Armstrong’s Bad Sociological Claims: Religion Makes You a Better Person

Armstrong’s Bad Sociological Claims: Religion Makes You a Better Person May 12, 2021

Dave Armstrong has recently been involved with me in a protracted debate about the unequal distribution of evidence for God’s existence, and God being unfair. Within the debates was a side point about whether this unequal evidence is of benefits in our earthly existences or whether it is just rebalanced in an afterlife. Armstrong takes the view that belief in God does make our earthly existence is better because religious people are better humans. He has set this out in a recent article saying how much better religious humans are: “Sociology: Undeniably, Religion Makes Us Better Human Beings“.

He refers pretty much to a single article (itself a synthesis) and is proclaims its fantastic sociological conclusions that accord with his own beliefs, especially given “The link is clear, and sociology (my major in college) confirms it”.

Essentially, he is doing some terrible sociology. This is actually a fairly complex area because causality is difficult to unpick given every single variable involved understanding human behaviour. Luckily, some excellent work has been done on the subject as to the causality of religion and non-religion in the moral, social and political behaviour of humans. I refer you to be really quite phenomenal book that is The Nonreligious by Zuckerman, Galen and Pasquale. It is a superb piece of work that should be required reading for anyone interested in the subject and certainly anyone making vast prima facie simplistic conclusions pertaining to it.

The long and the short of it is that I wish religious people could be more skeptical. I wish they could do nuanced, robust work. I wish they wouldn’t just sing the praises of the first article that supports their position. Armstrong: you should be better than this. Perhaps ask yourself, “How could I be wrong?”

This will be at least a two-parter due to Brandolini’s Law. Unpicking bullshit takes way more effort than spreading it.

Before reading on, please let it be known I have variously refuted such claims as we will see, for example in the following pieces:

Here is a list of the conclusions that Armstrong and his link initially draw:

  • Religious people volunteer more.
  • Religious people are more involved in community groups.
  • Religious people have stronger links with neighbours, and are more involved with their own families.

Religious practice links us in webs of mutual knowledge, responsibility, and support like no other influence. Seven out of ten weekly church attenders told Pew they consider “work to help the needy” an “essential part” of their faith. Most of them put their money and time where their mouth is: 65 percent of weekly church attenders were found to have donated either volunteer hours or money or goods to the poor within the previous week.

There is then some detail about how much more money religious people give to charity, finishing with this conclusion:

In study after study, religious practice is the behavioral variable with the strongest and most consistent association with generous giving. And people with religious motivations don’t give just to faith-based causes—they are also much likelier to give to secular causes than the nonreligious. Two thirds of people who worship at least twice a month give to secular causes, compared to less than half of non-attenders, and the average secular gift by a church attender is 20 percent bigger.

Of course, this is an American thing, so the article tells us:

America’s tradition of voluntary charitable giving is one of the clearest markers of U.S. exceptionalism. As a fraction of our income, we donate over two and a half times as much as Britons do, more than eight times as much as the Germans, and at 12 times the rate of the Japanese. . . .

In other words, there is some confusion as to causality here is it the contents of religion that is leading to this or a social, cultural determinant?

Before going onto this waves of other claims the article makes, let me just look at these previous ones.

Volunteering and Charity

I’m going to extensively quote from Zuckerman et al because they actually do some serious sociological work and put in a lot of effort to make sure that their conclusions are nuanced and that the methodology of the surveys and data that they look at is sound, and point out where it is not. Please note that I am not including the plethora of references they give in order to support every claim they make.

The problem with so much of the data that supports religious people being awesome compared to any others is that the methodology is so often spurious. An awful lot of time in the book is spent talking about selection biases and whatnot. Although the article that Armstrong links talks about the claim that religious people give more to charity even to secular interests, it is here exposed:

Studies of self-reported charitable donations indicate that secular is reported lower levels of giving than do the religious.…

When this issue is examined in more detail, however, more complexity is revealed. In order to use charitable giving as a comparative measure of the generosity of religious and nonreligious individuals, it is also necessary to take into account the recipient or target of such giving. In the United States, religious organizations are the largest sources of charitable giving, with only a fraction of donations to churches being allocated to actual charitable programs or benevolences, the majority going toward personnel salaries or maintenance. [p. 163]

This is hugely important. So much “charity” is just about giving to your own church. It’s self-interest. Which, not mentioned here, is also the thoroughly problematic issue of heaven and hell. Are religious people only being extra-kind out of self-interest – it’s a ticket to heaven and an escape from hell? This is not, then, altruistic behaviour.

