Religion, Morality, and Self-Control
Values, Virtues, and Vices
ANNE L. GEYER
ROY F. BAUMEISTER
All known societies have moral rules that identify certain classes of action as right or wrong. In general, these moral rules condemn selfish, impulsive, shortsighted actions and instead promote acts that provide benefits in larger perspectives-for example, by being good for society as a whole or by bringing long-term gains. The capacity to make such choices is rare in nature and arguably uniquely human. From an evolutionary perspective, the capacity for moral thought and moral action may be uniquely human, which suggests that that capacity is a recent addition onto a psyche that in other respects resembles that of other animals, including being selfish, impulsive, and shortsighted. Put another way, human beings may have many tendencies and impulses that are similar to what most other animals have, but humans have also developed a capacity to restrain and override those tendencies so as to act morally (Baumeister, 2005). That capacity is self-control.
In that perspective, self-control is a psychological capability for bringing one's behavior into line with meaningful rules and standards. It is hardly surprising that its success is incomplete. Probably everyone has occasionally failed to live up to his or her moral ideals at some point, and most people experience such failures throughout life. Self-control thus needs help. In this chapter, we examine the power of religion to promote morally virtuous behavior by means of improving self-control. More precisely, the goal of this chapter is to discuss how people are sometimes able to be virtuous and why they sometimes fail. We propose self-control as the master virtue and consequently focus our analysis on the operation of self-control. We intend to explore the relationship between religion and virtuous behavior, focusing on religion's potential contributions to people's attempts to control themselves and be virtuous. We will suggest ways in which religion may be a resource in the pursuit of virtue.
TheWebster'sdictionary (7th edition) defines morality as "the set of rules, doctrines, and lessons pertaining to principles of rightness and wrongness in human behavior." At an individual, intrapsychic level of analysis, virtue refers to having the intention and the where withal to behave in a morally excellent way (Baumeister & Exline, 1999). Although a more refined analysis may be possible, for the purposes of this chapter, we simply use "vice" or "sin" to mean the opposite of virtue.
Religion has strong ties to morality, in that religions prescribe morality. Religious writings are replete with instructions on how people ought to live, such as the Ten Commandments in the Judeo-Christian tradition or the Eightfold Plan in the Buddhist tradition (Baumeister & Exline, 1999). Further, many religious persons believe that religion is the source of morality; they view morality as originating in the will of God.
In this chapter, we are taking a social functionalist approach, that is, we view morality as adapted by culture to facilitate social relations (see Hogan, 1973). This perspective focuses on the role of morality in society. Moral behavior helps society to function successfully; immoral behavior poses problems for society, such as causing violence and aggression (Baumeister & Boden, 1998). The social functionalist perspective defines virtue as that which promotes healthy, harmonious society andsinas that which causes interpersonal damage.
Self-control (also self-regulation) refers to the self's altering its own responses.
Typically this is a matter of overriding one incipient response, thereby permitting an (often unspecified) alternative. Using self-control, one may resist temptation, refocus attention, alter a mood or emotional state, overcome fatigue, or in other ways change one's states or actions. As a capacity for altering responses, self-control contributes greatly to the flexibility and diversity of human behavior. If people did not have the capacity to alter their behavior, moral rules would be useless. At best, such rules might make people realize the wrongness of their actions, but they would be powerless to change those actions.
SELF-CONTROL AS THE MASTER VIRTUE
Self-control can be considered the master virtue, in that self-control is necessary for people to be able to behave virtuously and avoid vice or sin, Baumeister and Exline (1999, 2000) have argued. They pointed out how an analysis of some of the major virtues and vices illustrates the centrality of self-control to moral behavior. The famous "Seven Deadly Sins" (e.g., Lyman, 1978) provides a convenient taxonomy of vices to examine. The first, gluttony, refers to overeating and possibly engaging in other pleasures to excess. Failure to regulate eating behavior is a classic example of a lack of self-control. People also need self-control to overcome sloth, or laziness. Sloth involves the failure to override the impulse either to stop working or to continue doing something other than working. Greed, lust, and envy have to do with excessive striving after the inappropriate goals of money, sexual satisfaction, and the possessions or advantages of others. When the desire for these inappropriate goals arises, people must exert self-control in order to override the urge to act in pursuit of the goal. Similarly, self-control is required to override the impulse to act sinfully out of anger, such as aggressing. The mere experience or feeling of greed, lust, envy, and anger may also reflect failures of self-control. Finally, pride reflects failure to override the urge to think well of oneself. Thus, self-control failure seems likely to play a central role in each of these sins.
According to Baumeister and Exline (1999, 2000), just as vices exhibit a failure of self-control, many virtues stem from success at self-control. Their examination of Thomas Aquinas's list of cardinal virtues (Rickaby, 1896) demonstrates the connection between self-control and virtue. The first cardinal virtue, prudence, refers to weighinglong-term implications and risks when making decisions or acting. Prudence is related to the ability to forego immediate gratification for the sake of a greater, delayed benefit. Ability to delay gratification has been studied as a classic example of self-control (e.g., Mischel, Shoda, & Peake, 1988). Self-control also seems essential to the virtue of justice, or doing what is morally right. Temperance refers to being moderate rather than excessive; the ability to refrain from excess also requires self-control. Fortitude is to remain resolute despite adversity, pain, or passion. This courage or firmness demands self-control to overcome the desire to compromise and thereby escape one's suffering. Each of these virtues thus seems to hinge upon the ability to control oneself.
A broader, social functionalist perspective also depicts self-control as crucial for virtuous behavior. The social functionalist perspective says that sometimes, though not always, the individual's interests are at odds with society's interests. When self-interest and the common good conflict, the virtuous course of action is for the individual to sacrifice his or her interests for the sake of society's good (Baumeister & Exline, 1999). To sacrifice one's own interests, one must override the automatic, selfish response. Both from anexamination of common sins and virtues and from the social functionalist perspective, self-control consistently appear to be crucial to morality. In that sense, self-control can fairly be designated the "master" virtue.
OPERATION OF SELF-CONTROL
How do people act virtuously? Taking self-control to be the master virtue allows us to focus that question to "How does self-control operate?" Researchers have identified three main elements in the operation of self-control: standards, monitoring, and operations that alter the self (Baumeister & Heatherton, 1996; Baumeister, Heatherton, & Tice, 1994).
First, for self-control to be possible, people must have a standard, a conception of what they ought to do. Standards give direction to a person's self-control efforts. Problems can arise when a person either lacks standards or has conflicting standards, such as in a moral dilemma. In the face of conflicting standards, people may feel frustrated and confused. Research by Emmons and King (1988) suggests that having conflicting goals can stymie effective action because it tends to produce rumination (contemplation).
