Religion-science reporting: We need to do better

Connor Wood


I have a bone to pick. I study religion – a subject that arouses stronger and more willfully misinformed opinions than nearly any other. It’s almost impossible to find objective, forthright reporting or research on the subject of faith. The religious spin the facts to make belief seem righteous. The nonbelievers choose only the stories that most make religion seem silly or atavistic. And the bemused intellectuals, knowing practically nothing of substance about religion but perennially congratulating themselves for their enlightened perspectives, blunder dumbly around in the sea of half-facts and lurid claims, pushed and pulled by whatever news story of the week has gained the most attention. The buzz surrounding a recent study from the Bay Area demonstrates exactly what I’m talking about – and how much is actually at stake.

Say what you like about religion, study after study has shown that religious practitioners are more generous overall with their time and money. They tend to give more to charities – both the religious and nonreligious kinds – and to volunteer more time in their communities. They cheat less, and are more trusting of others. So, although the public image of religious institutions has been tarnished by horror stories like the Catholic sexual abuse crisis, in real life religious commitment actually can inspire prosocial behavior.

Of course, the price tag of religion can include unpalatable, outmoded, or unreasonable beliefs (limbo, anyone?), unwelcome or intrusive social pressures, and – the biggest bogeyman of religion – hostility toward members of other faiths. These and other thorny problems with religion drive many people, particularly those who are naturally high in curiosity, creativity, and need for novel stimulation, away from faith and into skeptical, secular worldviews. The fact that such creative and skeptical people are disproportionately drawn to industries such as journalism and science has led to a contemporary landscape in which written attacks on religion are often lauded as boldly courageous, and where writers can be rewarded for seeking fresh ways to poke holes in religion’s public image. (To be fair, religion often deserves these attacks. But this doesn’t change the fact that public displays of religious skepticism are currently trendy.)

Enter a recent study from the University of California-San Francisco and UC-Berkeley. Led by postdoctoral psychologist Laura R. Saslow, a team of researchers designed a series of tests to see what role compassion might play in prosocial, or generous and altruistic, behavior. Saslow was inspired to design the study when an atheist friend of hers admitted that he only sent money to the relief efforts for the 2010 Haiti earthquake after seeing a heartrending video clip of a woman being rescued from the debris. Realizing that her friend was influenced by feelings of compassion instead of a freestanding moral code, Saslow wondered whether nonreligious people might be more influenced by compassion than their nonreligious peers.

The experiments she and her colleagues carried out strongly suggest that the answer to that question is “yes.” In one study, information was taken from the 2004 General Social Survey to determine whether trait levels of compassion – how much compassion a person typically feels in his or her everyday life – was related to religiousness and prosocial behavior. Trait compassion was measured by survey items such as, “I often have tender, concerned feelings for people less fortunate than me,” while prosociality was measured by the amount participants reported volunteering, giving to the homeless, and carrying out other altruistic acts.

As the researchers expected, higher levels of compassion predicted altruistic behaviors among the nonreligious, but less so among the religious: believers tended to have about the same levels of prosocial behavior regardless of how compassionate they felt toward others, while the irreligious were strongly influenced by their feelings of compassion.

In the second study, a group of participants was primed either with a video showing pitiful scenes of hungry children or a neutral video of two men talking. Later, participants were asked to play a generosity game in which they decided how much imaginary money to give to a partner. Repeating the pattern from study 1, seeing the sad video inspired the nonbelievers to radically increase their generosity, while believers were more or less equally generous regardless of which video they saw.

Finally, another group of volunteers filled out a survey to determine how generally compassionate they were feeling directly after arriving at the scientists’ lab. They then played several games designed to measure their willingness to share actual money with strangers. Again, the more compassionate nonbelievers were far more generous than nonbelievers who were not feeling compassionate, whereas compassion had little effect on how generous religious believers were willing to be.

So, just how big was the difference between the religious and nonreligious folks? The answer depended on how compassionate they were feeling. For instance, in study 2, religious people who had not been primed with the compassion video said they were willing to share about four dollars (out of $10) with a stranger. In contrast, the nonreligious participants who saw the neutral video said they’d be willing to share about 50 cents. When primed by a pathetic video to feel more compassionate, however, the less religious volunteers’ levels of generosity skyrocketed: these participants said they’d be willing to give away nearly five dollars. Meanwhile, religious volunteers who had been primed with the compassion video said they’d be willing to donate…about four dollars.

This pattern was repeated throughout the study: without the compassion priming, religious volunteers were more generous and prosocial than their nonreligious compatriots. When compassion was thrown into the mix, the nonbelievers’ levels of generosity suddenly spiked to slightly higher levels than those of the religious volunteers. The obvious implication is that, for U.S. religious believers, generosity and altruism are probably automatic matters of habit, while the irreligious may require specific emotional events to “turn on” their prosocial tendencies. The studies emphatically do not show that religious people are somehow less compassionate or generous than nonbelievers.

