Popular belief states that religion teaches people to have compassion for one another, but is this really the case? A new study suggests that people who are not interested in religion are more motivated by compassion to show generosity than people who are “religious”. This could be the kind of evidence secularists need to vindicate their argument that being religious can have negative moral consequences. Regardless, the ULC Monastery believes that everybody should be compassionate, whatever their degree of religiosity.
For the sake of argument, though, let’s take a closer look at the findings. The study, published in the Social Psychological and Personality Science journal, was conducted by social scientists at the University of California, Berkeley. In the course of their experiment, lead author Laura Saslow and her colleagues found that less religious people showed more generosity than more religious people when presented with scenarios that encouraged empathy and compassion. Compassion was defined as “an emotion felt when people see the suffering of others which then motivates them to help, often at a personal risk or cost”.
The study was conducted in three steps. First, researchers reviewed a survey of 1,300 Americans, revealing that compassion influenced generosity more in less religious people. Next, 101 participants watched a neutral video and a video intended to elicit sympathy, and they were given pretend “lab” money they could donate after watching each video. The study found that the sympathy-inducing video motivated the less religious people to give away more of their money to strangers. Finally, over 200 participants were told that a participant before them had given them some money, and they were told they could give some of this money (which had doubled) back if they wished. Participants who were less religious and more compassionate gave back more of the money they received than their more spiritual counterparts.
This portrait of the compassionate giver begins to look a lot like the central figure of the Christian religion. Jesus himself taught that “if any man…take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also” (Matthew 5:40) and exhorted his followers to “sell whatsoever thou hast, and give to the poor” (Mark 10:21), asking, “whoso hath this world’s good, and seeth his brother have need, and shutteth up his bowels of compassion from him, how dwelleth the love of God in him?” (1 John 3:17). In other words, give to the needy out of compassion, not self-interest. Ironically, from this perspective Jesus has more in common with secularists than the people who profess to follow him. Was Jesus a secularist thinker? We’ll let you mull that over.
Compassion may entail generosity to a greater degree in secularists than in the faithful, but it does not have to be this way. As ULC ministers, we shouldn’t be celebrating the fact that one group values compassion more than another; we should be correcting this unfortunate discrepancy by nurturing compassion in those who lack it – and those who have, in the eyes of their religious beliefs, lost it.