The summary from the LA Times article says it all in reference to this behavioral study on beliefs and cheating: “The study found no difference in the ethical behavior of believers and nonbelievers. But participants who saw God as compassionate were more likely to cheat than those who believed in an angry, punitive God.”
So if you think belief in God affects morality (and psychologists are hesitant to use the term “morality”) in this instance it doesn’t, only what kind of God you believe in. An angry God threatening hell was more effective than a caring, lovy dovy God who is apt to forgive your cheating. You can just leave the atheists and other unbelievers out of it, this is between theists.
There should be some balance in what theists believe as God is not just one emotion, but it seems some Christians emphasize either his stern side or his compassionate side. This affects not just their willingness to cheat but how they live their lives. This is my opinion, but someone who believes in a compassionate God is more likely to be happier and dare I say free-spirited then someone who feels constantly reminded of damnation and brimstone who is likely to be fearful and judgmental.
Now, as with all studies, we have to be careful not to read too much in it but it has been peer reviewed and published in The International Journal for the Psychology of Religion (there’s a journal for everything I guess). The study involved a math test given to 100 undergraduates where they were told due to a computer glitch that the correct answer to each question would pop up if the space bar wasn’t pressed quickly enough. In addition, the graduates had to take a 14-question survey to determine their beliefs. The study was conducted by Azim Shariff and Ara Norenzayan, both psychologists.
Now before atheists get too cocky, this same pair did an earlier behavioral study in 2008 on whether religion unconsciously primed the mind to be kind to strangers. And the results seem to show that, yes, indeed, religion could be a motivating factor in generosity. They received hate mail from both atheists and religious people which just goes to show you can’t please everyone.
I personally would not be offended by such a behavioral study. It is what it is and maybe religion can be a motivating factor to do good depending on what god and how this god is interpreted. It’s just that atheists don’t need to do good for God, but rather good for the sake of their own self-worth (often we take pride in being a good person). Good behavior isn’t necessarily an indicator of truth as both theists and atheists should recognize (in other words your good behavior doesn’t prove or disprove the existence of god or gods).