Compassion, Charity, and Atheism: why we’re not as great as we think

Compassion, Charity, and Atheism: why we’re not as great as we think October 25, 2012

Since it bothers me how frequently atheists misrepresent or misunderstand research in the social sciences, I’m surprised that I missed this recent study, which showed that compassion predicts generosity more for less religious people than it does for highly religious people. On his Center for Inquiry Blog, Tom Flynn framed it like most everyone else has, incorrectly, because most of the coverage has been based on a largely awful press release. Before you get the idea that this study showed that atheists are more compassionate than believers (it didn’t, and they aren’t) or that atheists are more generous than believers (highly religious people were more generous with their money), let me clear up a few things.

While being more motivated by compassion than the highly religious might sound like a win for us (the study actually compared the highly religious with the less religious, not atheists and believers, but that’s a minor point), the data actually paint a less positive picture. Simply looking at correlations, the more religious someone is, the more likely they are to be compassionate and behave generously. In one experiment the participants were asked to hypothetically play what’s called a dictator game—they received ten dollars and had to split the money with a stranger. The highly religious always gave just about half of their money, whereas the less religious kept just about all of it unless they saw a video meant to induce compassion.

Another study asked participants to rate how compassionate they were feeling before they played a handful of economic games. The results were about the same: the less religious participants with low compassion gave relatively less and those with high compassion gave more. Compassion had little effect, however, on the highly religious believers; they gave more all the time. Though I’d like to have seen a measure of compassion that wasn’t based on self-report (it’s not too much of a stretch to think that the highly religious people might be pressured to rate their compassion higher than it actually is), I’m willing to take the findings at face value.

So as a whole, the study showed that the religious are more likely to be compassionate, the less religious tend to give less than the highly religious, and the less religious only really behave decently when they’re feeling compassionate. That doesn’t flatter us too much, but it hasn’t stopped some disappointing spin (No, as many have been claiming from this study, atheists are not more generous and empathetic than religious people).

Tom Flynn, quoting an op-ed he wrote two years ago, goes so far as to suggest that it’s actually just the religious being irrational when they give so much to charity; it’s us who give just the right amount. In case you’re wondering if you give enough to charity—you don’t. Allow me to make a plug for the Against Malaria Foundation, Give Well’s top rated charity based on empirical research. They’re currently matching up to a 50 dollar donation through the end of October, so maybe go donate.

And, to add one more bad analysis that I want to tackle, at the end of his post, Tom Flynn cites a piece written by Hemant Mehta at the Friendly Atheist, where Hemant says “Don’t let anybody tell you religious people are more charitable than atheists. It’s just not true.” Except that it is, and most surveys I’m aware of show just that. In Arthur Brook’s book, Who Really Cares: the Surprising Truth About Compassionate Conservatism, a look at existing data shows that the religious are more likely to volunteer, donate blood, and donate money to both religious and secular charities, alike. Putnam and Campbell’s American Grace shows the same thing.

Hemant points to a study suggesting that religious states are less likely to give money to secular charities, and from that concludes that the religious aren’t more generous. But of course, that says nothing about who in the less religious states are giving more to charity. The obvious confound is that the more religious states are just poorer; it could very well be, and I think other survey data makes it likely, that the believers in the less religious states, having more money, give more of that money to charity. It suggests nothing about how much money nonbelievers give.

We should be careful to accurately look at the data before we try to fit it into a narrative that we like, because the social sciences matter. And, often times, reality is a lot less flattering than we want it to be.

Vlad Chituc is a lab manager and research assistant in a social neuroscience lab at Duke University. As an undergraduate at Yale, he was the president of the campus branch of the Secular Student Alliance, where he tried to be smarter about religion and drink PBR, only occasionally at the same time. He cares about morality and thinks philosophy is important. He is also someone that you can follow on twitter.


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