How God corrupts creatures great and small

Only Mitchell and Webb's Bad Vicar can save them - Martha Gill's Irrational Animals column.

After Archbishop Desmond Tutu refused to share a platform with Tony Blair on 30 August, he offered a brief explainer in the Observer. “Leadership and morality are indivisible,” he said. “Good leaders are the custodians of morality.” (Blair had not been a good leader.)

It was a sticky subject for Tutu to broach and critics accused him of hypocrisy, pointing to platform partners he has chosen in the past. He also got Blair’s problem the wrong way round: Blair believes only too strongly in the indivisibility of leadership and morality. Like Tutu, though, he extends this belief to the indivisibility of morality and religion. And there’s the difficulty.

Religious morality is not quite like other kinds of morality, because instead of consulting your sense of right and wrong, you’re consulting the moral sense of an invisible being who takes sides depending on who believes in him the hardest. With God on your side, there is a certain feeling of moral immunity. Historically, then, it is unsurprising that leaders lucky enough to have divine guidance made grand, sweeping decisions with little concern for detail – decisions like taking on a “moral” war.

The skewing effect of a compassionate God can be seen even on lower, pettier levels. In exams, students who believe in a forgiving deity are far more likely to cheat, and in lab studies, Christian participants who spend ten minutes writing about God’s merciful nature showed increased levels of petty theft when assigned a money-based task afterwards. More recently, a comprehensive study found that crime rates are significantly higher in places where people believe in divine redemption.

Researchers looked at belief surveys conducted between 1981 and 2007, which covered 143,000 people from 67 countries. In places where the belief in heaven was stronger than the belief in hell, the level of crime was significantly higher. Take a country where belief in heaven is strong and you’ll find a significantly higher national crime rate. The belief in hellfire seemed to have the opposite effect – scaring people into good behaviour, even when earthly policing systems failed.

Too nice

The researchers thought that a belief in the ultimate insignificance of mortal doings along with an opportunity for regular slate-wiping doesn’t necessarily make for good behaviour. Blair’s God, it seems, may have been too nice to him. But redemption could still be at hand. His God just needs to get a little more Old Testament.

How to effect the change? Well, since Tutu is out as a platform partner, perhaps Blair could be set up with Mitchell and Webb’s Bad Vicar. He’d set him straight. Here he is in full swing:

“Aren’t you all entitled to your half-arsed musings on the Divine. You’ve thought about eternity for 25 minutes and think you’ve come to some interesting conclusions. Well let me tell you, I stand with 2,000 years of darkness and bafflement and hunger behind me, my kind have harvested the souls of a million peasants, and I couldn’t give a ha’penny jizz about your internet assembled philosophy.”

Tony Blair. Photograph: Getty Images

Martha Gill writes the weekly Irrational Animals column. You can follow her on Twitter here: @Martha_Gill.

This article first appeared in the 10 September 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Autumn politics special

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Hot or not: why teens can't stop rating each other online

From Instagram to Snapchat, teenagers are using popular apps to request, and award, appraisals. But what does it mean for teens' well-being?

Before there was Facebook, there was Facemash. Launched by Mark Zuckerberg in October 2003, this site placed two Harvard students’ pictures side by side and asked users to vote on who was more attractive. The game was quickly shut down by the university and Zuckerberg faced charges – which were later dropped – of violating people’s privacy. “One thing is certain,” he wrote at the time, “and it’s that I’m a jerk for making this site. Oh well. Someone had to do it eventually.”

In the 2000s, there was hotornot.com – a site where people rated each other out of ten. Then came Fitsort, a Facebook plug-in allowing users to see where they ranked in attractiveness compared to friends. But social media remains the biggest offender, teenagers using hashtags and captions to invite judgement. The means may have changed but the ends are the same. Teens are obsessed with rating each other’s looks online. As you might guess, this is often a far from pleasant experience.

“I didn’t start really getting comfortable with myself until this year,” says Natalie Sheehan, a 17-year-old from Oregon who, between the ages of ten and 15, was often rated four or five out of ten by her peers. “When I got rated low numbers, it really took a toll on my self-confidence and for the longest time I was uncomfortable with who I was and how I looked.”

On the whole, being rated is an “opt-in” experience. In 2012, however, many young Facebook users began to create “hot or not” videos, in which they reeled off their classmates’ names and rated them without their consent. Mostly, however, users are asked to “like” Instagram or Facebook pictures, or send an “X” on Snapchat in exchange for a rating. So, why are teens so keen to open themselves up to this kind of judgement?

“The teenage years are typically a time where a young person develops their self-identity, and they do this through comparisons,” says Angharad Rudkin, a chartered child clinical psychologist, when I ask her why every recent generation seems to do this. “Fitting in and being accepted by peers is a critical aspect of this developmental stage, so this rating system is revealing a process that has taken place for many generations, but in a much less explicit way.”

But it is the explicit nature of the ratings that causes problems. Although some users privately message each other, most post publicly. Ania Hałuszczak, a 15-year-old from Shipley, Yorkshire, tells me that popular people get more “likes” on their “like for a rate” statuses because their opinion is more valued. The potential for humiliation is huge.

“The ‘online disinhibition effect’ is the tendency for people to say or do things online that they typically wouldn’t in the in-person world,” says John Suler, the author of Psychology of the Digital Age: Humans Become Electric. “We all know that in high school there is a lot of cruelty going on, and so that will happen online, too, often in a magnified way. People think that what’s online is not ‘real’, or that it’s all some kind of game, so why does it matter if you’re cruel to others?”

Cruelty doesn’t have to be oblique to have an impact. “One of my friends wrote a status: ‘Like for an honest rating on looks.’ I liked it, telling myself I wouldn’t think twice about the outcome,” Ania says. “She wrote ‘8 xx’. The rating upset me even though I didn’t want it to. I can remember thinking, ‘What made her give me an eight? Where did I lose those two points?’ I decided that I just wasn’t pretty enough. After all, she was being honest.”

Ania and Natalie say that, as they got older, rating became less common. But like playground chants and clapping games, these practices are handed down to the next generation and they seem to be most popular with ten-to-14-year-olds. “As they get older, teenagers tend to prefer more intensive one-to-one relationships, where the group process is slightly less influential,” Rudkin explains. Yet does being rated poorly have a lasting effect on a teen’s psychological well-being?

“I definitely look back and laugh at it now, since I don’t take any of those ratings from when I was in middle school seriously,” Natalie says. “I have grown up since then and now I know that it doesn’t matter what people think.”

Nonetheless, she confesses that she wishes she had never rated people, nor given others the opportunity to rate her. “My appearance isn’t for judging. My appearance isn’t who I am,” she says. “I am who I am. My looks don’t define me. So boys and girls who continue to rate people’s beauty on a scale of one to ten, please do yourself a favour and try to love yourself.” 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge