New study: atheists and agnostics more driven by compassion.

This should surprise nobody:

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 people don’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.”

For atheists, compassion is all we have as a moral motivator.  It is the religious who are always telling us that we must be moral, not because virtue is its own reward, but because hell awaits us if we don’t.  Hell only matters if kindness didn’t get the job done, or if one of your moral rules is in flagrant opposition to compassion.

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About JT Eberhard

When not defending the planet from inevitable apocalypse at the rotting hands of the undead, JT is a writer and public speaker about atheism, gay rights, and more. He spent two and a half years with the Secular Student Alliance as their first high school organizer. During that time he built the SSA’s high school program and oversaw the development of groups nationwide. JT is also the co-founder of the popular Skepticon conference and served as the events lead organizer during its first three years.

  • Glodson

    I know that many religious people put their faith on a higher priority. They don’t give because they feel for people, they give because god told them too. This doesn’t mean they don’t care. It is just that, as the study notes, the command to give is more important.

    This is also how many deeply religious people justify horrible things done in service of their faith. By virtue of being god’s will, they are doing good. Never mind who gets hurt, it is about what god wants. It can lead to people doing good for others, but it has a nasty habit of being turned to hurt others.

    • Loqi

      This is also how many deeply religious people justify horrible things done in service of their faith.

      You beat me to this one. When you put faith above compassion and empathy, you can end up doing things like covering up child rape, assisting a junta in mass slaughter, and murdering your children because you think god told you to do it. If some god told me to kill my kids (let’s just pretend I have kids), I’d tell it to piss off.

  • Charlie

    When I had my Damascus Road experience (just going the opposite way), the first thing I was struck by was suffering. When I realized that it would not all be made right in the end, it weighed very heavily upon me. I think that is what drives my compassion now and I think has even made it easier for me to wrap my mind around and recognize privilege (white, male, theistic, etc.).

  • Kelsey

    Not sure if this is a good thing, a bad thing, or a neutral thing. I’m not religious, and I think giving out of compassion is great. But if “the strength of their emotional connection to another person is critical to whether they will help that person or not,” what does that mean for more “abstract” causes where you don’t get to make a connection with the person you’re helping? I’m thinking here of environmental charities. Maybe a less emotional approach has its strengths.

    • Nate Frein

      Not necessarily. One can easily have an emotional investment when it comes to environmental issues.

      I also think you’re forgetting another problem: That most theists donate to religious charities, which overwhelmingly tend to be bloated monstrosities that eat up most incoming money in overhead alone, or to churches, which are even worse.

    • Glodson

      If they were using logic and reason to find a charity to donate money to, that would be great. Reason and logic can find a great set of charities to give to.

      The problems: they are giving for reasons based on their faith. They are doing so because they think their faith demands of it of them. Which means they can easily give to bad causes as a means of appeasing the needs of their faith. Like bigoted causes. That will be rationalized, along with the bigotry in general, as being good. Or they are giving because they want to keep the social graces of the community, leading to the same problem as above.

      Part of giving is because you care. You care about people. I care about the environment, but not for the environment itself. I do care about the animals living in the environment. And I care about the future generations that will have to deal with the effects of our actions now. I care about my daughter. I care about her future. I care about the futures of children growing up.

      Because I care, I have a motivation. I use my logic and reason and knowledge to try and make a maximum impact with my efforts. There are progressive religious people who try to do the same thing within the lenses of their faith. When they do this, the net effect is largely the same as my actions, even though they might give to religious charities not seeing the harm some of those can do. See the Salvation Army for example.

      However, for all the good that those progressive religious people can do, it can be easily undone by the efforts of the more deeply religious who give for their god more than they give for humanity.

      As such, I would say this study is a negative. Great that we give largely out of a need to express our compassion for others. But that’s unsurprising. It is bad that the more religious people give for religious reasons rather than compassion. Which is how very disgusting organizations make money.

      • Kelsey

        Good response. I do believe you’ve won me over.

        • Glodson

          I did?

          Well, first time for everything. Glad someone liked my response.

  • fwtbc

    God works in mysterious ways! His ways aren’t for us to understand!

    It’s much easier to dismiss the needs of those who deserve our compassion when your religion comes prepackaged with an opt-out clause for problems that seem insurmountable.

    • Glodson

      It is just so mysterious, so god must want us keep the money for ourselves!

      • Zinc Avenger (Sarcasm Tags 3.0 Compliant)

        Everything that happens is God’s will, so if I keep the money, that must be God’s will! God wants me to keep the money!

        • Glodson

          What I learned from churches: god really hates number of people.