Religiosity and Moral Conviction are Not Sides of the Same Coin

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It’s often assumed that a high degree of religiosity is synonymous with a high degree of moral conviction. We naturally expect, for example, that if someone’s attitude toward government authority is influenced by her religiosity, this attitude will be further buttressed by her sense of moral conviction–in other words, the influence should be consistent. 

But is that true?

A study in the journal Psychological Science took on this question by investigating  how religiosity and moral conviction influence attitudes toward authority.  A survey was administered to a representative sample of 727 Americans, ages 19-90, to asses the degree of trust or mistrust people have in major decisions made by the Supreme Court (in this case, physician assisted suicide, a.k.a ‘PAS’).  The sample drew from a wide socioeconomic and educational background.

Measures evaluated via the survey included:

  • Support or opposition to PAS
  • Level of strength or weakness of support or opposition (to gauge attitude extremity)
  • Overall level of moral conviction
  • Trust in Supreme Court to make decisions regarding PAS
  • Length of time it takes to give an opinion on level of trust in Supreme Court (to reveal the degree of visceral emotion linked to this opinion; more emotion = less time)
  • Level of overall religiosity

Here’s what the researchers found:  First, the stronger a person’s moral conviction, the less they trusted the Supreme Court to make a judgment about PAS.  Conversely, the higher the degree of a person’s religiosity, the MORE they trusted the Supreme Court to make a decision on this sensitive issue. 

To be clear about that — the results for moral conviction were exactly the opposite of those for religiosity. 

Also, the stronger a person’s moral conviction, the faster they responded to the trust question, indicating a visceral reaction as opposed to a more considered one.  Likewise, the higher the degree of someone’s religiosity, the faster they responded to the trust question.  So in the case of both moral conviction and religiosity, responses were significantly visceral.

At least two major implications can be drawn out from this study. The first is that the typical assumption that religiosity and moral conviction are necessarily synonymous is false. Moral conviction in this study was strongly linked to distrust in legitimate authority, while religiosity was strongly linked to trust in legitimate authority.

The second implication is that morally convicted people don’t merely “react” to decisions with which they don’t agree. Instead, it’s clear that they don’t trust legitimate authorities to make the right decisions in the first place.  Their reaction is simply a projection of a predisposition already strongly held. 

Dr. Linda Skitka, one of the authors of this study, contacted me after I first discussed it at Neuronarrative  to add a few important points of clarification: 

We tested whether religiosity moderated the effects of moral conviction, and it did not–-in other words, the effects of moral conviction on trust in the Supreme Court did not change as a function of whether the perceiver was low or high in religiosity.

We measured both general religiosity, as well as whether people’s feelings about PAS were based on religious convictions, and got the same pattern of results regardless of which way we operationalized “religiousness”.

Interestingly (and counter-intuitively), about one-third of those whose attitude about PAS reflected a strong religious conviction did not report that their attitude about PAS was a strong moral conviction.


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