Second, people must monitor their own behavior. They must be aware of what they are doing and how that compares to the standard. Self-monitoring is very similar to the concept of self-awareness, which also involves comparing the self against standards (Carver & Scheier, 1981). Self-control is more likely to fail when the person is not paying attention to his or her behavior; thus, factors that reduce self-awareness should also reduce self-control. In a state of deindividuation, for example, people are more likely to steal or lie (e.g., Diener, Fraser, Beaman, & Kalem, 1976). Similarly, consumption of alcohol, which impairs self-relevant cognitive processing (Hull, 1981), is associated with sexual misbehavior and violence (Baumeister, 1997; Baumeister, Heatherton, & Tice, 1994). By contrast, factors that increase self-awareness should also enhance self-control. For example, people are less likely to cheat when in the presence of a mirror because mirrors focus attention on the self (Diener & Wallbom, 1976).
Finally, even if a person has a clear standard, he or she still has to be able to make him- or herself behave according to that standard. People must have the power to change their own behavior; without this capacity, standards and monitoring are useless. Thus, the third step involves the actual operations that alter the self.
The Strength Model and Ego Depletion
How does self-control operate? Recent findings suggests that it resembles a strength or energy supply (e.g., Baumeister, Bratslavsky, Muraven, & Tice, 1998; Muraven & Baumeister, 2000; Muraven, Tice, & Baumeister, 1998). Operations that alter the self all consume a single resource, which is similar to a muscle in that it is limited but renewable. Any time a person exercises self-control, overrides an impulse, or makes a conscious choice, the store of this resource is depleted. When the resource has been depleted, the person will attempt to conserve the limited remaining stores. Thus, using self-control will deplete this resource, causing subsequent self-control efforts to be impaired. We can think of this depletion as being analogous to a temporary state of muscle fatigue.
The predictions of this strength or muscle model were tested in a series of studies by Baumeister et al. (1998) and Muraven et al. (1998). In many of these studies, first some participants performed a task that would be expected to deplete their self-control resources, while some participants did not. Afterward, all participants completed a different task, but one that would also require self-control. The experimenters wanted to know how having either performed versus not performed the first task would affect participants' performance on the second task. Different self-control models would predict different outcomes in this situation. For example, if self-control is like a skill, then one would expect gradual improvement over repeated self-control attempts, but no improvement after just one attempt. Assuming a "constant capacity" model of self-control would also predict no change on the second task as a result of having performed the first task. If self-control operates like a cognitive construct, then one would expect the first task to prime self-control, causing self-control to be enhanced on the second-task. In contrast, if self-control depletes a single, limited resource like a form of strength, then one would expect that participants' performance on the second task would be impaired if they had already been required to perform a different self-control task earlier.
The results of many studies have generally conformed to the pattern predicted by the muscle model. Muraven et al. (1998) found that participants who were first asked to regulate their emotional response to an upsetting video subsequently performed worse on a hand-grip task. Thus, exerting control over their emotions impaired participants' later physical stamina. They replicated this effect using different tasks requiring self-control in other domains; for example, participants who were first required to suppress forbidden thoughts subsequently showed reduced persistence on an anagram-solving task. Subsequent persistence and performance are both impaired by depletion (Baumeister et al.,1998). Participants who first had to eat radishes while resisting the temptation to sample some freshly baked chocolate cookies subsequently persisted for a shorter time on a different task. Similarly, participants who were first asked to try to suppress their emotional response to funny and sad videos subsequently performed worse than a control group on solvable anagrams. In these studies, the effect of depletion carried across strikingly different domains of self-control, including regulating task performance, suppressing thoughts, and regulating emotional responses. This pattern of results is consistent with the muscle model's assumption that various forms of self-control all draw from the same, limited resource.
Acts of conscious choice also seem to draw upon the same limited resource that self-control attempts (such as resisting the temptation to eat chocolates) consume. Baumeister et al. (1998) found that participants who were required to make a meaningful personal choice in the first part of the study subsequently showed decrements on a task requiring self-control. Making a conscious choice thus appeared to have depleted the self's resources. They also found that participants who had first performed a different self-control task later showed a preference for a passive rather than an active response option. When the self's resources are depleted, active responding is reduced. Together, these findings suggest that acts of conscious choice and acts of self-control do indeed draw upon the same limited resource. Depletion effects appear to extend to all acts of volition, not only to self-control. Thus, they use the term "ego depletion" to refer to the "state of weakness and vulnerability that apparently ensues when the self has already engaged in some acts of deliberate choice, active responding, or effortful selfregulation."
Depletion of this resource also impairs certain cognitive processes, as research by Schmeichel, Vohs, and Baumeister (2003) indicates. They found that participants who had first performed a depleting task showed subsequent decrements in performance on complex cognitive tasks such as logic and reasoning, cognitive extrapolation, and answering thoughtful reading-comprehension questions. These cognitive operations all require some kind of executive supervision, in the sense that the conscious self controls the process of moving from one set of information to something quite different (such as by logical deduction or extrapolation). In contrast, ego depletion did not affect participants' performance on more straightforward and automatic cognitive tasks, such as answering questions about general knowledge, or rote memorization and recall of nonsense syllables. Such automatic tasks do not depend on conscious or executive supervision. Thus, when thinking requires effortful volition, it too is degraded under conditions of ego depletion (such as results from a recent act of self-control).
This body of evidence, in summary, suggests that all acts of volition-including conscious choice, self-regulation, and effortful reasoning-place demands upon the same limited resource. Thus, exercising self-control depletes the self's resources, causing a state of ego depletion. During a state of ego depletion, a person is more likely to experience impaired self-control. The operation of self-control can therefore be conceptualized according to a strength or muscle model.
Implications of the Strength Model
The fact that various self-control acts, as well as other acts of volition, all require the same limited resource directly affects the degree of success people experience in their selfcontrol efforts. For example, because all acts of volition, including all forms of self-control, draw upon the same limited resource, self-control is likely to break down in multiple areas at once (Baumeister & Exline, 1999). Gottfredson and Hirshi (1990) reported that criminals exhibit a similar pattern: Most criminals are arrested repeatedly but for different crimes. In addition, criminals are more likely to smoke, drink, contribute to unplanned pregnancies, and have erratic attendance at school and work, all of which are legal but reflect further signs of chronically low self-control. A related implication of the limited resource assumption is that attempting too many different self-control projects at the same time, such as when people make ambitious lists of self-improvement "New Year resolutions," may be unwise (Baumeister & Exline, 2000). Since all of the self-control projects will be drawing upon the same limited resource, the resulting state of ego depletion will increase the likelihood of failure. Similarly, people may experience more success at a self-control project if they start it at a time when they are not under a lot of stress because coping with stress depletes the self's resources (Baumeister & Exline, 1999; Glass, Singer, & Friedman, 1969).
