Are religious people more generous?

There’s a very interesting article on The Edge, by psychologist Jon Haidt, called “Moral Psychology and the Misunderstanding of Religion.” Haidt takes some ill-conceived cheap shots at the so-called “New Atheists,” but that that shouldn’t get in the way of some important questions he raises. Haidt suggests that in some ways, religiosity is more socially useful than liberal nonbelief, and argues that religion is beneficial on a personal level as well.

surveys have long shown that religious believers in the United States are happier, healthier, longer-lived, and more generous to charity and to each other than are secular people. Most of these effects have been documented in Europe too. If you believe that morality is about happiness and suffering, then I think you are obligated to take a close look at the way religious people actually live and ask what they are doing right.

. . .

surveys have shown for decades that religious practice is a strong predictor of charitable giving. Arthur Brooks recently analyzed these data (in Who Really Cares) and concluded that the enormous generosity of religious believers is not just recycled to religious charities.

Religious believers give more money than secular folk to secular charities, and to their neighbors. They give more of their time, too, and of their blood. Even if you excuse secular liberals from charity because they vote for government welfare programs, it is awfully hard to explain why secular liberals give so little blood. The bottom line, Brooks concludes, is that all forms of giving go together, and all are greatly increased by religious participation and slightly increased by conservative ideology (after controlling for religiosity).

Note that this is not just Haidt; in many social science circles, such conclusions are fairly routine. (So much so that it’s been picked up in religious apologetics; I often hear self-congratulatory conservative Christian references to their superior generosity.) There are always some difficulties in interpreting such results, as, for example, P.Z. Myers points out in his response to Haidt. In particular, it is difficult to sort out what in the personal benefits and prosocial behavior being considered is due to supernatural commitments and what is due to people enjoying a supportive community where they are in the majority. It is also fair to ask how much of religious prosocial behavior is directed toward their own community of belief, distinguishing between in-group and out-group. But such questions occur to social scientists as well, as you can see, for example, by Haidt mentioning that the benefits of religion appear in secular Europe as well as the religion-mad United States, and Brooks pointing out that religious people do more secular giving as well.

Now, this still is a murky area of research, with far from certain conclusions. Many atheists insist that we should be able to construct better societies if we minimize the influence of religion; it would certainly go too far to say that our current scientific knowledge precludes this. It may even be true that a mere cultural falling away from organized religion, as in Western Europe, is all we need, and that we can successfully organize prosocial behaviors such as generosity and the health and psychological benefits of communities even in such a secular environment.

But there is also reason to be doubtful. There is a body of research suggesting that supernatural commitments are an integral part of the most common, least costly human mechanism to bring about such social benefits. Saying that we can separate the supernaturalism and irrationality from the community and benefits will not work if religion just happens be the way that our species of ape organizes its moral communities. In the end, I’m not entirely convinced by the most aggressive opponents of religion, mainly because while I agree with how they highlight the nasty aspects of supernatural belief, they also downplay or ignore the significant costs of the kind of rationality and naturalism we favor.

About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14298675535366756407 ZedZero

    “the significant costs of the kind of rationality and naturalism we favor”

    “significant”? What is our significant cost? The 5 billion person increase in population?
    You’ve lost me.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10778996187937943820 Taner Edis

    Zedzero: “What is our significant cost?”

    For example, we typically need some significant education to be convinced that our world does not contain gods and demons, and to reorient our moral thinking. Religious ways of perceiving the world and conceiving of morality come much more naturally to humans, hence engaging in religion requires fewer resources.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00763792476799485687 J. J. Ramsey

    “Haight [sic] takes some ill-conceived cheap shots at the so-called ‘New Atheists,’ …”

    What’s so cheap about Haidt’s shots?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10778996187937943820 Taner Edis

    J.J. Ramsey: “What’s so cheap about Haidt’s shots?”

    P.Z. Myers’s response is probably the best for this. Since he believes his ox is among those gored by Haidt, he’s more motivated to give a spirited response.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00763792476799485687 J. J. Ramsey

    I wasn’t too impressed by PZ’s response, actually. It’s as if he willfully misunderstood it. For example, he writes, “Haidt starts treating the New Atheist arguments as an assault on moral systems.” Errm, not quite. What Haidt does is use the New Atheists as exemplars for the five principles that he lays out, “Intuitive primacy but not dictatorship,” “Morality binds and builds,” etc., and uses that to show that the New Atheists aren’t as scientific in reasoning as they’d like to think. PZ’s response is certainly spirited, but not that accurate as far as I can see.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10778996187937943820 Taner Edis

    J.J. Ramsey: “…uses that to show that the New Atheists aren’t as scientific in reasoning as they’d like to think.”

    OK; I don’t want to get drawn into defending arguments that I don’t make. But I’ve never really taken the “New Atheists” to be primarily making scientific arguments. (That’s my job.) I mean, few would mistake Sam Harris for someone shooting for a scientific view of religion: he goes on jeremiads. For better or worse (too often worse, as far as I’m concerned), he is all about classic rally-the-troops moral exhortation. Dawkins says clearly from the outset that he’s trying to raise consciousness. (And on those terms, he does fine.)

    The only New Atheist who Haidt refers to who claims to try for a scientific view of religion is Daniel Dennett. And his work is a mixed bag on that account.

