Are Religious People Less Compassionate?

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.

Related Stories:

Will Too Much Thinking Make You An Atheist?

More Than 9-in-10 Americans Believe in God

Thousands Rally for a Secular America


Kathy Perez
Kathy Johnson5 years ago

i feel that a lot of religious people do good or donate because they are "supposed" to, and because some spiritual leader or book says they should. Non religious people don't get a reward, or have a spiritual reason to do good, we do it because it is the right thing to do, and because we realize there will be no "holy rescue". We are her for the long haul, and if we want there to be a difference, we have to make that happen. No magic being is going to save us, we have to save ourselves and look out for our own.

Barbara DeFratis
Barbara DeFratis5 years ago

Unfortunately, I found another reason to vote--Yes, here. At another sight, there was a post written by a self-professing 'Christian' who justified the treatment of the Native Americans as 'They were merely (heathens) so what ever happened to them--they deserved'
If only the Conservative Church weren't so busy judging, maybe just maybe they could notice that their heart has grown colder than ice from all their own judgments.

Bartley Deason
Bartley Deason5 years ago

Sarah H. Says:

"Religious people are not less compassionate. They may have a hard time tolerating differences but overall, they are benevolent and strive to be good at heart."

Not trying to be offensive Sarah, but what planet do you live on? Are you paying attention to what the Roman Catholic church is doing? Have you read about their "problems" with their nuns? Nuns who want to help the poor and downtroden instead of bashing glbt's and abortion rights for women the way the church says they should be doing? And this is Compassionate? Benevolent? I know that not all people of religion are this way, but it seems to me that there are too many who are.

Debbie L.
Debbie Lim5 years ago

Interesting article. Thanks for sharing.

Past Member
Past Member 5 years ago

I'm not at all sure that the answer implied in the article's title is the one shown by the research. It seems instead to show that religious people are more likely to give to any needy cause, whereas the non-religious need rather more prompting and more of a sense of return (what do I get out of giving).

KS Goh
KS Goh5 years ago

Thanks for the article.

Max Overton
Max Overton5 years ago

Please don't shout, Jane B. It's not necessary.

Grace Adams
Grace Adams5 years ago

I wound up converting from Methodist to Reconstructionist Jew because I found I could not really forgive Christians for bullying me into going through with Christian Confirmation when I told them that I objected to confirmation because I was more sure that lying under oath was morally wrong than I was that "God" even existed. What did Christians mean by "God", "Father", "Son" and "Holy Ghost" anyhow? Jews feel that "God" cares more how people act than what assortment of theological opinions they are willing to endorse. Christians just get too bogged down in details of theology. Why should solemnly swearing that you agree with your parents' denomination about theological opinions be Christianity's coming of age ceremony?

Jane Barton
Jane Barton5 years ago

The first EXCUSE Catholic/Christian/Nazi WHITE MEN can come up with is: WE'RE NOT ALL THAT WAY!!!! They search and search out of billions and find ONE ATHEIST and say SEE, HE'S JUST AS BAD!!!!! That is the LAMEST ARGUMENT on EARTH. At least 70% of Americans are CHRISTIANS or some splinter group of CHRISTIANS and they are the MAJORITY. Their FILTH has encompassed our GOVERNMENT LIKE AN OCTOPUS. BISHOPS are IN OUR CONGRESS LOBBYING AGAINST BIRTH CONTROL AND EXCLUDING WOMEN!!! Religions don't know the MEANING of COMPASSION, all they care about is PUSHING THEIR EVIL AGENDA!!! They're a MONEY GRUBBING BUNCH OF WAR MONGERERS. "COMPASSION" is when they DON'T SEND OUR CHILDREN TO HELL HOLES TO DIE FOR NOTHING!!!!! That has NEVER HAPPENED YET!!!! These Catholic/GOP Nazi pricks have teamed up to FORCE POOR WOMEN TO POP OUT MORE

Sue H.
.5 years ago

I do not think I agree with this article. I have known many people in my lifetime and the most charitable ones were the poorest. They were always the first to offer help when help was needed. Some of these people were very religious, some not at all. I do find though that now it is the older people I know who are the most charitable. They are also the poorest people I know.