Making conscious choices depletes the self's resources. Consequently, tasks that involve many decisions will be more depleting and will also be more impaired by depletion than tasks that involve few decisions (Baumeister et al., 1998; Baumeister & Exline, 2000). The same holds true for tasks that require complex thought. When depleted, people may find it easier to exercise self-control in areas that will not require numerous decisions or an extensive amount of complex cognitive processing.
Another implication of the finding that effortful thought can be impaired by depletion is that moral reasoning is likely to be impaired under ego depletion, even though automatic moral responses such as gut reactions would not be affected. When the self's resources have been expended by acts of decision making or self-control, it should be less able to carry out moral-reasoning processes so as to resolve moral dilemmas in mature, sophisticated ways. Simple, deeply rooted moral reactions, such as revulsion against incest, would, however, most likely remain intact.
The formation of good habits may further ease self-control efforts. Controlled processes that are repeated again and again can eventually become at least somewhat automatic. Automatic processes do not deplete the self's resources as much as controlled processes do (Bargh, 1982). So, automatizing virtuous behavior should help to conserve the resource (Baumeister, Muraven, & Tice, 2000). If people regularly perform virtuous behaviors, eventually they will no longer have to make a decision each time about whether to perform the virtuous behavior, and they will have formed a virtuous habit. To the extent that they can do that, people's self-control should be less likely to suffer decrements during states of ego depletion.
The muscle analogy also implies that a person's self-control should grow stronger with regular exercise. William James, for example, recommended, "Keep the faculty of effort alive in you by a little gratuitous exercise every day. . . . The man who has daily inured himself to habits of concentrated attention, energetic volition, and self-denial in unnecessary things . . . will stand like a tower when everything rocks around him" (James, 1890/1950, p. 127). The idea that exercise may increase or build up people's self-control strength has been supported by findings by Muraven, Baumeister, and Tice (1999). They asked participants to perform self-control exercises (monitoring and improving posture, regulating mood, or monitoring and recording eating) for 2 weeks. After the 2 weeks, participants were asked to do first a thought suppression exercise and then a hand-grip task. Participants who had practiced their self-control exercises for 2 weeks persisted longer at the hand-grip task than a control group of participants who had not practiced the self-control exercises. Thus, the thought suppression exercise appears to have depleted the participants who exercised their self-control less than it depleted the participants who had not exercised their self-control for 2 weeks prior. Regular, long-term exercise may reduce a person's vulnerability to becoming quickly depleted and consequently experiencing decreased self-control.
Summary: Virtue, Self-Control, and Ego Depletion
According to a social functionalist perspective, virtue entails sacrificing self-interest for the sake of society when self-interest and society's interest conflict. Such sacrifice requires self-control because the person must override the natural, automatic tendency to act on the basis of self-interest. Baumeister and Exline (1999, 2000) noted that vices reflect a failure of self-control and that virtues depend on successful operation of self-control. On the basis of this consistent pattern, they concluded that self-control could be characterized as the master virtue. Thus, to understand virtuous behavior, we needed to examine how self-control operates. There are three basic ingredients to self-control: standards, monitoring, and operations that alter the self.
Research has indicated that self-control functions like a strength or muscle. After using self-control, subsequent uses of self-control will be impaired temporarily, as if selfcontrol were a muscle that had become tired from exertion. Other acts of volition in general can deplete the same resource. Furthermore, states of depletion can cause impaired performance in any of the wide range of activities that involve acts of volition.
This model has many practical implications. For example, initiating too many new self-control projects at the same time sets oneself up for failure. Regular exercise of selfcontrol should decrease one's vulnerability to becoming rapidly depleted by exertions of self-control. Automatizing behaviors, or forming virtuous habits, can conserve the self's resource and make it easier to maintain virtuous behavior when one is depleted.
RELIGION AND VIRTUE
Religious organizations, as an external source of discipline, can be very helpful to people's personal self-control endeavors (Baumeister, Heatherton, & Tice, 1994). This section focuses on some of the practical ways that religion may facilitate virtuous behavior. The preceding review of how self-control operates serves as the foundation for our exploration of religion's potentially supportive role in the operation of self-control.
We do not, of course, presume to assess the validity of religious beliefs about any supernatural processes here. We do not intend to imply anything about the possibility of religion providing supernatural help to self-control. Rather, we are concerned with how beliefs and behaviors commonly associated with religion may be helpful to people trying to exercise self-control. Thus we consider some specific religious beliefs and behaviors in the light of psychological research and theory about self-control.
The first way in which religion can facilitate self-control is by providing clear standards. Religions specify right and wrong. Religious traditions include direct commands about what people ought to do as well as moral exemplars for people to emulate. However, Baumeister and Exline (1999) noted certain cultural changes that may hamper the ability of religion to set forth clear standards.
One such cultural change is the adoption of a capitalist economy (Baumeister & Exline, 1999). Historically, virtue meant sacrificing self-interest for the sake of society when self-interest conflicted with society's interest. However, in a capitalist economy, if a person tries to make as much profit for him- or herself as possible, not only will this self-interested act not be harmful for society, but theoretically it should benefit the economy (and thus society) as a whole. Under capitalism there is no longer a simple, clear distinction between what is good for the individual and what is good for society. This shift is also reflected in the changed moral sensibilities of the Christian church: Whereas the early Christian church had taught that trying to make money qualified as the sin of greed, today most Christians have no moral qualms about seeking to maximize profits (Baumeister & Exline, 1999).
A second important cultural change is the elevation of selfhood into a value base (Baumeister, 1991; Baumeister & Exline, 1999). Habermas (1973) posited that society needs to have sources of value (such as tradition or God's will) that do not have to derive their value from any outside source, but rather are sources of value for other things. These "value bases" (as Baumeister, 1991, called them) are important moral resources for society. When a value base is destroyed, as occurred during the process of modernization, Habermas argued, society experiences a shortage of value, or a "legitimation crisis." Baumeister (1991) has theorized that when a society experiences a legitimation crisis, that society will turn to other sources of value and attempt to elevate them into value bases to fill the value gap. He suggested that society has attempted to do just this with the self. It is now considered acceptable, and perhaps even morally obligatory, to act in the best interest of one's self, whereas, traditionally, morality and religion have sought to restrain selfinterested behavior. This essentially means almost a reversal of some moral norms. For example, in the past, society put pressure upon women to be willing to sacrifice a great deal for the sake of a marriage; now, women are often made to feel as though they have an obligation-to themselves!-to leave a marriage that does not satisfy them fully or allow them to pursue their own potential (Zube, 1972). People are exhorted to think of themselves first and are reminded, for example, "You've got to do what's best for you."
