The Jewish “days of awe” are upon us. These are not holidays in the common sense. They are days of somber reflection on our deeds, thoughts, desires—judged in the unforgiving light of what is perceived as moral conduct. Which led me, a secular Jew, to wonder: Does Religion, with a capital R, have a lock on morality?


Morality is hard-wired

This was the subject of an article we posted over five years ago describing the findings of paper in the Journal Nature, Damage to the Prefrontal Cortex Increases Utilitarian Moral Judgments, that provided strong evidence that we are indeed moral animals, and that certain aspects of our moral behavior are hardwired in our brain.

Since then, fMRI studies firmly placed the seat of moral behavior in the ventromedial (namely, lower middle) region of the frontal cortex, or VMFC. For orientation, it sits right behind the eyes, hence the alternative name orbital cortex.


Hard-wired connotes evolutionary advantage

What could be the advantage of a moral code? A quick look at the concept of morality in different cultures, be it the highly industrialized nations of Europe or the isolated aboriginal tribes in the Amazon jungle, they all have a common characteristic—the imperative of “getting along” with your fellow human being.

When in the first century Rabbi Hillel was asked to teach the tenets of the Torah in what we would call today “the elevator presentation,” he answered: “Love thy friend as you would yourself.” Jesus had basically the same take: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” And Confucius added his voice with: “Never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself.” Two principles run through all of these pronouncements: empathy and reciprocity.

Adam Smith, the spiritual father of Capitalism and free markets was actually a moral philosopher, not an economist. He did not espouse predatory Capitalism, as his message was later perverted, but rather moral behavior that in the long run would redound to the benefit of all.

The reason for this preoccupation with a moral code is obvious: No society—be it a family, small band, tribe or nation—could function otherwise. And this is why it has an evolutionary advantage.


Is morality synonymous with religion

In the view of Greg M. Epstein, a Humanist chaplain at Harvard University, “‘do unto others’ … is a concept that essentially no religion misses entirely. But not a single one of these versions of the golden rule requires a God.”

praying religion
by Sam | via Stockvault

Many religious people, theologians, philosophers, clergy, and just plain folks who are fervent believers beg to disagree. They equate their moral code with their religious teachings. But is it necessarily so?

First, as we have seen, our moral code is universal and was first inscribed not in scriptures but in our genetic code and our brains. Moses, Jesus, Muhammad, and Confucius would not have had the inspiration to preach their moral beliefs had they not had already been sitting somewhere in their VMFC.

Looking at the relationship between religion and morality from a historical perspective, one cannot escape the observation that Richard Feynman made in his delightful The Meaning of It All:

“Looking back at the worst of times, it always seems that they were times in which there were people who believed with absolute faith and absolute dogmatism in something. And they were so serious in this matter that they insisted that the rest of the world agree with them. And then they would do things that were directly inconsistent with their own beliefs in order to maintain that what they said was true.”


Three aspects of religion

Feynman goes on to analyze three essential aspects of religion. One is metaphysical, namely the stories about creation, the preternatural feats of God’s deeds and so forth. This aspect can be readily conceded as uniquely religious.

A second aspect is ethical. We have seen this is not only not unique to religion, but on too many occasions, violated by religion.

The third essential aspect of religion is, in a way, the most interesting: Inspirational. Religion acknowledges the obvious: Man is weak. It takes more than the right conscience to produce right behavior. It takes inspiration, either positive or “fire and brimstone”, to induce us to behave morally.

Should one concede this aspect to religion? What about areligious cultures whose moral behavior is exemplary, such as the Scandinavian countries?


The evidence is in

A paper in PLoS ONE, titled When Science Replaces Religion: Science as a Secular Authority Bolsters Moral Sensitivity, looked at precisely this question.

The investigators used a widely-used procedure in psychological research: Priming. Priming is an implicit memory effect in which exposure to one stimulus influences the response to another stimulus. For instance, exposure to words like hell, miracle, heaven shortly, before answering a questionnaire about belief in God, influences the outcome in favor of religion even among declared agnostics.


