Academic journal article Journal for the Study of Religions and Ideologies

Morality and Religion: A Psychological Perspective

Academic journal article Journal for the Study of Religions and Ideologies

Morality and Religion: A Psychological Perspective

Article excerpt

Abstract: The present article investigates how psychological theories of morality approach the relation between morality and religion, debating the role religion plays in human moral development in contemporary societies. Firstly, we critically discuss how the major approaches of morality in psychological theory and research view human moral conduct and moral reasoning. Secondly, we appraise cultural psychology conceptualizations of morality, depicting how they fit religion in a relativist approach on what is moral. Thirdly, capitalizing on the findings of cross-cultural research regarding the relation between morality and religion, we debate and present a pilot study on directions in researching the relation between religion and a psychological approach of morality

Key Words: psychology of morality, religion and morality, cultural psychology and moral development


Contemporary societies are clearly defined by radical changes of values systems. This axiological metamorphosis prompted numerous dilemmas pertaining to what is ethical and moral, and how morality is linked to religiousness and spirituality. In psychological theory and research, the concept of morality is predominantly employed, and hence we approach a psychology of morality more so than a psychology of ethics. Psychological approaches on morality comprise a variety of theories and taxonomies, which are often contradictory, focusing on specific and often divergent aspects of the phenomenon. Therefore, an analysis of key theories in moral psychology is necessary. This will aid the construction of an accurate picture on psychological constructs and processes woven into the intricate pattern of human morality and will facilitate a better understanding of where religion and spirituality stand in a contemporary psychology of morality.

Psychological approaches of morality

Numerous moral codes have been created since ancient times, indicating the perpetual interest and importance given to what is right or wrong, good or bad. In those times, such codes were often associated with religious contexts and were integrated into religious writings. Subsequently, philosophers developed a complex and diverse literature on the subject of ethics. As psychology has its roots in the philosophical domain, but strived to impose itself as a science, it developed new approaches to human morality, placing a very strong emphasis on their empirical bases.

Annukka Vainio pointed out that it is difficult to find a consensus in psychology regarding the definition of morality1. On the one hand there are differences between common-sense and scientific theories of morality. On the other hand there are multiple conceptual and methodological divergences among researchers in the field of moral psychology, which we next succinctly approach. Psychological models of morality have their roots mainly in philosophy and sociology, capitalizing on the works of Hume, Kant and Durkheim. Stemming from the works of these philosophers, two main theoretical directions emerged, which prescribed distinct research tenets and methodologies: (1) the universalist approach based on Kant's writings and (2) the relativistic approach based on Hume and Durkheim. Psychologists like Jean Piaget, Lawrence Kohlberg, Elliot Turiel and Carol Gilligan emphasized the universalist character of morality, based on the writings of Kant. On a different note, Richard Shweder and Joan Miller pointed out that morality is relativist, intrinsically dependent on the social and cultural context, following the direction traced by Hume and Durkheim. More recent psycho-social theories subscribe to a relativist nature of morality, bringing forward the role of individual conduct and its link with reasoning and context, with little focus on global conceptualizations of morality2.

The field of moral psychology has long been dominated by universalist models based on the works of Kant. According to these models, morality and moral judgments are universal, derived from human rationality and independent of social context. …

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