Moral psychology study sheds light on the origin of religion

February 9th, 2010 - 5:54 pm ICT by ANI  

Washington, Feb 9 (ANI): A new moral psychology research has offered more insight into the origins of religion.

Study co-author Dr. Ilkka Pyysiainen from the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies said: “Some scholars claim that religion evolved as an adaptation to solve the problem of cooperation among genetically unrelated individuals, while others propose that religion emerged as a by-product of pre-existing cognitive capacities.”

While there is some support for both, these alternative theories have been difficult to investigate.

Dr. Pyysiainen and co-author Dr. Marc Hauser, from the Departments of Psychology and Human Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University, used a fresh perspective based in experimental moral psychology to review these two competing theories.

Dr. Hauser said: “We were interested in making use of this perspective because religion is linked to morality in different ways…For some, there is no morality without religion, while others see religion as merely one way of expressing one’s moral intuitions.”

Refering to several studies in moral psychology, the authors draw attention to the finding that despite differences in, or even an absence of, religious backgrounds, individuals show no difference in moral judgments for unfamiliar moral dilemmas. The research found that intuitive judgments of right and wrong seem to operate independently of explicit religious commitments.

Dr. Pyysiainen said: “This supports 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.

“However, although it appears as if cooperation is made possible by mental mechanisms that are not specific to religion, religion can play a role in facilitating and stabilizing cooperation between groups.”

Dr. Hauser concluded: “It seems that in many cultures religious concepts and beliefs have become the standard way of conceptualizing moral intuitions. Although, as we discuss in our paper, this link is not a necessary one, many people have become so accustomed to using it, that criticism targeted at religion is experienced as a fundamental threat to our moral existence.”

The study has appeared in the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences on February 8. (ANI)

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