Atheists Motivated by Compassion, Believers by Doctrine When It Comes to Giving?

A new study by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley suggests that compassion motivates the non-religious more so than people of faith when it comes to helping others in need, and that religious people may instead be compelled to action by doctrinal beliefs.

The three experiments that established the results revealed that when it came to generosity and giving, the more compassion nonbelievers felt, the more likely they were to lend a hand to the needy, the university reported. On the other hand, highly religious people did not feel the same connection between how compassionate they felt about a certain situation and how much they were influenced to help out.

"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," explained Robb Willer, co-author of the study and UC Berkeley social psychologist. "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 results did not seek to explain why compassion was not such a big factor for religious people, but surmised that believers were more guided by other principles – such as fulfilling their moral duty as guided by doctrine.

"We hypothesized that religion would change how compassion impacts generous behavior," added Laura Saslow, who conducted the research as a doctoral student at UC Berkeley.

"I was interested to find that this experience – an atheist being strongly influenced by his emotions to show generosity to strangers – was replicated in three large, systematic studies," Saslow explained, noting that she was motivated to put together the study based on relief efforts in earthquake-hit Haiti, where both religious and non-religious people have offered aid.

Some of the sample questions, based on the responses of 1,300 American adults, included how people felt toward statements such as "When I see someone being taken advantage of, I feel kind of protective towards them."

Researchers found that those who were more inclined to agree with such statements, and those more likely to lend out their personal belongings to people in need, were more likely to identify themselves as non-religious.

"Overall, this research suggests that although less religious people tend to be less trusted in the U.S., when feeling compassionate, they may actually be more inclined to help their fellow citizens than more religious people," Willer concluded.

The full study appears in the most recent issue of the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.

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