A series of three new studies indicates that less religious people, agnostics and atheists are more likely to be generous to those in need while driven by compassion than highly religious individuals. The works call into question widespread assumptions about the link between religion and compassion.
Researchers from the University of California in Berkeley (UCB) found that people in the latter category are less likely to be driven by compassion when they are generous. Social scientists at the university say that compassion is unrelated to generosity in this group.
On the other hand, people in the first category are very likely to give to the poor, or help others out simply because they are compassionate. In other words, their actions come from a genuine interest for helping others out, not because their religion calls for this behavior.
Details of the three studies appear in the latest online issue of the esteemed journal Social Psychological and Personality Science. The researchers say that acts of generosity and charity may not be driven by feelings of empathy and compassion, as some studies had suggested.
“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,” UCB social psychologist Robb Willer says. He was a coauthor of the new paper.
“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,” the expert goes on to say.
For the purpose of this investigation, compassion was defined as the emotion that individuals feel when they see others suffering, an emotion based on which they act to help the latter, regardless of personal cost or risk, and without expecting rewards. Religious people expect a reward in the afterlife.
This is one of the main critiques associated with the stance organized religion takes on helping others. Believers are encouraged to be generous with those in need by being told that this will help them after death.
Atheists, agnostics and less-religious people help others due to a genuine sense of compassion, without expecting the get into the good graces of God for their effort. They are also not guided by a moral obligation instilled in them by religious leaders, churches and doctrines, but rather by their impulses.
The study results can be interpreted as providing additional evidence that morality, good conduct, compassion and generosity, among other behaviors, do not stem from religion, as many religious and spiritual leaders would have people believe. Rather, they stem from our human nature.