Although charitable giving to churches is fairly easy to identify, most of the existing literature does not clearly separate nonchurch giving into proportions directed toward religious versus secular programs. Many sources designated as “nonreligious” or “secular” often refer to groups for programs with religious ties, including religious education, summer Bible school, or missionary work. For example, in one major study, the category of “religious giving” referred narrowly to houses of worship or congregations, whereas all other forms of what was termed “secular giving” also included gifts to a school, program, or hospital run by a religious organization all those “that many would agree embodies spiritual values.” Therefore, because recipients of aid, though not themselves a house of worship or congregation, are frequently religiously affiliated or advance a religious agenda, it is in most cases difficult or impossible to distinguish assistance that is primarily religious in essence (e.g., church maintenance, proselytizing missionary work) from assistance consisting of a mixture of religious and secular benefits (e.g., faith-based counseling, medical missionary work). [p. 163]

Part of the problem is also in how Armstrong’s article defines “religious” so that a religious person appears to be only someone who goes to church an awful lot rather than someone who believes but doesn’t go to church very often. Of course, anyone worth their sociological salt will recognise that’s ideas of church community and social networks will present causal importance over and above religious content. In other words, it might be more accurate to say “someone who attends a community group regularly will be more likely to…”.

Zuckerman et al spend a rather long time talking about charity and volunteering and I cannot present it all here. However, here is a little more:

Similarly, in many studies the religious identity of the giver is not properly identified. In his book Who Really Cares, Arthur Brooks argued that religious individuals are more generous and secular individuals. [As is claimed above.] However, this study categorized individuals as “religious” if they attended church once a week or more and as “secular” if they reported no religious preference or if they attend less than a few times per year. This has the effect of bundling “secular” individuals together with those who are religious but uncommitted or indifferent. Clearly, it is difficult in real-world contexts to cleanly separate religious and nonreligious givers and receivers of charity. [p. 163-64]

The problem is that organisations like Samaritan’s Purse are seen as secular because they are medical relief organisations, but they also offer Bible distribution even in predominantly Muslim countries, promote abstinence-only sex education and oppose condom distribution. We secular people would clearly see this as a religious organisation, but they get bundled into data as being a secular organisation. And a large amount of the Christian charity towards such an organisation will be on account of their distribution of Bibles, proselytization, and strict moral guidance on social-moral issues.

As Zuckerman et al continue, after analysing the above issue:

A comparison of the religious identity of the organization with the religious identity of those providing support or charitable giving is important in determining qualities about the giver such as motivational generosity. That is, any assessment of moral or ethical qualities necessitates a determination of the underlying reasons for the behavior, which also allows predictions to be made regarding how individuals will behave in other contexts. The factors that motivate charitable assistance can often be inferred through the pattern or exclusivity of this help. If assistance shows little relationship between the religious or secular identity of the giver and that of the receiver, we can infer that the motivation is more universalist and communal, directed primarily at assisting those in need. However, assistance provided only in conjunction with proselytization, or offered only to those sharing a religious identity rather than to non—group members does not represent generalized dispositional generosity operating independently of religious identity or motivation. Rather, we may infer that the underlying motivation is ideological or group-based and not universally prosocial. An individual who will give money to a soup kitchen but only of the assistance is offered within a religious context can be assumed to have less universalist motivation than one concerned solely with the provision of assistance.

