By Richard Scheinin

When it comes to lying on job resumes, cheating on exams or plagiarizing reports, folks who consider themselves devout churchgoers often leave their ethics at the chapel door when they return to their homes and jobs.

In fact, according to a soon-to-be-released report, the ethical behavior of people who say religion is "essential" to their lives is often not distinguishable from the behavior of those who describe religion as "unimportant."

The findings "run counter-intuitive to what many people expect," says Michael Josephson, founder of the Josephson Institute of Ethics in Marina del Ray, which researched and produced "Ethics, Values, Attitudes and Behavior in America: the Impact of Religious Belief, Gender and Age."

"There's a general assumption that people make that religious people are more honest than non-religious people," says Josephson. "They are," he says, pausing for emphasis. "_Slightly_."

Josephson based his opinion on the results of interviews about ethical behavior with nearly 9,000 people, 60 percent under age 25. More than 5,000 responded to questions about the degree of their religiosity.

Among other things, the report says 13 percent of the people who regard religion as "essential" have lied to get jobs (as opposed to 15 percent of irreligious people); that 36 percent of the same religious group cheated on exams as high school seniors (compared with 39 percent of irreligious people); that 30% percent of respondents who regard religion as "essential" cheated in college (as opposed to 29 percent for the irreligious); and that 20 percent of them admitted to submitting other people's work as their own (as opposed to 21 percent of their irreligious counterparts).

There were some brighter spots for the religious group: Only 18 percent admitted to stealing merchandise from a store in the past year (29 percent of the irreligious said they had done so).

And those who say religion is "essential" were less cynical: They tended to disagree that it is necessary to lie or cheat to get ahead in society, and were less likely to say they would be willing to do so. "The religious people are much more optimistic about their own virtue," says Josephson.

What does this it all add up to?

"It sounds like original sin continues to flourish, and that is not news," says the Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, the social commentator who edits "First things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life."


The institute set out to analyze the overall impact of religious faith on behavior, without categorizing those who responded according to their specific denominations or faiths. Those who responded to questions about religiosity fell into four groups: those who said religion was "unimportant;" those who said it was "somewhat important"; those who said it was "very important"; and, finally, those who said it was "essential" to their lives.

Only when considering the extremes -- the groups who characterized religion as "unimportant" and "essential" -- were there any discernible differences in ethical behavior. Otherwise, the "unimportant" group's behavior was indistinguishable from the others'.

There is a large body of research that indicates _what_ religious people think about proper ethical behavior, but a somewhat smaller body that attempts to analyze how their beliefs translate into action.

Give more to charity

A 1992 Gallup study showed that church members are more charitable than non-members: 78 percent of church members had made donations of food, clothing or other property in the previous year (as opposed to 66 percent of non-members); 54 percent had "directly helped" a needy neighbor (42 percent of non-members did so); and 37 percent "directly helped" a homeless person (compared with 33 percent of non-members).

Other surveys show that religious people are somewhat less likely to drive while intoxicated or steal in the workplace. But, as with the Josephson study, the manner in which people characterize their religiosity does not always seem to have a dramatic effect on the way they live out their lives. Perhaps that's not surprising.

"One would like to believe that people who think of themselves as devout Christians would also behave in a manner that is in accord with Christian ethics," says Neuhaus. "But pastorally and existentially, I know that that is not the case -- and never has been the case."