This development of the self into a value base puts morality in a strange position (Baumeister, 1991; Baumeister & Exline, 1999). Historically, a central and explicit goal of religion and morality in general has been to restrain the self and to override people's tendency to act out of self-interested motives. Now people must find a way to reconcile historical conceptions of morality with the recent formulation of the self as a source of value with inherently authoritative claims. Society may compromise between traditional morality and the newly elevated status of the self by, for example, approving a person's selfish actions except in those cases where the person deliberately tries to hurt someone else (Baumeister & Exline, 1999). Traditional morality and the newly elevated status of the self as a locus of entitlements and rights seem to be coexisting at best in an uneasy tension. Both of these cultural changes have contributed to the obscuring of moral standards and the lack of consensus on moral issues. Moral diversity, more so than demographic diversity, may pose problems for society (Haidt, Rosenberg, & Hom, 2003).
As one of culture's foremost promulgators of moral standards, religion can scarcely escape this cultural evolution unscathed. In response, some religious groups shift their moral stance to be more in line with the broader culture (Baumeister, 1991). This may occur either as part of a more or less deliberate attempt to maintain relevance and to "meet people where they're at," or simply as a result of the fact that religious groups are made up of people who are themselves part of the culture and are thus inevitably affected by the changes occurring in their culture. Some religious groups compromise by altering or deemphasizing their standards. They may be hesitant to insist upon their traditional moral standards out of fear of offending people's sense of autonomy or of alienating potential members. Some religious groups may also adapt by increasing their attention to values and services that are "friendly" to the self, such as positive self-worth, mental health, or recreation and leisure activities. Although such adaptations may help religious groups to meet the felt needs of people in society, they may do so at the cost of being able to provide guidance and clear standards for people who may be experiencing moral confusion.
Religious groups do not all make the same concessions; some groups may actually react against cultural trends by emphasizing their traditional standards even more stringently. This response, as well, may carry both advantages and disadvantages. Religious groups that do not compromise their moral stance are able to offer clearer and simpler rules to their members. As a result, their members may possess greater confidence that they understand what is right to do. Members of these groups may find the impression of permanence to be reassuring, as well. For example, some people may derive comfort from the idea that certain doctrines of the Catholic Church can never be changed. Furthermore, since acts of volition such as making a personal choice are depleting (Baumeister et al., 1998), people may feel relieved to be spared the burden of having to make a conscious personal choice on every moral issue. Being able to defer automatically to the moral ruling of their religious group may permit people to conserve their self-regulatory resources.
However, people may have more difficulty maintaining sincere faith in the teaching of their religion if that teaching diverges too sharply from the understanding of the surrounding culture. Even if a religious group offers clear standards, its members may still feel conflicted about those standards. For example, some Catholics, finding the Catholic Church's unwavering stance opposing birth control to be impractical, simply do not obey the rule. Such persons may resolve the resulting cognitive dissonance either by considering themselves to be "bad Catholics" for intentionally disobeying, or they may decide that they simply do not believe that the pope is infallible. If they decide they do not believe, this can erode or undermine their ability to accept the church's moral authority over their lives in general. Simple rules may be clear but rigid. Even if standards are clear, if those standards do not also allow for the flexibility, complexity, or nuance necessary to comprehend the evolution of culture, their usefulness for guiding people's virtuous strivings may be limited.
In summary, cultural changes such as the evolution of a capitalist economy and the elevation of the self to a value base may cause deficient or conflicting moral standards to become an increasingly common problem. This may be problematic for society in multiple ways; in particular, it deprives people of a clear standard to direct their self-control efforts. These cultural changes also may undermine the capacity of religion to serve as a source of moral standards the way it traditionally has done. Of course religion still does provide moral standards for many people; however, religion's standard-setting role is accompanied by additional challenges and complications due to these cultural shifts.
A second way in which religion can contribute to self-control efforts is by supplying motivation. Self-control efforts are more likely to falter without sufficient motivation. Muraven and Slessareva (2003) manipulated participants' level of motivation. They found that highly motivated participants' performances were not impaired by depletion, whereas depletion did impair the performances of participants who were lower in motivation. This finding suggests that when people are more highly motivated, despite being depleted, they are able and/or willing to expend more of the self's resources. Motivation may help people to circumvent lapses of self-control.
Religion provides an array of compelling reasons for moral conduct. The belief that God wants you to behave in a certain way is the ultimate reason to do so (Baumeister, 1991; Emmons, 1999). Particularly motivating may be religious beliefs about salvation or enlightenment (Baumeister, 1991). Many religious people associate moral virtue with positive outcomes after death, such as with beliefs that moral behavior will earn or guarantee salvation. Thinking about this ultimate goal (i.e., salvation) can help people to transcend their immediate stimulus environment (Baumeister, Heatherton, & Tice, 1994). Rather than focusing on everything around them that makes them want to quit being good, they can remind themselves of their larger or more abstract goals, and base their behavior upon those. Some Jewish theology, for example, portrays life as a time for preparing oneself, through repentance and good deeds, for what will occur after death: "This world is like the vestibule before the world to come; prepare yourself in the vestibule so that you may be able to enter the banquet hall" (Hirsch, 1989).
Some religious people also associate immoral behavior with negative outcomes after death. The fear of eternal torment in hell can be highly motivating for some people. As an extreme example, consider the story told about a fourth-century "desert father" (i.e., an ascetic Christian who lived as a hermit). A woman arrived at his cell one night and begged for shelter. Determined to restrain his sexual desire, the hermit thought about "the judgment of God." When that thought alone failed to quench his burning lust, he reportedly said to himself, "Well, let's see whether you will be able to bear the flames of hell," and put his fingers into the flame of the lamp, burning them one by one until morning came and he could finally send the woman on her way (Merton, 1960). Thus, whereas the promise of ultimate fulfillment may motivate some people, others may be inspired to virtue more effectively by their desire to avoid the ultimate negative outcome.
