Jesse Bering offers what he thinks is evidence confirming a common intuition – that those with religious inclinations are more likely to do moral acts:
In one study, for instance, the investigators used the same implicit God-priming method as before, assigning either a religious or a nonreligious word-scrambling task to believers and atheists. The participants then completed something called the Situational Self-Awareness Scale, and, remarkably, regardless of their explicit belief or disbelief in God, all those who’d been exposed unconsciously to the religious words — but not to the neutral words — showed a spike in their public self-awareness. That is to say, they became significantly more cognizant and concerned about the transparency of their social behaviors from an audience’s point of view.
Furthermore, in a follow-up experiment, Norenzayan and Gervais reasoned that “when people feel that their behavior is being monitored … they tend to cast themselves in a positive light.” This led them to hypothesize that reminders about God would not simply increase self-awareness but also encourage socially desirable responses… In this study, however, the only people who produced socially desirable responses to the implicit God primes were those who actually believed in God.
The inference here isn’t fool-proof. The fact that theists respond to religious language with ethical behaviour and atheists don’t does nothing to show that, going about their daily business, the former will do more good than the latter. But another study does more to bridge the gap:
“On Sundays, appeals to charity were 300 percent more effective on religious individuals compared to non-religious individuals.” By contrast, there was absolutely no difference between the religious and the nonreligious bidders in the effectiveness of the charity appeals on any other day of the week.
This is a gap-bridger insofar as non-religious ethical language like ‘charity’ is evidently more motivating for religious people (or perhaps just Christians?) when they have religion on their minds. But even then, if the person hasn’t popped into church recently, he’s only as likely to act well as the non-believer.
And it goes without saying, of course, that there is a huge difference between doing moral acts and acting morally (Bering doesn’t commit this mistake, but it’s a common one). The father that saves his drowning daughter does the right thing, but if it was only in order to ensure that she can later look after him when he is old and frail, he seems to have somewhat missed the moral point.
Similarly, what are we to say of those that donate in fear of the wrath of God? An atheist’s motivation could be equally perverse. For instance, he may act solely out of a desire for a decent reputation. But insofar as religious people seem to act so often out of fear, regardless of whether their religion embraces such a motive, the worth we may be tempted to confer upon their character by virtue of any extra donations can be quite fairly criticised.