Personal Finance

Link between religion and unethical behaviour


I personally noticed since 2017 when WhatsApp launched its status feature that nearly all former colleagues from over many professional years who were terminated for fraud, corruption, or other general malfeasance tended to post dramatically more scripture verses, church events, and religious imagery on their social media then other current and former colleagues from across the educational, NGO, and banking industries of my past and present career.

This sort of duplicitous dissonance confounded me. I set off on a quest to uncover whether externally professed religiosity correlates to or, even worse, causes lower integrity and unethical behaviour.

Alternatively, do fraudsters merely put-up smoke to come off as pious as a disguise for their evil deeds?

Finally, could it just be that we only notice the outward religious displays more of those we know who hold no moral probity because the contrast between religious expression and its positive connotations juxtaposed against the distasteful low ethics of charlatans bothers us?

Scott Vitell’s comparative research found that religiosity comprises three different dimensions: intrinsic motivation from someone’s own feelings, extrinsic motivation emanating from outward recognition or benefits, and someone’s quest for religion.

Daniel Martin published interesting research trying to connect similar questions on religiosity and ethical behaviour. He measured ethical behaviour in terms of whistle blowing when observing unethical or illegal actions of fellow employees in the workplace. To my dismay, he found that people in North America who classified themselves as more spiritual held only slightly higher tendencies to report wrongdoing and illegality while someone’s religiosity had no influence whatsoever on whether the individual bravely stepped forward to report the unethical and organisationally detrimental actions of others.

In a West Asian context, Noee Morteza, Aghahosseini Alireza, and Emamjomezade Javad compared in a separate study two of the three different religiosity categories.

First, internal religiosity meant more personal and genuine religious feeling.

Second, external religiosity meant more outside showing of one’s religious ideas and piety. The research found that internal religiosity did lead to more solidarity with others while external religiosity held no meaningful connection with solidarity. So, there is not always a connection between the personal genuine religious feelings of a person and their overt outward expressions of faith. Then the outward expression of religiosity yields no societal or ethical behaviour benefit.

However, Leigh Lawton and EJ Kennedy looked at a different aspect of religiosity and ethics. Instead of expecting religious people to take extra steps to act better than others, they instead investigated refraining from bad behaviour more or less than other people. The duo uncovered that, contrary to external or extrinsic motivation and religiosity, intrinsically motivated internally religious people did hold a benefit over the less religious. Those with intrinsic religious convictions showed less willingness to engage in unethical activities.

But do third party observers believe external religiosity displays and link them with integrity? Yes. Surprisingly, Donald Menzel found that religious people were much more likely to seek and gain employment within government agencies than less religious individuals. The public tend to believe civil servants and politicians more if they profess religious phrases and ideas than if they stay strictly to professional matters.

Unsurprisingly, similarly in business with consumers, Zabid Ibrahim discovered that culture differences as well as external religiosity have profound positive effects on perceptions of business ethics within a firm.

In summary, be wary of those professing an excess of religious fervour. Research shows that those with internal religious convictions thankfully do indeed take fewer unethical actions, but those with external religiosity do not tend to act with any greater integrity even though society is easily fooled thinking that extrinsic religiosity means someone is a better acting person.

Dr Scott may be reached on [email protected] or on Twitter: @ScottProfessor