Psychologists in a new study suggest that moral judgments operate independently of religious background.
And by this, they conclude that religion is a by-product of evolved, non-religious, cognitive functions.
Contributing to the ongoing debate over the origins and evolution of religion, Dr. Ilkka Pyysiainen of Finland's University of Helsinki and Dr. Marc Hauser of Harvard University evaluated existing theories by specifically exploring the link between religion and morality.
"We were interested in making use of this perspective because religion is linked to morality in different ways," said Hauser. "For some, there is no morality without religion, while others see religion as merely one way of expressing one's moral intuitions."
In their study, which was published by Cell Press in the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences, the psychologists cite several studies in moral psychology, including one that involved thousands of students from the elementary school level to those with graduate degrees and another that involved the rural, Mayan population. Subjects read and judged the moral permissibility of an action.
Drs. Pyysiainen and Hauser note that the moral judgments provided by religious subjects did not differ from that of atheists.
The authors highlight that religion appears to have "no influence at all on the intuitive system that operates more generally, and for unfamiliar cases."
"In fact, a considerable amount of work in this area shows that moral judgments are relatively immune to the explicit moral dictates of both religious and legal institutions," they state.
While in many cultures, religious concepts and beliefs have become "the standard way of conceptualizing moral intuitions," Hauser contends that the link is not a necessary one.
The findings, Pyysiainen argues, support the theory that "religion did not originally emerge as a biological adaptation for cooperation, but evolved as a separate by-product of pre-existing cognitive functions that evolved from non-religious functions."
Some scholars claim that religion evolved as an adaptation to foster cooperation among genetically unrelated individuals. Others propose that cooperation came first and was facilitated and strengthened by religion.
Drs. Pyysiainen and Hauser say recent empirical work in moral psychology provides stronger support for the latter (by-product approach).
"To the extent that explicit religiosity cannot penetrate moral intuitions underlying the ability to cooperate, religion cannot be the ultimate source of intra-group cooperation," they conclude. "Cooperation is made possible by a suite of mental mechanisms that are not specific to religion. Moral judgments depend on these mechanisms and appear to operate independently of one's religious background."