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Don’t trust the religious

Jesse Bering faces a serious dilemma, and as usual, he resolves it using his academic specialty, psychology. It’s an excellent example of failing to see the forest for the trees. I was brought up short by an anecdote he used Sunday on Salon to explain his rationale for not trusting godless people.

Take, for example, a situation I found myself in outside a rail station in an Irish seaside town years ago. My luggage in hand, the cold gray sky windy and threatening rain, I was confronted with two taxis at the curb waiting for passengers. One of the cars had a crucifix dangling from the rearview mirror and a dog-eared copy of the Bible on prominent display on the console.

The other taxi showed no trace of any religious icons. Now, all else being equal, which of these two taxis would you choose, considering also that you’re trying to avoid being overcharged, a practice for which this part of the country is notorious — and that being an American during the W administration, I might add, elevates you one step above our 43rd president in respectability? Both drivers are in all probability devout Catholics — this is Ireland, after all. Still, there’s no way to know for certain.

Unless you’re trying to make a point about how “atheists are good people too” or you happen to despise the Catholic Church, it’s really a no-brainer: Go with God.

Ack! No! It’s a no-brainer, all right: The correct answer is that when you see a taxi queue outside a rail station or airport, you take the first cab in line. The drivers expect that; they’re going to be made uncomfortable if you take a cab out of order, because you’ve put them in the position of jumping the line ahead of their coworkers.

If nothing else, I hope all prospective travelers reading this essay take away that basic understanding of taxi etiquette. My good deed for the day is done.

I’m also baffled by this behavior of inspecting taxis for religious paraphernalia. I always just hop in the passenger seat of the car and tell the driver my destination — scrutinizing the car and driver is just a little creepy and weird.

So how does Bering justify his discriminatory behavior? He cites the usual, familiar studies that show that if you take a sample of the general public (which, unfortunately, usually means middle- and upper-class white kids at a college) and expose them to religious priming words, they’ll tend to make decisions that conform more to social norms. In particular, there is a “supernatural monitoring hypothesis” that argues that making people conscious that someone might be watching — even if that someone is an imaginary supernatural being — tends to make them more self-consciously law abiding.

I accept these studies. I have no reason to believe that they are wrong, and they actually do make sense of some behaviors. But I do not consider them to be sufficient, and I think using narrow studies of this sort to guide real world decisions is a serious mistake.

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