Religion can provide other motivations for virtuous behavior as well, aside from concerns about what will happen after death. Many Protestant Christians, for example, believe that people are incapable of earning salvation by their moral behavior but that moral behavior is the appropriately grateful response to God's free gift of salvation. Such persons may be motivated to obey religious commands because they believe that their obedience will please or "bless" God, toward whom they feel gratitude and love. Others, for example, may obey religious commands because they believe that their moral behavior will bring glory to God; thus, they perceive themselves as having the opportunity to play a significant role in an unimaginably grand plan and purpose.
A variety of religious beliefs may serve effectively to motivate virtuous, self-controlled behavior. Religious beliefs have to do with the highest levels of meaning and the longest ranging time frames (Baumeister, 1991). Religious beliefs are ideal for facilitating transcendence because religion is abstract, provides long-term goals, and lays claim to ultimate value as well as the ultimate frame of reference (Emmons, 1999). Religion can imbue the most mundane of activities with meaning because it allows people to base their everyday behavior upon high-level principles. The ability to view one's activity in a larger meaningful context can help people to persist on aversive or dull tasks (Sansone, Weir, Harpster, & Morgan, 1992). Similarly, Berg, Janoff-Bulman, and Cotter (2001) suggested that people's type of motivation for doing something can affect outcomes. Their findings suggest that people may be more likely to reach their goals when their motivation is autonomous (i.e., because they "want to") rather than an obligation (i.e., because they "should"). Religious beliefs give people multiple angles for transforming externally im-posed moral rules into intrinsically motivated personal values.
In short, religion offers people a range of potent motivations for moral behavior. Foremost among religious motivations may be the pursuit of ultimate fulfillment in the form of religious salvation. As MacIntyre (1981) has noted, without the framework of religion, people are often hard put to come up with compelling motivations for good behavior (also see Baumeister & Exline, 1999). Motivation is therefore a vital contribution that religion can make to people's self-control efforts.
Third, religion can facilitate people's monitoring of their own behavior. Monitoring is often crucial to the success of self-control efforts. Many religious groups have instituted periodic times for self-examination. For example, members may be expected to regularly attend religious meetings, at which they are reminded of standards and prompted to consider whether they are meeting those standards. Catholics follow the rite of confession, in which they confess their sins to a priest. In addition, religious groups often encourage people to engage in daily self-monitoring on their own time through prayer, meditation, reading, or keeping a "spiritual journal." Some religions remind adherents that God is also monitoring their behavior; for example, a Jewish saying counsels: "Consider three things and you will not fall into the grip of sin. Know what is above you: a seeing eye and a hearing ear, and that all your deeds are recorded in The Book" (Hirsch, 1989). This may furnish an additional incentive for accuracy in self-monitoring.
Managing Inappropriate Desires
Fourth, religion may help people to manage their nonvirtuous desires. There are two separate levels on which self-control may be required in order for a person to be virtuous: eliminating inappropriate desires and refraining from acting on those desires. This distinction relates to sins such as lust, envy, and anger, from the list of the Seven Deadly Sins. For example, many people believe that to be virtuous it is sufficient merely to refrain from acting on their lust. On the other hand, some people believe that it is also immoral merely to entertain lustful thoughts or feelings and may therefore attempt to suppress oreradicate the lustful desire itself. Even people who do not believe that having lustful desires is sinful may still wish to eradicate their desires, so as to be able to avoid acting out of lust. Their reasoning might follow along the lines of, "It would be a lot easier to be good if I didn't want so badly to be bad." However, is it possible to eradicate sinful desires?
Baumeister, Heatherton, and Tice (1994) have argued that attempting to control impulses is likely to prove futile. They summarized the way impulses arise in terms of the combination of a latent motivation and an activating impulse. People have a variety of latent motivations, or wants and needs. These motivations may be more or less automatic or biologically programmed. At any given time, these motivations, although present, may not be felt consciously if there is no activating cue or stimulus-either in the environment or naturally arising in the person (such as hunger). However, in the presence of the appropriate cue, the impulse to satisfy a particular motivation will arise. Because no conscious effort or choice is required for this impulse to arise, the impulse cannot be consciously controlled by mere force of will. Given a latent motivation and an activating cue, the impulse will automatically arise, whether a person wants it to or not. Thus, in managing one's desires, the impulse itself is not a productive target of control efforts. An easier and therefore more effective target of control may be the environment: To the extent that a person can purge his or her environment of activating cues, he or she may be able to prevent an impulse from arising. A secondary and less certain target of control may be the latent motivations themselves. Motivations that are biologically programmed would resist change, but it is possible that other motivations that are more a product of learning may be somewhat amenable to being unlearned.
In dealing with inappropriate desires, attention is the place to begin (Baumeister, Heatherton, & Tice, 1994). The most effective strategies are likely to be those that prevent a cue or stimulus from ever activating the latent motivation in the first place. The safest way to ensure that a cue does not capture one's attention may be to remove the cue from one's environment. For example, a person who is trying to avoid drinking alcohol would want to make sure that there is no alcohol in his home and may also wish to remove any Absolut Vodka posters and take down his neon Bud Lite sign left over from his college days.
Being a member of a religious group or living in a religious community permits even greater control over the tempting stimuli in the environment, because people can surround themselves with others who share similar moral standards. For example, some religious groups and orders seek to promote celibacy as a way of life. From our reading, very few of these favor mixed-gender living arrangements or fashionable clothing. Instead, to avoid activating sexual thoughts, they remove people from contact with sexually suggestive stimuli. Living in a cave or desert is one option. Another is to have the members live in same-gender groups with unflattering haircuts and concealing, unfashionable clothing.
However, suppose that a cue or stimulus does slip through the person's net. What can a person do once an impulse has arisen and the inappropriate motivation has made its existence felt? Some people may attempt to suppress their thoughts about the vice that is tempting them. Research by Wegner, Schneider, Carter, and White (1987) suggests that this strategy is likely to have at best limited success. They asked participants not to think about a white bear, and found that a rebound effect occurred: After the prohibition against white bear thoughts was lifted, those participants thought about white bears even more than participants who were instructed to think about white bears. Thus, while people's energy lasts or while people remember to monitor their thoughts, they may be able to at least reduce their thoughts about the temptation. However, when they run out of energy, or simply stop suppressing the thoughts, they may find themselves more obsessed with the temptation than they would have been had they not tried to control their thoughts at all.
However, Wegner et al. (1987) found that providing participants with a distraction-in this case, instructing them to think about a red Volkswagen instead of a white bear-enabled them to be much more successful at suppressing thoughts about the white bear. Distraction is another important aid to management of inappropriate desires. The effectiveness of distraction has also been noted in research on delay of gratification (Mischel, 1974; Rodriguez, Mischel, & Shoda, 1989). Children who succeeded in waiting for a delayed larger reward commonly employed some technique of self-distraction. They found some way-whether playing games with their feet, singing, covering their eyes, or trying to sleep-to occupy their attention with something (anything!) other than the tempting smaller prize that was immediately available (Mischel, 1974).
