A new study on the link between one's view of God and willingness to cheat on a test is the latest example of social scientists wading into the highly charged field of religion and morality.
The study, titled "Mean Gods Make Good People: Different Views of God Predict Cheating Behavior" was peer reviewed and published earlier this month in the International Journal for the Psychology of Religion.
In line with many previous studies, it found no difference between the ethical behavior of believers and nonbelievers. But those who believed in a loving, compassionate God were more likely to cheat than those who believed in an angry, punitive God.
"The take-home message is not whether you believe in God, but what God you believe in," said Azim Shariff, a psychologist at the University of Oregon. Shariff conducted the study with psychologist Ara Norenzayan, who had been his doctoral advisor at the University of British Columbia.
They administered a math test to 100 undergraduates, advising the students that a computer glitch meant the correct answers would pop up after a few seconds unless they quickly pressed the space bar. The test takers also answered a 14-question survey to determine whether they believed in God, and if so, what traits they ascribed to God.
The experiment was done in two parts, on two different groups, to correct for the suggestive, or "priming," influence that taking the survey could have on behavior. Shariff said they also corrected for ethnicity, religious affiliation, and personality traits that could skew the results.
In 2008, Shariff and Norenzayan published an experiment in Science magazine showing that when people were "unconsciously primed" toward religious belief they were more likely to be generous to strangers, suggesting that religion can be a motivator in cooperative behavior.
"We received hate mail from both atheists and from religious people," Shariff said of that study. It came out soon after several books defending atheism had made the bestseller list, including Sam Harris' "The End of Faith" (2004), Richard Dawkins' "The God Delusion" (2006) and Christopher Hitchens' "God is Not Great" (2007).
Shariff believes there has been a recent upsurge in academic research into religion-related behavior, particularly since 9/11 and in light of the evolution-versus-creationism conflicts.
"It is important to add science to these debates. It provides a powerful tool to study what is a powerful force in the world," Shariff said. "It is only now that it has become a really sexy topic. Psychology is at its best when it studies the things that people are passionate about."
For example, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Policy was launched in 2001 to address the need for more research into religion's effects on society. And Baylor University, a private Baptist school in Waco, Texas, now has six professors specializing in the sociology of religion and a PhD program in that field.
A 2010 book by Baylor sociologists Paul Froese and Christopher Bader, "America's Four Gods — What We Say About God and What That Says About Us," examines diverse concepts of God and how those affect our worldview. The book was based on a 2005 survey of 1,721 people, a 2007 survey of 1,648 others and in-depth interviews with more than 100 additional participants.
The authors found that 95% of Americans believe in God, but conceive of that higher being in very different ways. About 28% believe in an "authoritative" God who is engaged in the world and judgmental, and about 22% in an engaged but "benevolent" God who loves us despite our failings. Two other groups of believers view the deity as more abstract and less engaged: About 21% conceive of a "critical" God who keeps track of our sins and may render judgment in the afterlife, and about 24% see a "distant" God who set the universe in motion but is not involved in day-to-day life.
Froese said Shariff and Norenzayan's results fit with his own findings. "More wrathful images of God are related to moral absolutism, while people with benevolent, loving images of God tend to be moral relativists," he said.
But he cautioned that morality itself is a "loaded" term, so sociologists prefer to use "behavioral norms." Cheating may not be viewed as bad in certain groups, he said. Even the word "God" on a survey would conjure a different image for different people.
"There aren't that many people who don't believe in God," Froese says. "But there is a big difference between the big bang theory and a guy with a white beard sending down thunderbolts."
The sociologist said that between the 1950s and 1990s, researchers believed religion was dying out, and lost interest in the topic. But that has changed.
He supports Shariff's position that there is room for more impartial academic inquiry into religion and behavior.
"The challenge in this enterprise is to remain dispassionate," Shariff said. "It's very important not to have a stake in it, not to have a horse in the race. We are not trying to portray [religion] as positive or negative but trying to put out the most accurate information available."