Are Atheists Compassionate?

From LiveScience:

Atheists and agnostics are more driven by compassion to help others than are highly religious people, a new study finds.

That doesn’t mean highly religious peopledon’t give, according to the research to be published in the July 2012 issue of the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science. But compassion seems to drive religious people’s charitable feelings less than other groups.

“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,” study co-author and University of California, Berkeley social psychologist Robb Willer said in a statement. “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.”

In the first study, Saslow and her colleagues analyzed data from a national survey of more than 1,300 American adults taken in 2004. They found that compassionate attitudes were linked with how many generous behaviors a person was likely to report. But this link was strongest in people who were atheists or only slightly religious, compared with people who were more strongly religious. [8 Ways Religion Impacts Your Life]…

More research will be needed to understand what factors motivate religious people’s giving, but the study makes clear that empathy and compassion are not the only factors at play.

“Overall, this research suggests that although less religious people tend to be less trusted in the U.S., when feeling compassionate, they may actually be more inclined to help their fellow citizens than more religious people,” Willer said.



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  • Amos Paul

    I don’t think that the statement:

    >they may actually be more inclined to help their fellow citizens than more religious people

    Follows from the data presented. It was state that religious people give, but they atheists (I’m guessing proportionally since there’s far less of them?) give more *out of compassion* as opposed to some other reason. If I’m not mistaken, this study was about the motivations and not the raw likelihood of givine–yes?

    That being said, I’m not surprised at all. Religion gives a wide variety of reasons to give. Whereas for an irreligious person, *feeling good* upon the basis of direct human compassion is the only reason to give. It seems to be the only non-religious reason possible short of coercion.

  • The ‘religious’ person has not just subjective, personal compassion but objective duty, command, love of God, etc…

    I think altruism is in far better hands when there is more behind it than just subjective, emotional, personal compassion.

  • DRT

    Steve, I bet you are a conservative, right?

  • phil_style

    Wow, Kant would have a field day with this research!

    Moral duty anyone!?!?!

    This has got Kant versus Rand written all over it 😉

  • Amos Paul

    Wow, typos replete in my top comment. I knew there was a reason I had previously stopped making comments with my iPod, hah.

    *It was stateD that religious people give

    *but THE atheists (not they)

    *raw likelihood of giving

  • Chad

    Sure, atheists are compassionate, but the poll shows that their charity is more likely to be based on compassionate feelings, whereas others are charitable whether they feel compassion toward a group or not. The summarizing statement at the end tries to turn the tables but misses the point.

  • Patrick

    If I was an atheist, I wouldn’t be compassionate. It doesn’t come naturally to me and it took a while for me to “get” that this is Christ’s central theme, too.

    We have a local organization “rationalists of ET”.

    They do 2 major things. Urge & supply rationale for people to be atheists and clean up a section of a 4 lane highway nearby.

    I think if atheists had a unqiue “compassionate side”, they’d be the ones running our 3 large Christian ministries for homeless folks in Knoxville, not we believers and I don’t see 1 single word about anything like that. Just clean up a section of road and let’s fellowship around the idea all those believers are superstitious due to various psychological problems only they can see through.

    Maybe east Tennessean atheists are just lacking compassion compared to regular atheists, but, I doubt it.

  • DRT

    I am surrounded by atheists, and I find that they are, generally, more interesting to talk with than Christians. I don’t find too many atheists that are as they are because they have not considered their position in detail. They typically have a well reasoned position.

    Now for some substance.

    This subject is the most oft sited by those atheists I debate. I almost hate to say this, but I find atheists have much more clarity in their charity than do Christians. I hate to say it because I think it is true, and that most Christians have somehow believed that contributing to their country club (I mean church) is somehow a good thing to do.

    This topic is quite similar to the other post about the US propensity to conflate nationalistic pride with religious pursuits. My goodness, much of the US feels that killing those people in the middle east is god’s will!!!! I am beside myself with shame…really.

    Yes, atheists are compassionate. I don’t know if you would call my kids and wife atheists or agnostics, but they are quite compassionate (well, except toward )

  • Bill

    Interesting. A lot of Christian friends I have seem to give because they feel they have to, not because they want to———–no scientific study, but I will try to observe more carefully.

  • Thomas

    Stand To Reason already debunked this and showed how this is a sham.

  • Heck, I’ll just settle for people recognizing that atheists can show compassion…

  • David P.

    This is interesting. It’s helpful since we religious people seem to have a habit of attacking atheists and being afraid of them. I always finding it bothersome in Bible studies and church groups where we sort of demean a hypothetical atheist in our conversations. I have a couple of good friends who happen to be atheists and I’m often bothered that one in particular seems to me to be a nicer, more caring person than I am and yet I claim to follow Jesus.

    However, as Steve in #2 said, isn’t it better to be compassionate whether or not you feel it like? Indeed, as is recorded in the Gospels, Jesus didn’t feel like going to the Cross for our sakes. But he did. And all the research shows that ANY kind of religious person is more generous to charity (even when you exclude giving to their church) and more likely to volunteer their time than a non-religious person. It seems like the arguement to this study is rooted in a worldview where spontaneity as connected to feelings means that action is more authentic and therefore more ethical. Most theologians (thinking Aquinas here especially) would disagree. Tom Wright really does a good job on this in After You Believe.

  • David P. –

    And all the research shows that ANY kind of religious person is more generous to charity (even when you exclude giving to their church) and more likely to volunteer their time than a non-religious person.

    Noticeably, yes. Not massively, though.

  • David P.

    @Ray #13. Agreed. I think it’s at least relevant to demonstrate that religion is not necessarily a negative force in our world. But as I reflected more, I guess it’s ultimately more important to reflect on our giving and ask whether or not we are truly dying to ourselves or not financially. And the numbers don’t say that.

  • Mike M

    This just depends on whether we do “this in the name of Jesus” or not. Even Muslims are more generous than
    their Christian counterparts.
    In our quest to have people do the “right thing” (see Dallas Willard), we’ ve run across the whole gamut of excuses. From “they have to pull themselves up by their bootstraps” even though they can’t afford boots to “why should I help foreigners when there’s so much to do locally” even though they don’t do ANYTHING locally. Luther’s “Two Kingdoms” curse still lives.

  • Fish

    My GF is an atheist and the most naturally kind and loving person I have ever met. (She did come to atheism after spending a decade or more being in church 3X a week. She simply saw no evidence of God in all that churching.) Conversely, the most cruel things that have ever been done to me have been done by Christians in the name of Christ, trying to “save me.”

    I would suggest looking at the inverse of the question: Are Christians inherently meaner (probably not the best word) than atheists? Atheists do not have God’s will or word to fall back on as a rationale for, say, opposing universal health care, birth control, or gay marriage, or supporting Israel or war in general.