How Does Religion Shape Compassion?By Emiliana R. Simon-Thomas | May 9, 2012 | 5 comments
A GGSC-sponsored study found that compassion is less important for moving religious people to perform acts of kindness. But that doesn't mean they are less compassionate!
Last week, we reported the results of a GGSC-sponsored study about the relationship between compassionate action and religious belief.
The results? People higher in compassion performed real world acts of kindness more frequently than those with less—which is no surprise. But this effect turned out to be much stronger in less religious people than in highly religious people, which some might not expect.
Some commentators on Facebook and elsewhere heard this result as meaning that religion makes people less compassionate. But it actually means compassion simply doesn’t play as strong a role in prompting religious people to act kindly in the world.
So highly religious people are not less compassionate—they’re just less moved by compassion toward acts of kindness, possibly because compassionate behavior is more ingrained by their faith. It seems that feelings of compassion are more critical to get atheists and less religious people to try to alleviate suffering, possibly because they have fewer, or perhaps less rigid, behavioral guidelines.
I was invited to discuss the study on “The Big Picture with Thom Hartmann,” which titled the segment, “Who’s more compassionate… atheists or fundamentalists?” But, as I hope comes through in the segment, the results are more complicated than what the title suggests.
In fact, the results show that highly religious people exhibited more kind acts in the world, regardless of how compassionate they were.
In the experiment, people were brought into the lab and shown videos, one evocative of compassion and the other neutral, then asked to play a money-sharing game. Again, feelings of measurable, momentary compassion drove non-religious or less religious people to be more generous. But that didn’t matter for highly religious people—whether they saw the neutral video or the compassion-inducing one, they showed the same levels of sharing.
Researchers also looked at people’s behavior during several economic exchange games, and asked the participants to rate themselves on how compassionate they felt in the moment. Consistent with the earlier two results, highly religious people were generous and cooperative in the games regardless of how highly they rated themselves on momentary feelings of compassion, while less religious people were much kinder if they felt greater compassion.
The moral of the story? It’s not that being religious prompts less or more compassion; it’s that highly religious peoples’ altruism is less tied to experiences of compassion. But among atheists, agnostics, and casually religious people, compassion seems to play a much more important role in prompting kind, generous, cooperative, and benevolent behaviors.
About The Author
Emiliana R. Simon-Thomas, Ph.D., is the science director of the Greater Good Science Center.