The study

One hundred and seventy-seven undergraduates (146 women, 30 men, one “no answer”) from Yeditepe and Dogus University in Istanbul took part in this study. The majority of the participants were Muslim (n = 131). Of the remaining 46, 28 reported belief in God without being affiliated with a religion, 15 were atheists, and three did not answer.

They were randomly assigned to the Secular-priming group (n = 59), the Analytic thinking-priming group (n = 59) or the Neutral-priming group (n = 59).

The five priming words in the Secular group were court, civil, judge, police, and contract. The five priming words in the Analytic group were ponder, analysis, logical, think, and rational. The words in the Neutral group did not form a coherent theme.

The three groups were presented with two different scenarios to measure moral sensitivity. One was a fairness/justice scenario, the other, a care/harm scenario.

In the fairness/justice scenario, a person buys a lottery ticket but leaves it on his desk. His friend finds the ticket and learns that it is a big winner. After thinking about it for a while, he decides to claim the prize and not to inform his friend that it was actually his ticket.

In the care/harm scenario, two people in a car run over and injure a cat as they are rushing to be on time for an important meeting. After thinking about it for a while, they decide not to take care of the cat and move on.

According to the study protocol, the participants were asked to rate how wrong the action was in each scenario on a 0–100 scale.


The results

In the care/harm scenario (running over a cat), the Analytic thinking-priming group showed higher levels of moral sensitivity than the Neutral priming group. Controlling for religiosity did not change the outcome. In a fairness/justice scenario (stealing a lottery ticket), on the other hand, priming did not have an effect on moral sensitivity.

The results indicate that Analytic thinking-priming increases moral sensitivity in the care/harm scenario, but not in the fairness/justice scenario. This suggests that being reminded of science influences only harm-related morality.

So, now that they have demonstrated that analytic-priming increases moral sensitivity in the care/harm scenario, they asked the next question: What is the mechanism? Does analytic thinking exert its moral sensitivity-boosting effect straightforwardly by activating analytic thinking (through priming words like logical, rational, analysis, etc) as one would expect, or through the idea of secular authority (namely police, judge, court, etc), the secular equivalent of the religious “fire and brimstone”? The next experiment tested the two alternative mechanisms.

And the results? They unambiguously showed that science-priming (e.g., logical, rational, think) exerts its boosting effect on moral sensitivity not by activating analytic thinking but by activating the idea of secular authority.

Put another way, moral sensitivity is enhanced by respect for civil order, and the consequences of violating it. It’s not that much different from the fear and trembling that religions evoke. Of course, bear in mind that the experiment was conducted in a Muslim country and with mostly religious participants. It would be interesting to see if obedience to secular authority as the prime motivator of moral behavior still holds true in a less religious environment, say, a Scandinavian country.


Be careful of what you ask for

So, this study suggests we don’t have to invoke the fear of a vengeful God to attain morality. Secularists and secular societies can attain high moral sensitivity using science and rational thinking, albeit by activating secular authority rather than analytical thinking. But…

Secular authority can be good, or malevolent.

Remember Stanley Ingram’s classical experiment in which students were told to electrically shock other students? The results were indeed shocking: The large majority obeyed the authority figure in the experiment and amped up the shock to, what they were led to believe, were lethal levels.

This experiment was conducted in the early 60’s. This was the Eisenhower era; we were conformists then. But is it really any different today?

Here is a sobering thought for introspection during the Jewish 10 Days of Awe and atonement. In a cognitive priming experiment with Israeli settlers, prayer to God, an index of religious devotion, was unrelated to support for suicide attacks. Instead, synagogue-related words (such as rabbi, prayer shawl, Mitzvah) positively predicted support for suicide attacks.

Through secular authority, we can build a fair civil society, or we can create suicide bombers. Science is neutral. It is what we choose to do with it that is either good or evil.

Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD
Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD loves to write about the brain and human behavior as well as translate complicated basic science concepts into entertainment for the rest of us. He was a professor at the University of California San Francisco before leaving to enter the world of biotech. He served as the Chief Medical Officer of biotech companies, including Aphton Corporation. He also founded and served as the CEO of Madah Medica, an early stage biotech company developing products to improve post-surgical pain control. He is now retired and enjoys working out, following the stock market, travelling the world, and, of course, writing for TDWI.


  1. We should not be concern by religious believes or political affiliation.
    Humans should have the same common goal annihilation of unnecessary suffering for all living things.
    Accumulate knowledge must be the only sensitive drive to pursue.
    We wasted thousand of years trying to be unique with a god who is attributed only to us ,but the true is we all have the same aspiration,trying to live are live with the best of are ability ”surviving” , avoiding pain, fear ,discrimination and hate.
    The only things man gods are good for is creating division in are self,war, genocides…..
    To all fellow friends is time to wise up and look at your counter part and see deep in him is desperation,not is color ,race,or is religion,
    If gods only new what we done with them.
    Shame on us.

    • Amen. All religions brought at one time or another, nothing but misery and suffering. But since you invoke Shakayamuni, aka Buddha, let’s not forget the misery visited upon the Rohingas in Myanmar by extremist Buddhist monks. Hateful extremism of any persuation is still just that: hateful.

  2. The question u need to be asking is not whether morality depends on religion or not…. but whether any of this is possible without a creator. U being a doctor would know how beautiful the human body and mind is. If yet u don’t see the creator In the best creation then u must b either truly blind or not looking where u need to.

    • Interesting that you bring up the beauty of the human body as evidence for an intelligent creator. Take the most beautifully complex organ-the brain-as an example. An intelligent designer would not have use basically the very same processor, the neuron, in humans and in jellyfish, for example. The human brain is a poorly engineered hodgepodge of structure upon structure, built up during eons of evolution, to serve the increasing demands of complexity. To compensate for the appalling inefficiency of such a machine, it was necessary for natural selection to have 98 billion neurons and 500 trillion of dendritic connections per brain. The octopus brain is much better designed. An intelligent designer would have started with a much more efficient neuron, which would require a massively smaller number of neurons.
      The presence of a creator cannot be proved or disproved, hence it’s in the realm of metaphysics, not the real world. In science we deal with probablities, not possibilities. Accordingly, you may choose to believe in the role of astrological allignement of the stars in our lives.It is indeed possible, but the probablity is close to nil. And before you dismiss belief in astrology as an inappropriate comparison to belief in the creator, His word – the bible, and the ancient Israelites, indeed believed in astrology. The biblical Hebrew word for Luck is Mazal, which means ‘constellation of stars’.

      • To call the human brain “inefficient” is frankly rediculous, and I would expect better from someone with a PhD.

        It implies that we could suggest concrete ways to improve things, and state how and why it would be better. we would need to know with a high degree of certainty not just how things work, but why they work the way they do. To the best of my knowledge, our understanding is not much better than observing responses to stimuli (for example, we can see that concussion causes long term affects, but not the process by which that affect is caused, or positive methods to treat it).

        Admittedly, I don’t know much about biology. But I do know about ai. The human brain is sublime, and achieves what it does with a tiny instruction set. Anyone who isn’t in awe of it, simply doesn’t understand it.

  3. You/they say that God is not part of morality because it comes into play as a function of the brain. That may be true, but … Who created man’s brain? There necessarily must have been a “creator” of the brain or whatever object the brain developed from (otherwise it wouldn’t exist). That “creator” ,for a good many religions, is God.

  4. Heady stuff Dov. Heredity and environment. Our basic urges can be quite self centered – work, procreation. We would hope our life experience leads to an open cooperative mind. The directed mind is quite powerful. Religion certainly can have a positive affect on this direction.


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