Religion can supply people with multiple avenues for distraction from temptation. Religious conversion is often accompanied by new goals and motives (Paloutzian, Rich-ardson, & Rambo, 1999). Although the person's old, inappropriate desires still exist, they may be overpowered by the force of the newly acquired goals. This is, essentially, the concept of transcendence again. The person focuses on the new high-order religious goal, ignoring desires to engage in activities that are incompatible with his or her religious goals. For example, someone who used to go to wild parties on the weekend may, after a religious conversion, suddenly prefer to attend a religious meeting. To the extent that people can immerse themselves in the pursuit of religious or virtuous goals, they will become too preoccupied and distracted to feel very strongly the temptation to sin. Dealing with an inappropriate desire may be relatively easier for a person who has managed to get him- or herself caught up in something else even more engrossing, such as an activity that produces a state of "flow" (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990). Furthermore, people may learn to "develop a taste for" virtuous or spiritual satisfactions, such that their zeal in pursuing religious goals and rewards continues to increase. The more strongly people desire their moral or religious goals, the more likely are those goals to outweigh sinful desires. Simultaneously, we could speculate that people's cravings for sinful pleasures may fade slightly with disuse; after not indulging in a sin for a period of time, people may gradually begin to forget slightly how much they had once enjoyed that sinful activity. This may be especially likely if the person is motivated to forget, or, put differently, if the person is motivated to remember their past in a negative light.
Although latent motivations are often activated by external stimuli, sometimes the cue comes not from the environment so much as from the person him- or herself. Emotional distress may function like a cue for people to engage in vices. Baumeister (2005) has proposed that behavior pursues emotion. According to this theory, people do what they think will make them feel positive emotions and avoid what they think will make them feel negative emotions. Consistent with that view, Tice, Bratslavsky, and Baumeister (2001) found that when people are emotionally distressed, they indulge their immediate impulses in an attempt to make themselves feel better. In short, they sacrifice their selfregulatory goals in order to boost their mood. However, when participants believed their bad mood was frozen (unchangeable), their tendencies to eat fattening foods, seek immediate gratification, and engage in frivolous procrastination disappeared. Thus it seems that people believe that indulging will improve their mood. When people are distressed, the goal of affect regulation sometimes conflicts with other self-control goals. Prioritizing the goal of affect regulation over other self-control goals is a common cause of selfcontrolfailures. For example, if a woman who is in a bad mood believes that buying new clothes will make her feel better, she may choose to go shopping, even if that causes her to fail in her goal of saving money (Baumeister, 2002). In summary, emotional distress can prompt failures of self-control because in general people behave in a way that they think will make them feel good. When distressed, many people believe that indulging themselves will improve their mood. People's emotion regulation goals often take precedence over their self-control goals.
Emotional distress is an internal cue, not as easily controlled as stimuli in the external environment. In general, people don't have direct control over whether they are going to be in a bad mood. However, some beliefs commonly associated with religion tend to reduce people's emotional distress during experiences of misfortune, discomfort, or suffering. Many religious people believe that God is sovereign-in other words, that God has ultimate control over everything that happens. Another common religious belief is that God is benevolent, that God's intentions toward humankind are good and trustworthy. Those two beliefs together comprise a tremendous resource for people who are coping with distressing events. People who hold those kinds of beliefs can derive comfort from the assumption that what they are undergoing is not meaningless, but rather has some good purpose-regardless of whether they know exactly what that purpose is. Belief in ultimate religious salvation or fulfillment can also enable people to endure far more tribulation than they otherwise would. Because they have not yet sampled this ideal future, people are free to assume that the coming happiness will more than compensate them for their present troubles. This principle is mentioned often in the Bible-for example, "I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us" (Romans 8:18).
Thus, religious beliefs may supply people with motivation, hope, and comfort that can allow them to maintain virtuous behavior, even when to do so is painful or difficult. Furthermore, since the religious beliefs themselves may reduce people's emotional distress during difficult or unpleasant experiences, religious people may feel less tempted to regulate their mood by indulging in some vice. In other words, religion may prevent or weaken the activating cue of emotional distress; consequently, the impulse to indulge in some sin may be less likely to arise.
There is another way in which religion may help prevent people's affect regulation goals from interfering with their self-control goals. We suggested that behavior pursues emotion; in that people will tend to do what they believe will produce positive emotion or alleviate negative emotion. Religion sometimes entails beliefs about what will and what will not make people happy, satisfied, or fulfilled. A person's religion may teach that engaging in a certain sin will not truly produce the satisfaction or positive emotion that he or she is seeking. To the extent that the person is convinced that this is true, he or she should be less likely to turn to sinful indulgences in order to regulate his or her affect. If the person does not expect sinning to bring positive emotion, the link between emotional distress and the impulse to indulge in that sin may be weakened or severed. It is possible that altering people's beliefs about what will make them happy might alter what they desire. So perhaps this could affect the latent motivation itself, although it is more likely that the motivation would be weakened than eliminated altogether. In addition, latent motivations that are biologically programmed are not likely to be greatly affected, no matter how fervent a person's beliefs might be.
In summary, religion can help people to regulate their affect because comforting beliefs in high-level meaning and in salvation can alleviate emotional distress. As a result, people may not feel as strong an urge to indulge in vices in an attempt to regulate their affect. Furthermore, when people are emotionally distressed, religion may discourage them from turning to vices to make themselves feel better, if their religion teaches them that indulging in sinful activities will not bring them the positive emotions and satisfaction that they are craving. If religious beliefs can interfere with a person's association between sin and pleasure, they may lessen that person's desire or motivation to sin.
Beliefs and Expectations about Failure and Success
Both religion and the broader culture can promote beliefs that affect people's self-control. Particular beliefs can influence the degree of success people experience in their selfcontrol endeavors, as well as the way they react to lapses and setbacks.
Whether people think it is possible to control themselves affects whether and how hard they are going to try to maintain control. Baumeister, Heatherton, and Tice (1994) argued that, although the evidence suggests that people generally acquiesce in their own loss of control, cultural trends may be leading people to believe that impulses such as aggression or violence are impossible to resist. This belief may be problematic in that people's beliefs that they are helpless to resist may lead them to reduce their efforts. Furthermore, if people are indeed helpless, then they cannot be held morally accountable for their actions. Consequently, these beliefs are likely to contribute to an increase in actual violent behavior. Similarly, if people believe they are powerless to resist their addiction to alcohol or drugs, they may be more likely not to attempt to control themselves. They may not consciously intend to not control themselves; nevertheless, they may unconsciously more easily acquiesce with the loss of self-control. Thus, cultural trends that support the belief that people cannot control, and therefore cannot be held accountable for, their actions may actually detract from people's success at self-control.
