We have been investigating how basic cognitive cognitive processes constrain cultural variation in religion and morality. First, we sought to establish patterns of recurrence and variation in morality and religion globally. For example, project postdoc Oliver Curry spearheaded a statistical analysis of ethnographic data on a diverse sample of 60 societies worldwide and found that seven rules were judged to be morally good everywhere and never morally bad. What differs across cultures is not the core moral repertoire but the emphasis placed on different elements and their relationship, if any, with religious beliefs. To explore the latter issue in more depth, we utilized a much larger, longitudinal databank called Seshat, resulting in a particularly rich body of research.
We also focused on how universal features of religious thinking and moral reasoning might be intuitively linked. For example, project postdoc Hugh Turpin has been exploring whether the guilt occasioned by personal moral transgressions increases feelings of being observed and whether effect will be stronger for those who believe in the existence of morally interested, punitive supernatural watchers. His initial studies found that Christians were more likely to think the religious images were watching them in the guilt condition. But different patterns of response between Catholics, Protestants, the non-religious, and committed atheists and so he is currently leading research delving deeper in the effects of denominational differences.
Project postdoc Yo Nakawake has meanwhile spearheaded four experiments showing that preverbal infants attribute social dominance to an agent exhibiting the ability to defy various intuitive expectations. In these studies, infants watched two agents gain a reward using either a natural or supernatural method, the latter involving simple forms of levitation or teleportation violating the infant's intuitive physical expectations. Infants looked longer, indicating surprise, when the natural agent subsequently outcompeted a supernatural agent in securing a reward. This research suggests that the bias to attribute social dominance to individuals exhibiting supernatural powers has very early origins in development, helping to explain why religion is such a ubiquitous pathway to authority in human societies.
We also set out to establish how variation in the believing dimension of religion can impact moral convictions when all other cultural dimensions are held constant. For example, one study led by project postdoc Aiyana Willard compared karmic religions (Buddhism and Taoism) to Christians and the non-religious to see if they emphasized reward or punishment across three moral domains: Care/Harm, Fairness/Cheating, and Sanctity/Degradation. We found that the karmic religions put more emphasis on doing good than the Christians and non-religious for both care and fairness. Project postdoc Mark Stanford led a series of studies investigating the relationship between moral foundations and aspects of Burmese Theravada Buddhism. His initial studies found an association between ‘great tradition’ Buddhism and ingroup-sustaining morality, and between ‘little tradition’ religiosity and interpersonal moral obligations; these findings have driven further research on the relationship between Buddhism and ingroup identification more broadly. Together, such studies showed that the salience of different types of religious beliefs can place emphasis on different types of moral domains in different ways, even within a single group of people.