Religion’s Role in Self-Control

A psychology professor from the University of Miami has published a paper asserting that religion may have evolved because of it’s ability to help people exert self-control. On the one hand, this has kind of a “no duh!” quality to it. There really isn’t much debate that a major component of religion is to exert various controls on its followers. These may be good personal behavior controls such as, “Thou shalt not kill,” or these can be radical controls such as, “Strap on this bomb and take a walk into the bus terminal over there.” The controls may come from scripture, which is basically like saying directly from God, or they may come from those purporting to interpret for God or the holy books such as ministers or imams. But at some level, it’s all control.

In a related vein, I’ve noted before that one of the reasons Marx and his followers advocated for the abolition of religion is that it was an institution competing with the government for control of the people. Further, it is the fear that atheists are not bound by any sort of controls that causes those who assert that atheists must be sociopaths and anarchists to panic about the godless amongst them. Ironically, this does indicate that the people fearing atheists are at some level aware that they themselves are controlled by religion, and they take comfort and solace in that constraint.

So I don’t think there can be much of an issue about the relationship between religion and control. What struck me though, was the professor’s assertion that this was self-control. I’m not sure I agree with that. Granted, I don’t think anyone would claim that a suicide bomber instructed by a radical cleric to carry out God’s work was under the influence of self-control. But what about people who’s behavior is influenced by the belief that God (an external force) was watching and judging their actions?

If I stop myself from stealing a pack of gum out of fear that the store manager will catch me, then I don’t think I’m really exerting self-control. It’s one thing to stop myself out of a personal belief that stealing is morally wrong. That is self control, and I will readily grant that someone’s morals can be shaped by religion. But if I stop myself out of fear of being caught, I do not think that’s self control. And I don’t think that the notion that the one who will bust me is an unseen spirit who will condemn my soul instead of a corporeal store manager who will send me to jail is really a substantive difference. In my mind, both behaviors are being controlled externally out of a desire to avoid punishment. I don’t think that if your behavior is motivated only by a desire to get a ticket to heaven that you are exerting self-control either. You’re still responding to external incentives, whether they are positive or negative.

The roots of very many religions (including Christianity and Islam) are all about this punishment/reward incentive. Granted, in some people, exposure to this punishment/reward system at an early age results in the internalization of the control behaviors as one’s personal morals. But these are secondary effects. The primary motivator is reward/punishment. So I don’t think I can accept that religion’s raison d’etre is self-control. Control, yes. But light on the self.

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