Back in February I blogged about how a recent study had shown religious people to be more generous than others. I had hoped that we might see quite an animated discussion developing as a result, but surprisingly no-one took the bait. However, today I want to report on another piece of research that has perhaps even more potential for polarising opinions.
Love of one’s neighbours is a fundamental tenet of Christianity, but according to a new report by Laura Saslow (now at UC San Francisco), Robb Willer (UC Berkeley), Dacher Keltner (UC Berkeley), Matthew Feinberg (UC Berkeley), Paul Piff (UC Berkeley), Katharine Clark (University of Colorado, Boulder), and Sarina Saturn (Oregon State University), religious people’s generosity is less motivated by true compassion than by doctrine, social standing and self-image. They may be more generous, but this is because of a sense of moral obligation, and says little about whether or not they actually feel an emotional connection to those they help. Atheists and agnostics, on the other hand – according to this latest report – are far more likely to be prompted to generosity by identifying emotionally with the suffering of others, and the strength of that emotional connection will tend to determine their level of generosity.
Of course, the positive side of this is that religious people are more likely to be objective and rational in their giving than their non-religious counterparts, who may end up being over-generous because someone has appealed to their emotions. But this is a minor issue in comparison to the depersonalisation that the new study suggests characterises Christian (and other religious) generosity.
Interestingly, one crucial issue that this research doesn’t appear to pick up on is the difference between religiosity and spirituality. While a religious person might be expected to also be deeply spiritual, this is not always the case, and there are increasing numbers of people these days who claim to be “spiritual, not religious”. It would be interesting to know where the latter category of people fit into the ‘compassion’ debate – I suspect that they would at least compare favourably with the atheists and agnostics. In fact, I would be surprised if they didn’t come out way ahead of everyone else, because by definition they are less bothered by doctrinal issues and pressures to conform, yet are generally motivated by an underlying sense of Oneness with their fellow humans (and often their wider environment, too).
So…what do YOU think?