But, infuriatingly, that’s not what you’d think if you read the popular articles reporting on these studies. The ensuing research paper, which appeared in April in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, was widely cited around the Internet. And the citations mostly got it wrong. Wildly wrong. For instance, an article at the website The Week claimed that “(i)n all three experiments, the less religious participants were more inclined to show generosity to strangers.” And the headline for a report on the research in Business Insider gleefully asserted that “A New Study Changes Conventional Thinking About (sic) Very Religious People And (sic) Helping Strangers.”

But in perhaps the most egregious example, the website for Minnesota Public Radio – one of the most well-respected public news outlets in the U.S. today – bluntly stated: “The barely religious are more compassionate than the very religious.”

This is exactly what Saslow’s article did not show. In fact, in the less-compassionate conditions, religious people behaved exactly as countless studies beforehand had suggested they would: they were significantly more prosocial, generous, and trusting than nonreligious people. It was only when momentarily feeling compassionate that nonreligious people matched their religious peers’ levels of prosocial generosity. The religious participants were prosocial and relatively generous to begin with. This trait was mostly unaffected by transient emotions like compassion, suggesting that religious people were prosocial out of ingrained habit, not because they’d been momentarily knocked off balance by a sad video of hungry kids.

If this religious-habit strategy sounds artificial or insincere, think again. The influential American philosopher and psychologist William James wrote explicitly on this subject, arguing that one of the secrets to successful self-cultivation is to

make automatic and habitual, as early as possible, as many useful actions as we can. …The more of the details of our daily life we can hand over to the effortless custody of automatism, the more our higher powers of mind will be set free for their own proper work.

Since good habits take time and work to cultivate, even one’s moral and ethical character is, according to James, dependent on developing good habits. In other words, an appropriate measure of a person’s moral standing isn’t just how she behaves when she happens to see a hungry kid. It’s which habits she’s taken the pains to cultivate in her life so that she’ll behave appropriately when she meets that hungry kid. If Saslow’s conclusions are accurate, my bet – both as an admirer of William James and a student of religion – is that it’s because religion functions like a system for inculcating these automatic habits.

In the original paper’s conclusions, its authors seem to hint in this direction, suggesting that “(t)he more religious…may ground their generosity less in emotion and more in other factors such as doctrine, a communal identity, or reputational concerns.” But notice the difference in tone here. James speaks of inculcating difficult but laudable habits. Saslow and colleagues write dismissively of rigid doctrines and utilitarian, conniving “reputational concerns.” So, unfortunately, it wasn’t only the lousy science reporting that took this story in the wrong direction. It was also a team of otherwise intelligent researchers whose understanding of religion isn’t very robust, and whose interpretations of religious behavior – perhaps unintentionally – tend towards the cynical.

But regardless of how much fun journalists might have “exposing” religion, the fact remains that religion actually does lead its followers to be, on average, more generous and trusting than nonbelievers. And from Saslow’s research it appears that these habits are less context-dependent than the prosocial behaviors of the nonreligious. I don’t speak for everyone, but I would rather trust in a person who consistently behaved generously in all situations than one who needed a video clip of starving kids to start acting decently.

What particularly irks me about this science-journalism snafu is that religion doesn’t need us to invent nasty things about it. Religious people really can be profoundly chauvinistic, bigoted, and scientifically illiterate. Throughout history, religion has inspired wars and terrorist attacks, and it has perpetuated noxious systems of gender, racial, and cultural oppression. It’s not as if it’s difficult to find genuine faults with religious institutions. So why willfully misinterpret a batch of otherwise interesting research to make religion look worse than it is? Who wins here?

I believe in the search for truth (although I think Carl Sagan got it right when he said that our approach to truth is asymptotic). And very little is more harmful to the search for truth than transient intellectual fashions. We should always trend towards mistrust of claims made during times when those claims have social cachet. Throughout American history, religion was seemingly permanently in fashion, and thus claims for religion’s social value (and especially the superiority of Christianity) were inherently suspect. Today, however, the tide has shifted, and it has become fashionable in certain educated circles to show off one’s skepticism of, mistrust of, and plain befuddlement by religion. And so we should adjust our own skepticism accordingly – we should trend toward mistrust of stories that show how flawed, or misguided, religion is. This is because, when it comes to studying and writing about religion, nearly everyone has an agenda. There is very little objectivity and even less real intellectual courage. Practically everyone who puts pen to paper is either trying to convince readers to jump wholesale onto the religious wagon or to remain standing, a bit smugly, on the arid roadside of disbelief. Very few are genuinely seeking to understand religion as a concrete, frustrating, inspiring, and fascinating human phenomenon.

This is why the scientific study of religion matters. Religion, whether we know it or not, is the underlying source code for culture. Practically all of our art, literature, and culture finds its roots in religious themes. The final thoughts of many people before they die are religious in nature. There really is something here, and we need to learn everything we can about it. Lousy science journalism, in thrall to the most shallow kinds of intellectual trends, hurts everyone when it misrepresents this most fundamental of human phenomena.


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