Some religious beliefs may counteract those cultural trends. For example, some religious beliefs include an emphasis on personal responsibility. Furthermore, as noted earlier, religion gives directives for moral behavior. Some religious people may take the divine command about what to do as implying that obedience is possible. If obedience is possible, then there is no excuse for disobedience. Perceiving that their behavior is under their own control may spur people to acknowledge their own complicity in their loss of selfcontrol. It is harder for them to deceive themselves; they have to admit to acquiescence. While this understanding is likely to be uncomfortable for the individual, it is likely to be beneficial for the rest of society.
However, a limit must be acknowledged: It may be counterproductive for people to believe that they have control over things they cannot actually control, such as impulses. Baumeister, Heatherton, and Tice (1994) concluded that most impulses cannot themselves be controlled (rather, at best, one can only control the behavior that might stem from the impulse). Some religious authorities have voiced similar opinions. The Jewish sages taught that the "evil inclination" was created by God, and thus it was not in man's power to completely uproot, although it was in man's power to rule (Urbach, 1979). Christian ascetics of the fourth century concurred. In fact, in the stories of the desert fathers, when a hermit claimed to have succeeded in "killing" sinful passion-even one who had "fasted valiantly for fifty years"-that person was corrected or warned by the others. They viewed such claims as an indication of self-deception or lack of insight, and even considered that the person's seemingly passionless state could be spiritually harmful. Likewise, when a younger member of the monastic community was upset about his failure to eradicate sinful impulses, he was reassured that eradicating the impulses was both impossible and unnecessary, and that all that mattered was how he responded to the sinful impulses when they did arise (Merton, 1960). Most people today likely would consider eradicating the passions or controlling the occurrence of impulses to be impossible. However, a significant number of religious groups have held that type of view. For example, Christians in the "Holiness Movement" believed in a doctrine called "entire sanctification," which meant that a person can be sinless in this life, or perfected in holiness. This doctrine seems to have proved problematic, both for interpersonal relationships and for the psychological health of individuals (Henry, 1984). Overall, unrealistic beliefs about the degree to which people can control themselves seem to be a problem to which religious people, more than nonreligious people, might be prone.
One reason that religious people may be more likely to entertain unrealistic expectations about their own perfectability is that religious beliefs can increase people's sense of self-efficacy. For example, religious persons may believe that God is helping them, or that their methods are endorsed by God and thus more likely to be effective. Religious persons may also pray for success and expect that their requests will be granted. Many Christians believe that God's Holy Spirit dwells within them and works to change and sanctify their hearts. The Bible specifies self-control as one of the "fruits," or products, of the presence of God's Spirit. Irrespective of whether the beliefs themselves are accurate, the ensuing heightened sense of self-efficacy may affect the degree of success at self-control that people experience. These beliefs may bolster people's self-control efforts.
In some cases, though, religious beliefs could negatively affect self-control attempts. Religious beliefs may give people false confidence or lead them to believe that they don't have to put forth any effort-this might be termed the "let go and let God" mentality. Such persons might focus on God's power so much that they underemphasize the active role of the person. Persons whose religious beliefs hinder their self-control in this way might be described as having low spiritual intelligence, as defined by Emmons (2000). The problem is not that they are religious, but that they have failed to adaptively balance the components of their spirituality (Emmons, 2000). Unrealistic self-assessments canalso lead to other forms of misregulation such as overcommitment or persisting too long at a doomed project (Baumeister, Heatherton, & Tice, 1994).
Religious beliefs can also affect how people respond to failure and setbacks. The way people deal with lapses in self-control has the potential to sabotage their efforts. Religion can contribute either to constructive or to maladaptive responses to lapses, depending onthe person's specific beliefs. For example, for some people, religious beliefs may cause them to base their sense of self-worth on their success at being virtuous. Therefore, when they fail, they may be especially prone to fall prey to discouragement. By contrast, other people's religious beliefs may cause them to base their sense of self-worth on God's unconditional grace. When these people fail, they may feel free simply to try again, without being overly burdened by guilt.
Failures of self-control-such as not studying, overeating, or not exercising-are one of the most common sources of guilt feelings. The other major topic of guilt, according to Baumeister, Stillwell, and Heatherton (1995), is interpersonal transgressions. Arising when people fail to behave in a virtuous way or when people hurt one another, guilt is widely considered to be a moral emotion or moral affect (e.g., Tangney, 1991, 1992).
The generally prosocial, relationship-enhancing effects of guilt were documented in a literature review by Baumeister, Stillwell, and Heatherton (1994). Guilt motivates people to try to restore or maintain relationships, such as by making amends for wrongs they have committed, apologizing to people they have hurt, and trying not to commit the same offense again in the future. This last effect indicates the function of guilt to teach lessons: Guilt teaches people the lesson that they should not do again what they had done to arouse the guilt they feel (Baumeister et al., 1995). Guilt focuses attention on what the person did that caused the guilt. The feeling of guilt is experienced as aversive, but guilt is not subject to volitional control. If people could get over their guilt just by snapping their fingers or wishing it away, guilt's power to teach lessons and to enforce relationshipenhancing behaviors would be greatly reduced. Thus, guilt functions to promote relationships. The desire to avoid guilt may be one of the most powerful motivators for moral behavior.
Cultural changes may have slightly weakened guilt's efficacy at spurring people to be virtuous (Baumeister & Exline, 1999). The emotional roots of guilt may lie partly in anxiety over possibly losing a relationship, which is why people generally feel more guilt about wronging a loved one than wronging a stranger (see Baumeister et al., 1994, for a review). However, over time, social relationships have become less stable. People are more mobile. They can easily move to a different geographic location. In addition, they can easily move from one level of society to another, and from one economic class to another. As a result, people have fewer long-term, stable relationships. Because people are most likely to feel guilty about harm done to someone with whom they have a stable long-term relationship, a reduction in long-term relationships diminishes guilt's power to enforce morality. Friedman's (2002) history of U.S. law makes the important point that laws and morals often use similar rules to promote similar behaviors, but insofar as morality depends on reputation and long-term relationship contexts to provide its force, it loses effectiveness in promoting prosocial behavior between strangers. Therefore, as society changes to increase the amount of dealings people have with relative strangers, they rely steadily more on law than on morality to ensure fair treatment.