As we have seen earlier in this chapter and in other chapters, religion appears to increase “parochial altruism” – a tendency toward great concern for one’s own group members combined with great hostility toward out-group members. This is commonly found in a range of human social groups but can vary in strength of exclusivity. Because a focus on the former components – greater prosocial behavior toward in-group members – has initial appearance of benevolence, it is important to also determine whether such prosocial reality is extended equally to those outside the immediate group in order to distinguish generalized helping from parochial favoritism (for the same reason that selectively giving employment to family members is considered nepotism rather than disinterested helpfulness). Although some research has argued that religious individuals display greater charitable giving than the nonreligious even to secular charities, other studies find little effect of religiosity on nonreligious giving, indicating that the religious “giving gap” is the result of greater religious giving to religiously affiliated recipients. Christians and the non-affiliated are equally likely to give to “basic necessity” organizations (i.e., ones that help people in need of food, shelter). Similarly, although some research suggests that religious individuals perform more community volunteering than non—religious individuals, other work suggests no relationship between religiosity and volunteering for secular causes.

A more apt description is that the more religious individuals are, the less their charitable giving and volunteering is directed toward general secular community causes. For example, Boston College’s Center on Wealth and Philanthropy stated, “as families become highly committed to their religion and their giving becomes more concentrated in the church, synagogue, temple, or mosque and less concentrated in secular causes.” The Portraits of American Life Study found that the proportion of the unaffiliated who report volunteering at least one hour in a month (61 percent) was roughly equivalent with other major religious denominations such as Catholics (62 percent) and main-line Protestants (59 percent). However, the differences were great of a volunteering that was not with a religious organization, with 81, 68, and 73 percent respectively, for those same categories. This suggests that religiosity is not necessarily associated with general community volunteering in the United States, but it does guide where people volunteer, such that the religious spend more time volunteering in churches, whereas the nonreligious spend more time volunteering outside churches. Given the range of results and the ambiguity of separating religious and secular charities and volunteer beneficiaries in such naturalistic studies, one plausible conclusion is that religious people have reliably greater charitable giving than seculars and, to a lesser extent, a willingness to volunteer. However, this advantage in generosity extends primarily to situations in which the recipients themselves are religious; to the extent that the charity or volunteering recipient is not religious, seculars do not reliably differ from the religious.[p. 164-66]

The book then goes on to discuss how this has been within controlled contexts. It is also interesting to note that secular’s look no different to Catholics! I’m sure that Dave Armstrong really concentrated on communicating that nugget.

There is then an interesting discussion about how this works in the context of government programs.

Another factor that is almost never mentioned in the conclusion of studies on religious and secular differences in charitable giving is that there is a systematic difference related to religiousness, as well as political conservatism, regarding preferences for types of prosocial generosity. Less religious individuals – who also tend to be politically liberal – are more supportive of government programs and services paid for by taxation than they are of private charitable giving. Nonreligious and liberal religious individuals are more likely to favor government intervention in reducing inequality. In a revealing survey item, respondents were asked this question: “In the Bible, when Jesus and prophets were talking about helping the poor, they were primarily talking about: A) our obligation to create a just society; or B) charitable act by individuals.” Groups by religious the nomination, 60 percent of Hispanic Catholics, 54 percent of black Protestants, and 46 percent of the unaffiliated responded with “a just society,” whereas only 36 percent of white Catholics, 33 percent of main-line Protestants, and 32 percent of evangelical Protestants did so. In other words, these latter groups interpreted their religious beliefs as mandating private charitable solutions rather than collective social justice. Similarly, societies with greater religiosity tend to have lower levels of taxes and hence lower levels of spending on both public goods and redistribution. Therefore, the vast majority of studies characterizing generosity only in reference to charitable giving are actually assessing the particular form of prosocial generosity preferred primarily by more religious individuals, rather than other forms such as collective taxation and redistribution favored by the nonreligious. The more theoretically interesting question is why secular individuals prefer to engage in prosocial reality via public redistribution whereas religious individuals prefer to directed via private charitable activity. This topic will be addressed further in the next chapter. [p. 167-68]

Some further reading

I will lay out only a couple here to conserve time and space.


enkl22 charity

Vassilis Saroglou has done a lot of work on this area. In “Religion’s Role in Prosocial Behavior: Myth or Reality?“, Saroglou states:

