Belief in Angry God Keeps Students From Cheating

New research shows that those who believe in a loving and merciful God are more prone to cheat than those who believe in a punishing God.

According to research done by psychologist Azim F. Shariff from the University of Oregon and Ara Norenzayan from the University of British Columbia, belief in a forgiving God will not stop undergraduate students from cheating on exams.

"Taken together, our findings demonstrate, at least in some preliminary way, that religious beliefs do have an effect on moral behavior, but what matters more than whether you believe in a god is what kind of god you believe in," Shariff said.

“What we found is that those people who see God as a more punitive, angry, vengeful God, they tend to – in a laboratory-based cheating measure – they cheat a lot less, whereas people who believe in God as a comforting, loving agent, forgiving agent seem to cheat more.”

In a paper published in the quarterly International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, the psychologists described the experiments they conducted where students were told during a mathematics test that a software glitch disclosed the answer unless they pressed the space bar button almost as soon as they saw the question.

According to the results in two experiments, there were no cheating differences between believers and non-believers, but there was a notable difference among students who believed in an angry and punitive God.

Commenting on the findings, Shariff said that beliefs don’t normally influence student’s morality.

He stated, "According to the psychological literature, people who believe in God don't appear to act any more morally than people who don't believe in God.”

“We wanted to look deeper at particular beliefs. One idea is the supernatural punishment hypothesis: Punishing counter-normative behavior – immoral behavior – has been an important part of living in societies. Societies don't get far without regulating moral behavior," he added.

The results are only preliminary, and Shariff said they do not show how the different views on God influence other moral behaviors such as generosity.

Shariff highlighted that history plays a role in the findings. He explained that religions were created to fill a gap between the lack of laws in a society and the need for organized moral behaviors.

“The idea that gods used to be more authoritarian vengeful agents is consistent with the idea that … the initial role of religions was to foster moral behavior which made cohesive cooperative societies in a time where there were no secular laws, policing systems,” he noted. “And so the idea of having moral systems and moral regulations outsourced to a punitive agent was a very effective thing in religious societies.”