How does our morality affect our religious beliefs? Perhaps more appropriately: how do our religious beliefs affect our morality? Or do both emerge from something else, like personality? The boundaries and relationships between these different aspects of who we are are very fuzzy. We can’t just point to some behavior and call it exclusively moral, or religious, or just their personality. But while the problem is deeply complex, an abundance of data (some of it collected here) is bringing certain trends into the foreground.
Moral Foundations Theory, advanced by psychologist Jonathan Haidt, distinguishes between five different moral domains, or instincts (fairness, respect for authority, harm avoidance, ingroup loyalty, and purity). Each of us favors these five values to varying degrees, which means geeky researchers like us can identify the commonalities within different groups. This line of research has brought to light the distinct moral profiles of liberals and conservatives.
More recently the scholar Ravi Iyer, who works with Haidt at YourMorals.org, culled their data and found a unique moral and personality profile for libertarians. (Check out a great review of the profile by the religion scholar Connor Wood at ScienceonReligion.org.) As Iyer explains, libertarians elevate personal and economic liberty over any of the other values mentioned above. That’s not too surprising, but the more interesting finding comes from the personality profile, which describes libertarians as mostly disconnected from community and cultural ties. What this profile still lacks is a picture of the libertarian’s religiosity.
Nearly a hundred years ago, the French sociologist Emile Durkheim wrote The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, where he argues that religion is an expression of a community’s collective moral force. This work became a foundational text for religious studies; so we have good reason to suppose a deep relationship between morality and religiosity. But how that relationship will be expressed is always a surprise.
As research continues to reveal the complex relationships between morality, personality, and religiosity, we gain deeper insights into the mystery of human nature. And hopefully we also gain a little empathy for the myriad ways our nature is expressed.