Mark A. Smith is professor of Political Science and an adjunct professor of Comparative Religion and Communication at the University of Washington. His research focuses on economic and religious groups, ideas, and influences in American politics. In his new book, Secular Faith: How Culture Has Trumped Religion in American Politics, Dr. Smith argues that religion is not nearly the unchanging conservative influence in American politics that we have come to think it is and is best understood as responding to changing political and cultural values rather than shaping them.
Jesse Bering recently published an excerpt of his forthcoming book on Salon.com, entitling the article “Don’t trust the Godless.” Bering, an atheist, described his propensity for placing more faith in religious individuals than in his fellow-nonbelievers. He points out that his feelings may be more than a hunch: scientific studies are providing evidence that religiosity can be linked to “prosocial” behavior.
For example, Bering cites Deepak Malhotra’s research on the “Sunday Effect,” which demonstrates that churchgoers are more charitable on Sundays than on other days of the week.
Bering also briefly discusses the experiments of Will M. Gervais and Ara Norenzayan of the University of British Columbia. This year, the two published an article in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology called “Like a camera in the sky?” in which they explain how “thinking about God increases public self-awareness and socially desirable responding.” The authors find that when a religious person, in particular, thinks about God, they alter their behavior to fit that of an individual who is being watched. Gervais and Norenzayan conclude by tying their research back to common social psychological hypotheses about the role of religion in society: “once religion arises in a culture, [these religions] foster cooperative behavior by making religious believers feel as if they are monitored by their gods.”
If there truly is a link between religiosity and positive social behavior, the Millennial generation may signal a shift in social interactions in the United States—or at least a shift in the source of prosocial behavior. The 2012 Millennial Values Survey found that 25% of college-age Millennials are currently unaffiliated, while only 11% say that they were raised this way. The “Sunday Effect” might be in even greater danger, with 43% of Millennials reporting that they seldom or never attend religious services. A recent Pew survey found that about one-in-three Millennials report having some doubts about the existence of God. For a generation that is less religious than the general population, will the thought of a watching deity be enough to motivate benevolent behavior?