Atheists More Motivated by Compassion than the Faithful

So goes the title of a piece of research by Robb Willer and Laura Saslow, featured in Live Science (link below).

The research was apparently inspired by a non-religious friend of Laura Saslow who “lamented that he donated money to earthquake recovery in Haiti only after seeing a heart-touching video of a woman being pulled from rubble, not because of a logical understanding that help was needed.”

I can’t comment on the quality of the research (see copy of post below link, however. If it’s a fair representation of the research methods then I would have been unlikely to have given money to the “homeless guy” either – my practice is usually to offer to buy food) but the article did set me to thinking and that’s no bad thing.

Before I respond, I share this little comment on criticism with its link to compassion arising from shared experience:

Before you criticize someone, walk a mile in their shoes. That way if they get angry they will be a mile away and barefoot.

Humour aside, it appears that the headline does not reflect accurately the text below it:

“Atheists and agnostics are more driven by compassion to help others than are highly religious people.

“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”

What appears to be suggested here is that less religious people rely on an emotional connection to those in need before they will help. The researchers acknowledge that religious people do give although there is no indication of levels of giving for comparison. Might it not be a good thing that religious people are moved to give purely on the basis of a statement of need without having to wait to see a “heart-touching video” of someone needing help as was the case with Saslow’s non-religious friend.

On the face of it, the researchers do not claim to show that religious people are not compassionate (rather that compassion and empathy are not the only motives to give), neither do they claim to show that they do not give (it admits otherwise. Another piece of research suggests believers give even more to secular charities than do non-believers – see the second link below to a piece of research from Stanford). They do appear to suggest hat highly religious people are less likely to need to be stirred emotionally before they will give.

While the headline conflates atheism and agnosticism, two vastly differing viewpoints, it also misrepresents the stated finding of the research, which is about the apparent differences between highly religious and less religious. The highly religious in this research appear to be classified as below:

Individuals who indicated that religion is an important part of their daily life and that they attend religious services every week or almost every week were classified as “very religious” by Gallup officials.

Accordingly, the less religious might include people who are part of a faith community but do not attend services every week or so. They might, of course, also include atheists or agnostics – but  believe it or not there are those within faith communities also.

My first thought on seeing this was that it might shed some light on my own view that one can have “too much religion”, in other words the practice of religious activity can become more important than the life that it is intended should flow from it. It is one of the reasons I don’t describe myself as religious – a strange claim for a clergyman, you might say, but I am more interested in orthopraxy than orthodoxy, right doing rather than right thinking. A similar situation can arise when people become very involved in any activity, becoming self-absorbed and shutting out others as a result

I was disappointed that the headline apparently misrepresented the text of the research – at least as I was able to see it in the article. My apologies to Live Science and to the authors, however, if I have misrepresented that of which they have better knowledge. I am responding to what I was able to read.

What to conclude? It would be a mistake to suggest that religious people are without compassion. It would be a mistake to suggest that atheists and agnostics cannot have fully developed ethical frameworks on which they may act with or without emotional prompts.  Clearly people are motivated to help others in different and often very complex ways, as the researchers acknowledge. They also suggest there is scope for more research – a good place to end any piece of research!

At the heart of it all, we share a common humanity and any failure to respond to those in need may be seen as a denial of that. If we do act to help, whether or not we act from pulled heart strings or a logical and calculating desire to put right some wrong, we are celebrating and reinforcing that common humanity. For some of us there is a divine element to this, for some there is not.

If it has not given us any answers, and even if badly served by the editorial process, this report may make us ask: what moves me to help my brothers and sisters? If so, it will not have been in vain.

Below is part of the text of a response on the Live Science Article page from someone identified as “Me” (Not me as in the writer of this blog!)

Me: Okay, that took long enough. Finally got a chance to read the paper. 3 studies. UCB sure does like the 3 and 4 study program. Guess who they picked to study… UC Berkeley Students. No kidding. But it gets better. They used State of California and US Government money to do it. So they picked non-religious students and religious students, gave them 10$ in “Lab Dollars”, (Pretend money) and asked, “would you give it to a homeless guy?” If yes, you’re a giver, if no, then you’re not.

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