Field of Science

Does Christianity make mere thoughts into crime?

Does religion actually make any difference? By that I mean, does the brand of religion that takes hold in a particular region (Islam, Buddhism, Animism etc) actually change the culture in any meaningful way.

Of course, we know that there are real, measurable differences between adherents of different religions. But is that caused by the religion, or is it simply that cultures differ and that the local religion moulds itself to the local culture?

Adam Cohen, at Arizona State University, thinks that religion can change culture, and he's written an excellent, plain English introduction to his research in the open-access journal "Readings in Psychology and Culture".

A key point that Cohen makes is that Jews and Christians differ on whether simply thinking something wicked is as bad as actually doing something wicked.

So, for example, he found that Christians were more likely than Jews to believe that a man who thinks adulterous thoughts has done something wrong. And not just adultery either - there were similar differences of opinion over a student who fantasises about poisoning his Professor's dog after getting a bad grade.

In another test, he asked Jews and Christians to:
Imagine a son, Mr. K., who does not like his parents very much, because they have very different personalities from him. That son can either pretend to like his parents, or he can ignore and neglect them. If he doesn’t like his parents inside, does it mean anything for him to behave nicely toward them?

As the figure shows, Jews and Christians see Mr. K the same if he both inwardly dislikes his parents and also neglects them in reality (the 'Sincere condition' in the graph). But Jews, in contrast to Christians, were much more likely to think favourably of Mr K if he pretends to like his parents.

Cohen attributes these differences to differences in their respective holy books. For example, Jesus explicitly condemns thought crime ("You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart."). In contrast, Cohen says,

...the Jewish attitude is that it is better to override your temptations out of obedience to God. True virtue is doing what God says even if you don't internally want to.

All of this puts me in mind of George Orwell's novel, 1984, in which he wrote about thoughtcrime:

The thought police would get him just the same. He had committed - would have committed, even if he had never set pen to paper - the essential crime that contained all others in itself. Thoughtcrime, they called it.

Now, Orwell was an atheist, and his book had a pretty big impact on me when I was a kid. All of which set me to thinking: is thinking bad thoughts a crime for atheists, or are they more like Jews? Even more interesting, are Atheist Jews different from Atheist Christians in this regard?

There is one study out there, which I wrote about last year, which found that Protestants were more likely than Atheists to conflate thinking and doing (Protestants tempt fate, but atheists don't!)

I'd love to hear your perspective, though. Should you feel guilty about thinking nasty things someone and then lying to them? Is that kind of dishonesty bad? If not, why not?


Creative Commons License This article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.

13 comments:

  1. Morality is about our effects on other people. Harming other people is bad; helping them is good. Thoughts can have neither effect. Having a thought can never be wrong. Never.

    If telepathy were possible, then it might be possible to harm someone (or help them) with your thoughts. In this world, that does not happen.

    Telling people that they shouldn't have certain thoughts is despicable — one of the worst practices ever invented.

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  2. Your comment about Orwell's thoughtcrimes are interesting. The number of parallels between the nightmare world that Orwell imagined and the theocratic Middle Ages are many. It's easy to speculate that Orwell's point was any system which rests on arguments from authority (supernatural or otherwise) is going to follow similar awful patterns.

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  3. I don't think we actually hurt others by thinking, but we do affect ourselves.

    For instance, if I am in a committed relationship, and work with someone I find attractive. Is it wrong to fantasize about that person? Maybe not.

    But what if the more I fantasize, the more likely I am to actually act to make those fantasies real? If that is true, then would fantasizing be wrong, since it leads me one step closer to cheating?

    I have read about sport studies where people who practiced visualization did better after a week at, say, free throws, than people who did not. So I wonder how much what we focus on changes our behavior or attitudes.

    Of course maybe even if that is true, maybe it is still a difference of degree. Fantasizing a little isn't bad, but if I keep fantasizing about the same person it could negatively affect me.

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  4. I don't think we actually hurt others by thinking, but we do affect ourselves.

    I have read about sport studies where people who practiced visualization did better after a week at, say, free throws, than people who did not. So I wonder how much what we focus on changes our behavior or attitudes.

    So, assuming that is true for a minute, what if the outcome we focus on is something that hurts someone else?

    For instance, if I am in a committed relationship, and work with someone I find attractive. Is it wrong to fantasize about that person? Maybe not.

    But what if the more I fantasize, the more likely I am to actually act to make those fantasies real? If that is true, then would fantasizing be wrong, since it leads me one step closer to cheating? Or is is a matter of degree, ok if we fantasize a little, but not if we keep fantasizing about the same person, and even more wrong if it's every week or day? (or is that not any more wrong, but we recognize it as a symptom of something wrong).

