This Just In: Religion Doesn’t Make You More Generous

In a study conducted by Nottingham University Business School, researchers tried to answer that age-old question: Does religion make you nicer? (I know, I know, I spoiled the ending in the title.)

The study was performed as follows:

A team of behaviour experts asked a group of Malaysian people with different religious backgrounds to take part in a series of tasks involving sharing money with other participants.

In one task people were given an imaginary sum of money and given the option of sending some to another participant.

They were told that whatever they did not send they would be able to keep but also that the participant could [choose] to send some of it back — which would then be tripled.

They had to judge how “generous” to be.

Participants included Christian, Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist and non-religious volunteers.

For the first round, participants didn’t know what religions the others were as they decided how much money to give away.

Turns out, across the board, there was no difference in generosity between the various religions (and non-religions).

However, when the participants were told who was what religion, there was a difference:

[W]hen told that the other person shared their religion they were markedly more trusting and generous with the money.

So, it turns out people are nicer to others if they are from the same “tribe,” so to speak.

While this doesn’t surprise me in the least, I would like to offer up this improvement to the oft-quoted Bible verse:

Love thy neighbor as thyself… so long as it has been established that thy neighbor believes in the same imaginary God as thyself.

(image via Shutterstock. Thanks to Jeremy for the link!)

About Jessica Bluemke

Jessica Bluemke grew up in the suburbs of Chicago and graduated from Ball State University in 2008 with a BA in Literature. She currently works as a writer and resides on the North side of Chicago.

  • Puzzled

    I’m unsure how this was supposed to measure generosity. Whether people send a lot or a little, they are more likely motivated by self-interest than anything else. It measures to what extent they expect the other person to be generous, since that person, if they give away money, has no expectation of gain. Of course, their generosity may depend on their perception of the generosity of the person sending it, but it’s hard to call that a measure of niceness or trust.

  • SteveM

    I think the point is that people from all major religions were equally generous (trusting) when they did not know who they were giving the money to, suggesting generosity is innately human. Then it goes on to show the nepotism and tribalism of religion when they observed the results after letting the giver know the religion of the receiver.

  • baal

    I haven’t read this study but the extra-love for in-group (and usually coupled with more hate to out-groups) are a big part of the reason why I regularly argue folks need to work towards identities that encompass as many people (or a totally irrelevant grouping) as possible. i.e. it’s better to Identify as a ‘person on the planet’ > ‘an american’ > “an ohioan’ > a clevelander > ‘some one from the west side’.

  • OverlappingMagisteria

    The nepotism and tribalism may have applied to the non-religious groups as well. The article wasn’t clear on it and I was unable to find the research publication to find details.

  • VladChituc

    This doesn’t show that religion doesn’t make you more generous at all (and in fact, just about every study that has looked into religion and generosity has showed that religion is correlated with generosity, happiness, compassion, and charitable donation).

    This just shows that everyone is generous, and when you find out someone is the same religion as you, you trust them more (the game they played is a public-goods style game that essentially measures trust—how much money do you expect them to give back to you if you cooperate?) In that instance, it makes a lot of sense for you to donate more if you know that someone shares your values.

    It’d be great if we could accurately reflect studies in the social sciences. Seriously. We don’t need to distort science to make ourselves look better.

  • hollyml

    Given the prospect of a potential 300% return on whatever the subjects gave, I would not call this a measure of generosity. The results are interesting, but the way people make investment decisions seems likely to not be quite the same way they make charitable-giving decisions.

  • allein

    I think the point in saying it doesn’t make you more generous is that when people didn’t know the other players’ religion, all were equally generous. So in that sense, it does show that no one religion (or non-) is more generous than the others. It also shows that people think people of their own religion will be more generous in return, though I think that might be a separate point (and also one we pretty much already knew).

  • Frederick Jacob Kohn

    I don’t know how relevant a study done with imaginary money is to the question. The Panel Study on American Ethnicity and Religion found that religious people give more than non-religious people to charity. The idea that religious BELIEFS cause charitable behavior is rejected. Instead, it is the PRACTICE of being in religious community that fosters a charitable attitude.

  • Mick

    Your headline is inherently misleading. The study does not claim to establish whether religion *makes* one more generous. There is no causal relationship established. At best, it aims to find if there is a correlation between generosity and religiosity. There is no cause-and-effect directional nature that can be determined from the data. Let’s say a relationship between religiosity and generosity *had* been established; it could just as easily be claimed that generous people are more likely to hold onto their faith, instead of claiming religious people are more generous.

  • jo1storm

    “The Panel Study on American Ethnicity and Religion found that religious people give more than non-religious people to charity.”
    I’ve read that study. It depends on how you define charity. That study found that 1) if you include giving to church as charity, believers beat non-believers in giving charity 2) if you not include giving to church as charity, non-believers give more to charity than believers 3) if you count the money really going to charitable purposes (money given – overhead), secular charities beat churches and faith based charities by a large margin.

    P.S. Thank you Pharyngula, for giving me link to that study.

  • heavymetalman

    I give thousands to charities. I do it out of compassion and empathy, both human emotions which we all have. Christians who choose to believe some authority figure who tells them the lie that only God can make you have compassion are simply gullible and looking for ways to feel more “special”. They would actually feel true haThis false happiness is just cheating your

  • Foster

    Agreed. Apples and oranges really.

  • AlaJackd

    Christians give exponentially more than any other socio-economic group in the world, and it’s not even close. You’ve lost the debate before it’s even started.

  • Carmelita Spats

    Cults are wonderful at getting the gullible, the fearful and the delusional to open their bank accounts through dramatic storytelling based on wishful thinking all wrapped up around the exploitation of people’s most basic fears. Christianity has the advantage of centuries of theft, lies, cheating, slavery and deception all aimed at taking what does NOT belong to the cult. In my Southern Baptist Screwyouland, our local pastor, the Right Reverend Christ-y McPeahead, has been offering a horrific series of preachments where he equates those who withhold tithes (10% of GROSS) with adulterers. Rumor has it that Yahweh-the-Yahoo is okay with impregnating a teenager so as to pardon premarital sex but He has a very grim view of adultery. Do you think anyone dares not tithe? BTW, Christianity is not a socioeconomic group. It’s a cult.

  • AlaJackd

    You know what… I’m convinced!! You’ve shone me the light! Who’d have ever thunk I would’ve come to my senses from an internet post by a person named Carmelita Spats…. Wow.. How blind I’ve been this whole time in thinking Christianity is NOT a cult… I’ve been so deluded. Oh how I thank you for setting me straight.

  • AlaJackd

    Meanwhile… “Thank You” ….says the atheist father of a cancer ridden child to the Christian charitable hospital…

  • Gary Williams

    ” it makes a lot of sense for you to donate more if you know that someone shares your values.”

    And this we call “motivated reasoning”. Why? Because there’s nothing about donating to someone who shares your values that “makes more sense”. It’s merely an option you feel more comfortable doing. But is an act that has no bearing on whether the recipient of the donation may actually have needed it more badly (which in that case *would* make more sense)