Why are highly religious people are lesslikely to be moved by compassion than atheists, agnostics, and people who are religiously unaffiliated? After all, charity is a central tenet of most religious traditions. But, according to a new study from scientists at the University of California, Berkeley, that fact may be exactly why highly religious people are least likely to be moved by compassion.
In a series of experiments, the scientists found that nonreligious people were consistently compelled toward acts of generosity by feelings of compassion. According to the study’s news release, compassion is defined as “an emotion felt when people see the suffering of others which then motivates them to help, often at a personal risk or cost.” By contrast, for people who were rated “highly religious” on an unidentified religiosity scale (the full article is behind a firewall), compassion had no impact on their levels of generosity. This finding is especially interesting in light of recent evidence showing that the highly religious are less likely to think analytically.
A moral obligation
This report, however, does not mean that highly religious people are, in general, less compassionate. But it does unseat a fundamental assumption about acts of generosity or charity: that is, that these acts are motivated by feelings of empathy and compassion. That appears to be true for people who are non-religious, but for the highly religious, generosity appears to be more connected to a sense of moral obligation.
Laura Saslow, the study’s lead author said that she was inspired to undertake the study after a nonreligious friend told her that “he had only donated to earthquake recovery efforts in Haiti after watching an emotionally stirring video of a woman being saved from the rubble, not because of a logical understanding that help was needed.”
In one of the experiments, subjects watched either a “neutral” or a “heartrending” video, and were then given 10 “lab dollars,” with the instruction to give any amount of that money to a stranger. The non-religious people who had watched the “heartrending” video were much more likely to give more of their money away.
Emotional or doctrinaire connection?
“Overall, we find that for less religious people, the strength of their emotional connection to another person is critical to whether they will help that person or not,” explained Robb Willer, a study co-author. “The more religious, on the other hand, may ground their generosity less in emotion, and more in other factors such as doctrine, a communal identity, or reputational concerns.”
There are two ways to read this. The findings indicate that though non-religious people are more prone to spontaneous acts of generosity if they feel compassion toward another individual, they are also less likely to be involved in a community that encourages regular giving to charitable causes in the first place.
More religious may simply act sooner
That is, a highly religious person might have been driven by social obligation to donate to earthquake recovery efforts in Haiti before Saslow’s friend saw the video that inspired him to give. Indeed, these findings seem to suggest that religious people are more likely to give charity because it is the right thing to do without any prodding from researchers. On the other hand, as Willer pointed out, “When feeling compassionate, [the non-religious] may actually be more inclined to help their fellow citizens than more religious people.”
These findings are further complicated because different religions have different traditions regarding charity and compassion. It is possible that Christians, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, and any other religious tradition might all teach the importance of charity differently. Since the studies had fairly small sample sizes, it is difficult to break out how people from different religious traditions might have different ways of dealing with compassion. This study, however, does show that for organizations seeking to inspire people to donate to charitable causes, different tactics might be in order when targeting religious and non-religious people on the aggregate.