    I think, we can't blame people for what we think, but we can choose to dwell on things or not, and dwelling or focusing can have an effect on us. So i guess the question is, is it then morally wrong to focus and dwell on things that affect us negatively, or might influence us to affect others negatively.

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  5. Wouldn't it be rather odd if religion didn't affect culture? I mean, since religion is a facet of culture, doesn't it affect culture by definition?

    I do think that the manner in which a specific religion affects culture is idiosyncratic and often unpredictable/unexpected. But for it to not have any effect at all, that would be a rather remarkable result!

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  6. How much control do we have over our thoughts? I'm quite taken with Nietzsche's insight: "a thought comes when ‘it’ wishes, and not when ‘I’ wish" (BGE 17). Which is an oblique way of saying I think that the inculcation of belief in and guilt about "thoughtcrime" is one of the more pernicious effects of Christianity.

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  7. Some research in cognitive science (collected in part by the late Susan Hurley) provides evidence that our thoughts influence our 'action readiness'. I think of this as a sort of horizon for the possible responses a person might have to a situation: if we have been absorbing a lot of violent media, and thinking in some way violent thoughts, then we might be quicker to consider violent actions than if that is not the case. I can't say that I understand the topic well enough to speak to how that ought to impact policy, as Hurley does in the linked paper, but she does provide and intriguing basis for the question at hand.

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  8. The issue reminds me of monogamy. If monogamy were easy/natural then being monogamous wouldn't be particularly praiseworthy. The fact that it is hard seems to make being monogamous both praiseworthy and serve as a powerful signal of commitment to a partner.

    A related issue is that of 'hate crimes', where the exact same criminal behavior is adjudicated to be more heinous because of the status of the thought that motivated the crime.

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  9. Personally, I'm in two minds about this. I'm inclined to agree with the idea that mentally rehearsing a deed could actually predispose you to do it in reality. That, of course, just makes it something to be cautious about. It's only when you do the deed that it becomes an actual problem. I do suspect that by actively trying to suppress thoughts that you can then affect your subsequent behaviour. Not necessarily in a beneficial way, however!

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  10. I was raised a Christian and so I think this affected me greatly. I had quite a bit of guilty about my desires, especially the ones that were frowned upon by my parents and family.

    Sex was not discussed as if it were a normal activity. It was more of a wicked habit that we did, but should at least try to avoid. Fortunately, as an atheist I have been able to escape the guilt that haunted me. Now I only feel guilty when I make someone else feel bad. This is how it should be.

    I do think that atheists are greatly affected by the religion (or lack of it) that they were raised under. We develop or ethical behaviors mostly based on modeling and mimicking the people around us while we are still young. These behaviors become strong and subconscious. Hard stuff to change...

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  11. Religion create culture and culture create our psyche. Those who follow teaching of Islam ,their culture developed on teaching of that religion and psyche of Muslim developed from Islamic teaching.Same is true of all religion.Those who don't go to church or not obey rituals of religion till their psyche remain as it is.That is great contribution of all religion on their followers

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  12. Your questions made me think of recent talks by David Eagleman about his book Incognito. It would appear from the neuroscience he discusses that our thoughts and beliefs are composed of a bunch of competing factions within the brain, and it depends on so many things (often invisible to us and outside our control) as to which faction will win. We argue with ourselves over going to the gym or eating that piece of chocolate cake - who exactly are we arguing with?

    When it comes to the kinds of dilemmas you're discussing - 'sinful' or violent or illegal or immoral thoughts - we are still waging an internal battle in our brains over which side will win. All sorts of external forces can effect the outcome too... sharing a hot drink makes you more predisposed to be positive about someone, being 'primed' with happy images before a moral test may cause you to choose a different answer than if you were primed with upsetting or violent images. All of this makes me think that our decision over what is right and wrong can be very different depending on the situation, and we have much less choice over our thoughts (and hence whether we will feel guilty or not) than we think we do. Fascinating stuff!

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  13. Atheists are realists, plain and simple! Long has religion held humanity from progressing, while being responsible for mass conflict, segregation and seems to fuel the mentally unstable. It's a tool for manipulation and control. The bad certainly outweighs the good by a long shot and is a disease that only common sense can cure. Atheists should be respected as people (just with more brain cells to spare), and more importantly, understood instead of being ridiculed by those who subscribe to nonsensical myth that has no place in reality!

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