Jonah Lehrer, who is joining the New Yorker as a staff writer, recently had an interesting op-ed in the Wall Street Journal in which he discussed two recent studies showing how religious conviction makes it much easier for people to do difficult things that they likely would never do without the religious impetus. Lehrer talks about how easy he found it as a child to keep kosher even though he “was terrible at holding back my childish desires in almost every other way.”
The scientists describe thoughts of God as providing the mind with “important psychological nutrients” that “refuel” our inner resources, much like Gatorade replenishes the body after a long run.
But how does religion do this? The scientists think that faith-based thoughts may increase “self-monitoring” by evoking the idea of an all-knowing, omnipresent God. Previous research, which showed that priming people to think of a vengeful, angry God reduces the likelihood of dishonesty, supports this view. If God is always watching, we better not misbehave—he knows about the pepperoni.
For Rabbi [David] Wolpe, these results are an important reminder that human nature is deeply shaped by external structures. “People need a system of rules to live by,” he says, adding: “People drive slower when they see a police car. God is a bit like that police car: Thinking about Him makes it easier to do the right thing.”
Like Rabbi Wolpe, I’m not surprised by the findings. One of the crucial roles of religion has long been to unify communities around common beliefs and practices. The structure makes it easier. Just as Lehrer found when he was a kid and couldn’t eat pizza that wasn’t plain.