By Dr. Ken Broda-Bahm:
As the potential jurors file into the courtroom, religious signs are often evident: crosses, headscarves, yarmulkes, T-shirts, religious books. Even without those explicit advertisements, religious views can often be inferred based on demographics, demeanor, or the venue's statistics. Those religious beliefs can become an overt issue in voir dire in capital cases where members of the venire can count on being asked about their faith's view on the death penalty. Religious views can also matter when churches or other faith-based organizations are parties, or when beliefs prevent potential jurors from taking an oath or sitting in judgment of another. But in the more typical case, do those religious views play a role? Our first impulse might be to say "Yes," thinking that the highly religious are also more likely to be deeply moral or ethical. For example, knowing that Juror #18 is the church organist might lead us to believe that she is more likely in a contract case to focus on fairness and altruism rather than on the bottom line. So close is the connection between religion and ethics that there is a deep moral suspicion (Gervais, 2014) of people who are not religious.
But that assumption doesn't square with research: The religious don't seem to be more likely to be particularly moral, any more than the irreligious appear to be especially immoral. A recent study (Decety et al., 2015) found that, when measured by sharing behavior, children brought up in religious households were significantly less altruistic than children brought up in nonreligious households. The study looked at 5- to 12-year-olds in 6 countries (USA, Canada, China, Jordan, Turkey, and South Africa), and included 1,170 Christian, Muslim, and nonreligious families. The study found that the negative relationship between religiosity and altruism was similar across countries and grew stronger as the children grew older. That runs counter to the perception of the religious parents in the study who believed that their children were more empathetic and sensitive to the plight of others. As you might suspect, those parents also aren't necessarily more moral than their nonreligious peers. Another study (Hofmann et al., 2014) asked 1,252 adults in the U.S. and Canada to use an app to record good and bad deeds witnessed, learned about, and performed throughout the day, and the conclusion was that the religious and nonreligious performed similar numbers of moral acts. That result applied to both sides of the political spectrum, and the only difference seemed to be that the religious were more proud when they did perform moral acts, and more ashamed when they didn't.