But if you turn to empirical research, the answer to our question becomes more difficult and quite complex. On the one hand, self-report measures of different aspects of prosociality—volunteering, helping behavior, agreeable personality (Big Five), low psychoticism Eysenck’s personality model), forgiveness, valuing benevolence, sense of generativity—provide systematic evidence in favor of the above theories: religious people report being prosocial and they do so across the large variety of the abovementioned ways in which prosociality is expressed (Batson et al., 1993, 2005; Dillon et al., 2003; McCullough & Worthington, 1999; Saroglou, 2002, in press; Saroglou et al., 2004). Interestingly, this prosocial tendency as a function of religion seems to be universal. For instance, the high agreeableness of religious people seems constant across countries, religions, and even cohorts (McCullough et al., 2003; Saroglou, 2002, in press), and the importance of the value of benevolence among religious people is typical of Jewish, Christian, Muslim (Saroglou et al., 2004), and Buddhist (Saroglou & Dupuis, in press) samples.

On the other hand, there are many counter-indications or at least findings implying skepticism, especially—but not only—when we move to studies using measures other than self-report questionnaires. First, the tendency of religious people to volunteer may simply be an artifact of belonging to religious organizations that happen to organize volunteer type activities. Second, the size of the associations between religion and prosocial measures is usually weak (not exceeding, for instance, .20 for agreeableness and benevolence). Third, not all religious dimensions imply prosocial tendencies. Fundamentalist (e.g., Jackson & Esses, 1997), orthodox (e.g., Kirkpatrick, 1993), and in some cases even intrinsically religious people (e.g., Batson et al., 1999) often show prejudice, discrimination, or at least lack of prosociality towards outgroups or people threatening their values (Hunsberger & Jackson, 2005, for review). Four, and more importantly, social experiments demonstrate that the motivation of prosocial behavior among the intrinsically religious is not altruistic, but rather egotistic: the need to be perceived by others as good and the nonconsideration of the real needs as expressed by the persons asking for help are dominant (Batson et al., 1993, 2005). Finally, even for forgiveness, which is particularly emphasized within religion, results based on measures other than self-report questionnaires are rather disappointing (McCullough & Worthington, 1999; see also Cohen et al., 2006).

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. For instance, Batson et al. (1993) suspected moral hypocrisy in religious people with regard to prejudice: social  experimental studies did not confirm the universal brotherhood ideals and even provided evidence to the contrary. Intrinsically religious people seem to need to appear prosocial rather than to really be so (Batson et al., 2005).

I have previously quoted Saroglou’s work with Joanna Blogowska (“Religious Fundamentalism and Limited Prosociality as a Function of the Target“):

Two distinct research traditions have established that (a) religiosity implies prosocial tendencies, though limited to proximal targets, and (b) religious fundamentalism (RF) relates to prejudice, often because of underlying right‐wing authoritarianism (RWA). Through two studies, we investigated the idea that RF, due to underlying religiosity, also predicts prosociality that is limited to proximal rather than distal targets. Specifically, we found that RF, unlike RWA and because of religiosity, predicted prosociality towards a nonfeminist but not a feminist target in need (Experiment 1) and willingness to help friends but not unknown people in need in the same hypothetical situations (Experiment 2). Moreover, like RWA, RF implied negative attitudes towards the feminist. This limited, not extended, prosociality of people scoring high on RF was in contrast with their self‐perceptions of being universally altruistic. Fundamentalism seems to combine religiosity’s qualities (in‐group prosociality) with authoritarianism’s defects (out‐group derogation).

In another paper, they looked at aggression towards a moral out-group (gay) person (“Religious Prosociality and Aggression: It’s Real“):

In two experiments using the same measure of religiosity and samples from the same population, religiosity predicted helping, in a real‐life context, of an in‐group member in need (Experiment 1) as well as overt and direct aggression by means of allocating hot sauce to a gay, but not to a neutral, target (Experiment 2). Religious prosociality and aggression are real, concern distinct kinds of targets, and are at the heart of personal religiosity.

Indeed, Saroglou sees “religion as a major contemporary cultural source of intergroup conflict around the world” in “Intergroup Conflict, Religious Fundamentalism, and Culture“.

Indeed, if you want to see further evidence of antisocial behaviour rising as religiosity rises, with prejudice against out-groups, see my piece here.

Armstrong – do better. After all, you have a sociology qualification, right? That said, these claims are so common and litter the internet. Researchers and communicators should do better.


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