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Social Psychology in the Public Interest

15 January, 2016 - 09:20

Are the Religious More Altruistic?

Do you think that religious people are more helpful than are people who are less religious? There are plenty of reasons to think that this might be so. After all, every major religion preaches the importance of compassion and helpfulness, and many faith-based organizations help the poor and disadvantaged every year. Religious organizations help provide education, food, clothes, financial support, and other essentials to the needy across the globe.

There is support, based on surveys and questionnaires, that religious people do indeed report being more helpful than the less religious (Penner, 2002). For instance, Morgan (1983) found that people who reported that they prayed more often also said that they better, friendlier, and more cooperative toward others. Furrow, King, and White (2004) found a significant positive relationship between religiousness and prosocial concerns such as empathy, moral reasoning, and responsibility in urban high school students. And Benson, Donahue, and Erickson (1989) found that adolescents who said that they were more religious were also more likely to have been involved in a volunteer service project in the last year.

Batson and his colleagues (1989) wondered if religious people were actually more likely to help or if they simply indicated that they would be on questionnaires. To test this question, they recruited college students and first asked them to report on their religious beliefs. On the basis of these responses, Batson categorized the students into one of four groups:

  • The nonreligious students were those who did not indicate much interest in religion.
  • The externally religious students were those who primarily indicated that they used religion for self-concern, such as for feeling more comfortable and being comforted by others, for gaining social status, and for finding support for one’s chosen way of life. The externally religious tended to agree with such statements as “The church is most important as a place to formulate good social relationships” and “What religion offers me most is comfort when sorrows and misfortune strike.”
  • The internally religious were those who indicated that they had accepted religion and that it was part of their inner experiences. The internally religious agreed with statements such as “I try hard to carry my religion over into all my other dealings in life” and “Quite often I have been keenly aware of the presence of God or the Divine Being.”
  • Finally, people who agreed with such statements as “It might be said that I value my religious doubts and uncertainties” and “Questions are far more central to my religious experience than are answers” were considered to be quest-oriented. These students see religion as a lifelong commitment to getting answers to important moral and religious questions.

Then Batson and his colleagues asked the participants whether or not they would be willing to volunteer their time by helping a woman in need or by walking in a walkathon for a charity. However, in each case Batson also gave one-half of the participants a possible excuse for not helping by informing them that a number of other students had already volunteered to help the woman or that they would have to complete a difficult physical exam before they could be in the walkathon.

The researchers found that the externally religious were not more likely to help overall and were actually less likely to help when there was an easy excuse not to. It seems that the externally religious were not really altruistic at all. The internally religious participants seemed somewhat more altruistic—they helped more when the helping was easy, but they did not continue to help when the task got difficult. However, Batson and his team found that the quest-oriented students were the true altruists—they volunteered to help even when doing so required engaging in some difficult exercise and continued to help even when there was an easy excuse not to.

Although most studies investigating the role of religion on altruism have been correlational, there is also some experimental research showing that that activating symbols relating to religion causes increased altruism. Shariff and Norenzayan (2007) showed their research participants religious words such as divine, God, sacred, and prophet and then later asked them to contribute some money to a charity. The participants who had seen the religious words were more likely to donate money to an anonymous recipient than were a control group of people who had been exposed to nonreligious control words. However, religion was not the only concept that increased helping. Similar increases in altruism were found when people were shown words related to civil duty, such as civic, jury, court, police, and contract.

In summary, when surveyed, religious people say that they are more helpful than are the nonreligious, but whether they really help when helping conflicts with self-interest seems to depend on what type of religious person they are. People who are religious for personal reasons related to self- concern generally are not more helpful. On the other hand, those who are more quest-oriented—those who really believe that helping is an important part of religious experience—are likely to help even when doing so requires effort. Furthermore, religion is not the only thing that makes us helpful. Being reminded of other social norms, such as our civil responsibility to others, also makes us more helpful.