Religion, on the other hand, may reinforce the power of guilt for promoting prosocial behavior. As mentioned earlier, some religious beliefs include an emphasis on the moral accountability of the individual. Religious persons may be less likely to think that their failures were outside of their control and therefore not something for which they could be blamed. Religion also puts forth clear moral standards, which enables people to know clearly when they have failed to meet those standards.
In addition, people who join a religion do not simply acquire a set of beliefs; they also become part of a group. Some people may stay with the same religious group over a long period of time and develop intimate relationships with other group members. However, the extreme mobility of people in contemporary society surely also affects the quality of people's affiliation with religious groups. Perhaps many religious people do not become deeply personally invested in one particular group of people, but rather may move from group to group. Nevertheless, people who belong to the same religious group are likely to share similar self-control goals. Membership in the group often entails a certain degree of moral accountability. Sometimes members of a religious group feel entitled or obligated to inform on or to confront each other when they perceive each other as falling short of virtue. Thus, they help to monitor each others' behavior. They may, in addition, reward virtuous behavior with acceptance or status, while punishing sinful behavior with ostracism or public shame. Despite cultural changes, religious groups still retain a unique position in terms of being able to enforce moral codes.
Another way in which guilt is connected to religion for some people is that religion supplies an additional relationship about which to feel guilty. Many Christians, for example, consider themselves to have a relationship with God on the basis of God's sacrificial love for them. They believe that in return they owe God gratitude and love. Some Christians also hold the belief that sin, in a sense, offends or hurts God; they may even speak in (metaphorical) terms about God's heart or God's feelings of sorrow. This conception of God as being like a person with whom they have a relationship endows them with an additional source of guilt upon sinning: Not only do they feel guilty because they have failed to self-regulate or to uphold a moral rule, they also feel guilty because they believe that their sin negatively affects God and possibly also may threaten their relationship with God.
The principle that behavior pursues emotion applies to guilt too. People try to behave in such a way that they will not have to feel guilty. The two most common sources of guilt are failures of self-control and interpersonal transgressions. The function of guilt is to make people less likely to commit the same failures of self-control or the same interpersonal transgressions again in the future. Thus, although the experience of guilt is unpleasant for the individual, guilt is a prosocial emotion in that it facilitates relationships and benefits society.
Summary: Religion and Virtue
Religiosity can affect self-control efforts in multiple ways, most of them positive. The evolution of a capitalist economy and the elevation of the self into a value base have complicated the moral landscape. Nevertheless, religion remains an important source of moral standards to guide people's self-control endeavors. As a source of motivation for moral behavior, religion is unparalleled. Religious organizations also have in place helpful traditions and practices that facilitate people's self-monitoring.
People may try to use a variety of strategies to deal with inappropriate or immoral desires. Preventing tempting stimuli from coming to one's attention is often the place one begins and is possibly the most effective way to stay on the path of virtue. This can often be accomplished most effectively by controlling one's environment. When a tempting stimulus does catch a person's eye, merely trying to suppress thoughts about the temptation is unlikely to be particularly productive. Distraction has been shown to be very helpful, both in the white bear thought suppression experiments and in the delay of gratification research. People who are religious may want not only to distract themselves from sinful desires, but to replace those sinful desires with virtuous or spiritual ones.
People's bad moods and emotional distress can lead them to try to remedy their mood by indulging in some vice or allowing their other self-control goals to fail. Religion is a helpful resource for those who are experiencing some sort of trouble or suffering. Because religion helps people to cope with negative situations, religious people may escape some of the self-control failures that occur as a result of immediate affect regulation goals taking precedence over normal self-control goals. Another possibility is that religious beliefs about what will or will not bring happiness and fulfillment can reduce people's inclination to indulge in vices for affect-regulating purposes.
A recurring theme in this chapter has been that the specific content of a religious belief often matters. This is also true of beliefs that the culture in general promotes. There is a disturbing trend for U.S. culture to support people's belief that they are sometimes incapable of controlling their actions. We are generally skeptical of people's efforts to abnegate personal responsibility for losses of self-control and ensuing misdeeds. However, there are some responses that are not directly controllable, including many impulses and emotions. Even so, people can control their behavior. In other words, people may be mostly unable to prevent themselves from having sinful thoughts, feelings, or impulses, but they can prevent themselves from acting on them.
Religious beliefs can directly affect people's expectations of success in their selfcontrol projects. It seems likely that Christians, for example, would have higher expectations of success if they believe that God is blessing their efforts. However, it would be hard to predict what the overall effect would be on people's level of success. Similarly, religious beliefs seem likely to influence the way people cope with setbacks and lapses in their efforts at self-control. However, any research on this topic would have to be willing to undertake a fairly fine-grained analysis, because merely assessing "religiosity" in general might yield results that would be ambiguous.
Guilt is the all-purpose moral emotion. Guilt teaches a lesson to the person experi-encing it, and is one of the most important motivators for moral behavior. Some motivations for morality are specific to religion, but guilt is available to all-religious or secular. The great mobility of people in contemporary society may slightly undermine the process by which guilt enforces morality. But religion continues to make good use of guilt. The religious groups to which people belong are often excellent at prompting guilt feelings in people who do not meet the group's moral standards. Christians also have an ever present guilt source, in that any time a Christian sins, he or she can interpret that sin as having hurt or offended God. In other words, according to some Christians' theology, there is no such thing as a victimless sin.
Religion offers many benefits, both to individual believers and to society as a whole. One large indirect means by which these benefits are obtained is probably self-control. By offering a framework that supports self-control, religion promotes a trait that enables people to do what is morally and pragmatically best for society and that also helps them do what best serves their own long-term, enlightened self-interest. We have characterized self-control as the master virtue because the capacity to override one's impulsive tendencies in order to do what is best or right is central to moral action. Most vices involve failures of self-control, and most virtues involve effective self-control.
At present, psychology has a better understanding of how self-control works than of how religiosity promotes self-control, and so our discussion of the latter has necessarily been somewhat speculative. Religion may promote self-control by upholding specific moral standards, by motivating people to want to be good, by exploiting the prosocial power of guilt, by linking the religious individual to a stable network of relationships with other believers and with God, by promoting character strength through regular exercise of the moral muscle, by fostering self-criticism, and by making people feel that their good and bad deeds are being observed and recorded. Possibly there are other ways as well. As knowledge continues to accumulate, it seems likely that self-control will continue to loom large in accounting for the earthly benefits of religiosity.
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