Virtue Signalling to God
A lot of behavior is about virtue signalling. While others are watching, people are more likely to behave morally, tastefully, agreeably. Signaling you are a good person is at least as important to people as actually being a good person. This is instinctual, and it doesn’t take an evolutionary psychologist to understand why – being perceived as moral has all sorts of perks, so many and so unfailingly that – wait for it – the best strategy is to be as good as possible even on the off chance that someone is watching. As long as there is a chance anybody is watching – do good.
The more likely it is that someone is watching, the less likely it is for us to commit crimes. At one level, this is obvious and rational – mugging someone on a crowded street is just asking for trouble. But the distinction is this: that virtue signalling itself, because it works so often, is the instinct. Human instinct says: do good as long as anyone is watching, even if they won’t reward or punish you. Even when an amoral observer-scientist is simply recording your activities without any judgment, you would still act more conscientiously than usually (this is probably a big source of bias in psychology experiments). Evolutionary psychology isn’t complicated enough to figure out a strategy like: do good if people are watching, unless they don’t care. The instinct to virtue signal is there regardless of who the observer is: another “quantum” effect on morality!
The need to invent a conscious, omniscient observer for the benefit of society is evident. As long as you believe God is always watching your every move, He doesn’t have to care, He doesn’t have to judge, He doesn’t need to say anything you do is wrong – you will try subconsciously to virtue signal to Him.
Thus, while our morality certainly does not come from religion, the existence of God by itself, independent of any other doctrine or teaching, is enough to awaken our better angels – to make us follow our already developed conscience. Conversely a person with a very skewed and dangerous ethics will only be further damaged by the belief in God.
So at the end of the day, all I have done is propose a mechanism to explain common sense: Religion brings out the best and the worst in people. Because they’re virtue signalling to God.