“Love thy neighbor” is preached from many a pulpit. But new research from the University of California, Berkeley, suggests that the highly religious are less motivated by compassion when helping a stranger than are atheists, agnostics and less religious people.

Study finds highly religious people are less motivated by compassion to show generosity than are non-believers

In three experiments, social scientists found that compassion consistently drove less religious people to be more generous. For highly religious people, however, compassion was largely unrelated to how generous they were, according to the findings which are published in the most recent online issue of the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.

The results challenge a widespread assumption that acts of generosity and charity are largely driven by feelings of empathy and compassion, researchers said. In the study, the link between compassion and generosity was found to be stronger for those who identified as being non-religious or less religious.

“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,” said UC Berkeley social psychologist Robb Willer, a co-author of the study. “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.”

via Highly religious people are less motivated by compassion than are non-believers.

I find this study interesting in light of several conversations I have had in the past with others. When I have discussed my lack of faith in organized religion (while remaining open-minded, though skeptical about the possibility of a deity), religious people always ask me how I can know the difference between right and wrong. I find this to be a ridiculous question, but convicted believers truly doubt that a person such as I could be guided by moral principles without relying on the Bible to tell me what those principles are. 

This brings up the question of whether God created good (and evil) or whether these are concepts that exist independent of the existence of a deity. As a child I recited during my prayers, “God is good, God is great.” Does goodness exist because God SAYS it is good?  If God IS Good, he does not define Good. An eternal Being who IS Goodness cannot have created Goodness. It must be, theologically speaking, a metaphysical Truth beyond definition or creation. Taking the anthropological view of the subject, I believe goodness exists because it benefits nature as a whole, specifically in the interest of man. The basis of what is good is derived from its inherent benefit to our survival as a race.

We feel compassion for others because we empathize with them, and can place ourselves in the position of another. Whether or not this empathy comes from God is irrelevant, because whether or not we believe in the existence of God, the capacity for empathy exists within us. The brand of Christianity in which I was raised denied that animals have souls, though countless examples of kindness and selflessness exist in the animal kingdom. How can these creatures exhibit what we define as goodness without benefit of a soul or Sunday school teachings?  

Another interesting aspect highlighted by this study is the fact that less religious people are often more generous than their more religious counterparts. This motivates me to wonder if some believers only give because they believe they are supposed to do so, and less because they feel compelled by compassion to do so. To me, it seems more noble to be giving out of genuine concern for the well being of others, and not just to gain the keys to a heavenly mansion. 

In my life I have met many truly compassionate and selfless Christians who have devoted their lives to helping others. I have also known many non-believers who share the same passion. I reject the notion that one must believe in a deity to be a good person who cares about others. Right and wrong are not just rules set down on clay tablets. Any person who does right only because he has to is not a truly moral being. An individual must be driven by genuine compassion to be truly “good for goodness’ sake.” 

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