    The way I see it, too many people are demanding that this “New Atheist” literature be something it doesn’t pretend to be. Now, we might have been happier if it were more scientific etc., but that’s a different issue.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06394155516712665665 CyberKitten

    TE said: we typically need some significant education to be convinced that our world does not contain gods and demons, and to reorient our moral thinking.

    De-programming is always hard work – much more difficult than the original programming…. I don’t believe that people are naturally theistic. Don’t expose children to religion for a generation (if such a thing is even possible) and we’d see just how much of this ‘natural tendency’ is actually taught.

    TE said: Religious ways of perceiving the world and conceiving of morality come much more naturally to humans, hence engaging in religion requires fewer resources.

    I suppose that it is arguable that non-religious or scientific ways of seeing the world require more mental effort at least to begin with because they are, by and large, more counter-intuitive. But once you get the ‘knack’ of seeing things from a naturalistic reason based perspective it actually becomes less resource intensive than a theistic perspective.

    I honestly don’t know how theists keep so many theological balls in the air at one time. Its no wonder that a loss of faith looks and feels like a mental breakdown. Once one pebble moves the whole mountain collapses.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00029694152838347722 Sastra

    I see another ethical problem here. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that religious belief really does make people happier and more generous. If you believe in God, you are a better person. And yet, there is no good reason to believe there really is a God, and there are other people who recognize this.

    What is the proper response on the part of these ‘other people’? Stick to academics, and lay low to the general public? Leave off on writing and promoting books, lectures, debates, and discussions on whether or not God exists, because the average person can’t handle it? Lie outright, to help people and society? Respect the power of religion — and therefore pander and condescend to the believer, who doesn’t have quite the same ability for thoughtful analysis as nonbelievers?

    Perhaps it wasn’t quite fair of me, but as I read Haight’s essay I found myself thinking about how much easier it was to work with my children around Christmas time, when I could tell them Santa was watching. They were better behaved.

    And yet…

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00763792476799485687 J. J. Ramsey

    “But I’ve never really taken the ‘New Atheists’ to be primarily making scientific arguments. (That’s my job.)”

    IIRC, Dawkins is pretty explicit about treating the God hypothesis as any other scientific hypothesis, and Dawkins seems to be setting out to approach it scientifically, at least in the sense of approaching it with reason and rigor. I also doubt that Sam Harris was setting out to commit the misrepresentations of Islam that you say he’s done, even if he was writing a jeremiad. It seems like “They’re just trying to rally the troops” is used to excuse unnecessary sloppiness.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10778996187937943820 Taner Edis

    J.J. Ramsey: “Dawkins is pretty explicit about treating the God hypothesis as any other scientific hypothesis, and Dawkins seems to be setting out to approach it scientifically, at least in the sense of approaching it with reason and rigor.”

    Yes. And there’s nothing wrong in stating that in a book that does not primarily aim to provide a scientific understanding of religion. Dawkins is explict that his book is an exercise in consciousness-raising, and one of things he wants to raise consciousness about is that God-talk is not invulnerable to criticism, including scientific criticism. That doesn’t mean his book is about providing detailed scientific criticism, or about advancing scientific views concerning the nature of religion.

    “I also doubt that Sam Harris was setting out to commit the misrepresentations of Islam that you say he’s done, even if he was writing a jeremiad. It seems like “They’re just trying to rally the troops” is used to excuse unnecessary sloppiness.”

    I’m not excusing sloppiness. I’m no fan of Harris; he consistently does a poor job. Nonetheless, among all the glaring faults and failures of scholarship you can find in Harris’s work, it seems odd to pick on peripheral matters such as his ignorance of current efforts at scientific explanations of religion.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00763792476799485687 J. J. Ramsey

    “That doesn’t mean his book is about providing detailed scientific criticism, or about advancing scientific views concerning the nature of religion.”

    But that wasn’t what Haidt or I was talking about. I probably should have quoted Haidt at the outset:

    “But because the new atheists talk so much about the virtues of science and our shared commitment to reason and evidence, I think it’s appropriate to hold them to a higher standard than their opponents. Do these new atheist books model the scientific mind at its best? Or do they reveal normal human beings acting on the basis of their normal moral psychology?”

    This is the question that Haidt tries to answer in the second part of his essay, and it has nothing to do with, as PZ put it, “treating the New Atheist arguments as an assault on moral systems.” Nor is it about whether the “New Atheists” are good at discussing scientific explanations of religion in depth. Rather, it is about how normal moral psychology, in Haidt’s opinion, leads the New Atheists’ to distortions in the arguments that they do make about religion.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10778996187937943820 Taner Edis

    J.J. Ramsey: “Rather, it is about how normal moral psychology, in Haidt’s opinion, leads the New Atheists’ to distortions in the arguments that they do make about religion.”

    OK, fair enough. And Haidt does have a point there, even if I’m inclined to grumble about, for example, his quotation from Dennett to illustrate this charge. (That, I thought, risked misrepresentation.) But I shouldn’t have complained so strongly; it’s just a short article, after all.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14485509846775012081 Hari Seldon

    It all depends on what is meant by “generous”. Sweedish people pay a large amount of their salary in taxes, which is a way of redistributing prosperity. This is also true, to a lesser extent, in the rest of secular europe. On the other hand, religious USA, has not been able to construct a well developed wellfare state as opposed to, say, the germans. Actually, it is the religious republican right who opposes advancing in that direction. Are they really more generous, or are they just measuring charity?. It is a form of generosity, but not the only ont, and probably, not the most important.


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