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What Makes People Moral

What Makes People Moral

I just read one of the most confusing articles I have ever seen. It was an interview with David DeSteno, a professor of psychology at Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts. By his own testimony, he believes that religion has something positive to contribute to science. So far so good, right? In particular, his work examines the mechanisms of the mind that shape the concepts of vice and virtue. In order to get at human moral behavior, he studies  such matters as hypocrisy and compassion, pride and punishment, and cheating and trust. And in order to share his ideas, he has written a book called How God Works: The Science Behind the Benefits of Religion.

As a psychologist, DeSteno is a social scientist. As such he attempts to use the scientific method to study the religious and moral subjects that interest him. He is convinced that scientifically studying these topics can produce some kind of benefit for mankind. He also believes that the tension that exists between many people in science and people in religion is not a good thing.

Here are some of the questions he was asked in this interview along with some of his answers.

Q - What can science learn form religious rituals?

A - We, as scientists, need to study them and learn from them and see what we can extract from them – in a way that is respectful – to help us solve many of life’s problems.

Q - What makes these rituals so powerful?

A - There are lots of different practices built into rituals that help us deal with the challenges we’re facing.

Q - Does the tension between science and religion resonate with other examples of polarization that are emerging throughout society?

A - People who are engaged in religious practices live longer, healthier, and happier lives on average. So there’s something there. These tools are doing something. Scientists and religious leaders together want to make the world better for people. Let’s study the practices.

Q - Has your focus on religion made you a better scientist?

A - I think so, because it allows me to look for new ideas and things to study in ways that I wouldn’t have before. Does it make me a better scientist in terms of my craft? No. But does it give me new ideas to study and explore that could benefit people? Yes.

Q - By applying a scientific perspective to the age-old rituals of religion, do you believe we could develop approaches to help people in all kinds of ways?

A - We’ve done this with meditation, right? We all know there are measurable benefits from meditation that increase people’s focus and lowers their stress. What I tell people is it can’t be the only spiritual practice that works. It’s not a fluke.

Reading this interview I have several observations:

  1. Many of DeSteno’s answers are really “non-answers” in that they don’t really tell you anything. 
  1. Science can’t deal with spiritual matters. People can only observe and experiment on things that pertain to the material world. “Social science” that tries to study spiritual things like morality is not actually science at all. Social scientists can do polling to get at how a particular population, on average, deal with moral issues, but can never come up with a “scientific conclusion” as to the root of moral behavior. 
  1. DeSteno, along with all of his social science buddies, has no way to objectively define morality. He begins with certain assumptions about what is moral and what is not moral, but he never defines what that is or how he came up with it. And he can’t because, as a social scientist, he is wedded to naturalistic presuppositions that don’t acknowledge an objective source for morality. 
  1. DeSteno treats science as if it is a belief system by attributing to it the power to analyze peoples beliefs and motives. It isn’t a belief system and cannot do that kind of analysis. 
  1. DeSteno treats religion as if it is subject to scientific inquiry. Social scientists can observe large numbers of people and find out what a particular population thinks and does on average, but non-material beliefs cannot be scientifically analyzed. 

The very idea of trying to discover what makes people moral using scientific inquiry is to chase after the wind. Morality has to be based on some belief system, and science can’t study that.

Morality is a spiritual concept that has to be dealt with using spiritual means. In order for actual morality to even exist, there first has to be an objective moral authority source. By definition, an objective authority source can’t have a temporal origin – it has to be from God. Science can’t study God. Beyond that, for a particular moral belief to be actually objective, the God that gives it has to be the one and only true God. If it is not, the moral directives do not have an objective source, and they are not objectively true. Science can’t study that, either. 

What makes people moral is to follow God’s directions. Nothing more and nothing less.

Freddy Davis is the president of MarketFaith Ministries. He is the author of numerous books and has a background as an international missionary, pastor, radio host, worldview trainer, and entrepreneur. Freddy is a graduate of Florida State University with a BS in Communication, and holds MDiv and DMin degrees from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is a popular speaker, particularly on the topic of worldview and its practical implications for the Christian life. He lives in Tallahassee, FL, with his wife Deborah.

You may also contact Freddy at Leadership Speakers Bureau to schedule him for speaking or leadership engagements.

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