Are the religious more caring – or do they just think they are?

Are the religious more caring – or do they just think they are? October 15, 2007

So a new survey of Canadians has revealed that those who describe themselves as believers are also more likely to say that they view traits such as kindness and friendship as “very important”. As the Canada Post reports it, you can take it as read that this means that believers are actually kinder, friendlier, etc.

But the truth is much more interesting.

This new poll is one in a long line of research which shows that believers regularly report not only that they value these traits, but that they believe they actually live up to them. Now, there could be several reasons for this. Perhaps, religion really does instill moral values. Or maybe there’s some self-selection going on, and so religion tends to attract the nice folk, and all the selfish, mean-spirited folk drift off to become atheists.

Well maybe.

But in fact when you test religious and non-religious in carefully designed psychological tests, the differences evaporate. Something similar happens with church attendance: Christians in the US, for example, report going to church about twice as often as they actually do. So what’s going on here? As Vassilis Saroglou, associate professor of psychology of religion at the Université catholique de Louvain, puts it:

“The contrast between the ideals and self-perceptions of religious people and the results of studies using other research strategies is so striking that researchers may be tempted to suspect moral hypocrisy in religious people.”

Saroglou has found that there is a small effect of religion on prosociality, but only towards close siblings and friends. In other words, religion appears to enhance the tribal bond – no surprises there! But Saroglou’s work is, as he puts it, still derived from “paper-and-pencil measures and can consequently only provide indirect evidence of the prosocial behavior of religious people in real life.”

Recent research by Ara Norenzayan, Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of British Columbia, goes further by using a hard test of prosociality – an economic game with real money payouts (Shariff & Norenzayan 2007). As expected, religious people claimed to be more prosocial than the non-religious, but weren’t in reality. But when subliminally primed with religious concepts, both the religious and non-religious were more prosocial. And the same thing happened when they were primed with secular concepts.

So there you have it. Religion increases bonding within the tribe, but not outside of it. And it’s not inherent – it depends on priming. And the priming works with secular concepts just as well as it does with religious ones. But the apparent prosocial effects of religion are mostly the result of self delusion, with believers describing themselves as they would like to be, rather than as they actually are. So maybe secular nations are every bit as caring and sharing as the religious ones, and maybe the loss of religion won’t really cause a descent into chaos.

But in fact, we knew that already – Denmark, with one of the lowest levels of religious belief in the world, is also the one with the highest levels of happiness and greatest equality. So don’t believe the hype!

Thanks to The Atheist Jew for reporting this survey.

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