Roman Catholic beliefs produce characteristic neural responses to moral dilemmas


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Abstract

This study provides exploratory evidence about how behavioral and neural responses to standard moral dilemmas are influenced by religious belief. Eleven Catholics and 13 Atheists (all female) judged 48 moral dilemmas. Differential neural activity between the two groups was found in precuneus and in prefrontal, frontal and temporal regions. Furthermore, a double dissociation showed that Catholics recruited different areas for deontological (precuneus; temporoparietal junction) and utilitarian moral judgments [dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC); temporal poles], whereas Atheists did not (superior parietal gyrus for both types of judgment). Finally, we tested how both groups responded to personal and impersonal moral dilemmas: Catholics showed enhanced activity in DLPFC and posterior cingulate cortex during utilitarian moral judgments to impersonal moral dilemmas and enhanced responses in anterior cingulate cortex and superior temporal sulcus during deontological moral judgments to personal moral dilemmas. Our results indicate that moral judgment can be influenced by an acquired set of norms and conventions transmitted through religious indoctrination and practice. Catholic individuals may hold enhanced awareness of the incommensurability between two unequivocal doctrines of the Catholic belief set, triggered explicitly in a moral dilemma: help and care in all circumstances—but thou shalt not kill.

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