New Historian

Science Bolsters Moral Sensitivity

Darwin Anglican Cathedral (2)

<![CDATA[A recently published study by two Turkish psychologists argues that science as a secular authority can lead to heightened moral sensitivity. Historically, tension has long existed between science and religion. Scientific advances bring religious doctrine into question, creating conflict, something most obviously demonstrated in Galileo's treatment by the Catholic Church in the seventeenth century. Countless psychological studies have demonstrated that a tendency towards scientific or analytic thinking often leads to a decline in religious faith. On the other hand, it has also been shown that religious symbols encourage people to be prosocial, and as a consequence more morally sensitive. As such, many have claimed that the causal relationship between religious, scientific and moral thought means the historic rise of science alongside secularised societies has lead to a decline in moral sensitivity. The new study, written by Onurcan Yilmaz and Hasan G. Bahçekapili from Dogus University in Istanbul and published in the online journal Plos One, has expanded on previous research that shows the relationship between religion, science and morality is in fact much more complicated than traditionally thought. The earlier study found that priming either religious or science related words in test subjects led to them demonstrating increased prosocial behaviour. As such, the results suggested that, “at least in modern societies, secular institutions have overtaken religious institutions in their capacity to promote prosociality and living harmoniously as a moral society.” Yilmaz and Bahçekapili aimed to test the causes of this connection between scientific reasoning and morality. Three different tests were carried out on Turkish University students, which involved priming scientific, religious or ‘neutral’ words through language games before having the test subjects respond to a moral scenario. The results of the first test showed that the priming had no effect on the response to the crime described, although the psychologists suggest that this may be because the scenario was so extreme (a date rape case) that it created a ‘ceiling effect’. The next test followed the same process, but for less extreme, more morally ambiguous scenarios -one involving two people late to a meeting who accidentally run over a cat and choose not to stay and help it, and another involving a person who finds a friend’s winning lottery ticket and collects the winnings for himself (the friend is unaware the ticket is a winning ticket). The results showed that in the first scenario, both science priming and religious priming affected the moral sensitivity of the participants. The suggestion being that thinking about scientific themes can be just as influential on our morality as thinking about religious ones. Finally, Yilmaz and Bahçekapil sought to determine “whether science exerts its moral sensitivity boosting effect by activating analytic thinking or the idea of secular authority.” For this test, the preliminary section was designed to prime words in the test subjects associated with either secular authority (e.g. court, police) or analytical thinking ( e.g. logic, reason). The results provided a clear pattern, with the subjects in the secular authority group demonstrating the greatest moral sensitivity. “These results suggest that science priming exerts its boosting effect on moral sensitivity not by activating analytic thinking but by activating the idea of secular authority.” The study’s results are of great interest to the study of history, anthropology and psychology, showing that secular authority is now capable of bolstering moral sensitivity as much as religion. One of the key transitions of the modern era, particularly in the West, has been the decline of religiosity, in both political institutions and individuals. Yilmaz and Bahçekapil’s study provides a framework to explain how the rise of science and the decline of religion did not coincide with a dramatic decrease in morality. For more information: Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons user: kenhodge13 ]]>

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