Christian social conservative community gave rise to the era of Ronald Reagan, the Religious Right, and to all that have followed in their wake.

Both religious conservatives in the red states and agnostic liberals in the blue behave as if they are under siege. In fact, they are reacting and counter-reacting to the waning of religion’s influence on modern American society. The Western World’s vast scientific and technical knowledge has made blind acceptance of religious teaching difficult for many well-educated Americans. Rather than providing a tool for understanding the Universe, the great religions’ texts now come across to some as simple myths and fairy tales, hardly a basis for a personal ethnical philosophy. Church attendance and religious participation among the young are in decline. In response to this waning of religious influence over the population as a whole, some desire to boost religion’s influence through lobbying legislators and political speechifying from the pulpit. When gains for the religious conservatives become visible, secular liberals recoil in outspoken revulsion and terror. Each side is absolutely convinced it is the victim, yet both factions are attempting to control and to stifle the efforts of the other. Nonetheless, neither side is fundamentally correct in its assumptions, either about the other, or about the role of religion in society as a whole.

Religious practice is both filled with benefits and fraught with peril. It provides hope for life after death, a belief in a benevolent, caretaker God, social interaction and fellowship, and support for the needy and ill. Perhaps most beneficial to society, religion provides a set of rules for social and personal conduct which are agreed-to and obeyed by the majority of a religious community. For believers, religion provides a moral compass and an easily-accessible code of ethics.

Some, however, may find such rules stifling, controlling and intolerant, and may rebel, rejecting the teaching of their parents as something diabolical and designed to squash their emergence as fully-formed, adult human beings. Some may also rebel against the social constructs which may accompany the formation of religious communities. Most rebels against religion seem to become atheists or agnostics, rather than converting to a different system of religious belief. The negative psychological impact of religious practice on some inevitably leads those individuals to suspicion and reaction against religious control – or even religious self-control. And certainly, there are elements within the world’s religions which seek to control and oppress others, particularly women. It is easy to see why some might want to choose a different path other than the one directed by faith and by the instruction of deities.

As the individual decision to choose religion as a source of one’s moral compass and ethics has declined, the efforts of religious conservatives to force Christian belief and practice on those individuals have risen. Religious belief has many benefits, but the choice to believe or disbelieve must be left up to the individual. Religious practice forced upon the unwilling generates animosity and rejection of even the positive effects of religion. Society would benefit from a retreat from influence by large, organized religious conservative movements, accompanied by the return to faith of the individual, with religious diversity fully accepted and celebrated. Such a society of openness and tolerance would remove the incentive for those of other belief systems to attack, while it would welcome them into the great community of searchers for truth and wisdom.

 In such a climate, individual, faith-based self-governance could flourish, and we would be a better, more functional society as a result. Religion, properly utilized, is neither the enemy of rational thought nor a simple set of superstitions and myths which should be stamped out. Unfortunately, abuse of religion (and particularly of Christianity) and unjust bids at controlling others on the part of America’s conservative religious have placed them and their faith at bitter, enraged odds with those who do not share their beliefs. This, in turn, has caused a backlash against religion, accelerated by our society’s growing scientific knowledge base, sending religious practice in America into a tailspin of disuse. The case for religious control - particularly religious self-control - is compelling. Reversing its trend of decline may prove critical to America’s future well-being as a nation. 


Banks, A. (2011) “Church Attendance Down, Congregations Getting Older, Report Says,” Washington Post. September 30, 2011. Retrieved from on December 5, 2011.

Cline, A. (2005) “Using Religion to Control Others,” Atheism, April 11, 2005. Retrieved from on December 5, 2011.

Dombrowski, Y. (2011) “As a Society, We Are Out of Control,” Morning Sentinel. December 3, 2011. Retrieved from on December 5, 2011.

Eckherd, B. (2011) “Is Religion Bad for Society?” Philosophy Now. November/December 2011. Retrieved from on December 19, 2011. (1996-2011) “Most Admired Person (poll),” Retrieved from on December 19, 2011.

Mosser, K. (2010) A Concise Introduction to Philosophy. San Diego: Bridgepoint Education, Inc.

McCullough, M. and Willoughby, E. (2009) “Religion, Self-Regulation, and Self-Control: Associations, Explanations, and Implications,” Psychological Bulletin. 135(1): pp. 69-93. Retrieved from on December 5, 2011.

Pew Forum (2010). “Poll: Religion Among Millennials,” The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. February 17, 2010. Retrieved from on December 5, 2011.

Powell, R. (2009) “Is Religion Good or Bad for Society?” Oxford University Practical Ethics. November 12, 2009. Retrieved from on December 19, 2011.

Sagan, C. (1995) The Demon-Haunted World. New York: Random House. Retrieved from on December 19, 2011.

Schieman, S. (2010) “Socioeconomic Status and Beliefs About God’s Influence in Daily Life,” Sociology of Religion,  71(1):  25-51. February 10, 2010. Retrieved from on December 5, 2011.

No comments:

Post a Comment