Effects of religion on prosocial behaviour

HSV Public Lecture by Katja Petrovic, La Trobe University, at Kew Library on 23 June 2016

As a student of the psychological motivations for volunteering, Katja Petrovic raised the question, ‘Does religiosity lead us to do good?’ Peter Hitchens, for instance, has claimed that Christian believers contribute charity, honesty and kindness, which are essential to a functioning society. Indeed, churches have set up charities but they have also spawned fanatics. The speaker examined a number of aspects of the question, as follows.

Are religious people more prosocial than non-religious people?

Prosociality means actions intended to help others, for whatever motive, whether planned or spontaneous. Charitable actions include giving to charity and volunteering, and the motivation may be one’s internalized values or social influences.

Katja carried out a survey of volunteers, asking how religious they were and how much of their volunteering time was devoted to religious causes, to social service, to political or human-rights causes and to environmental or animal causes. She found that religious people volunteered more particularly for religious causes than for the other causes, and non-religious people preferred to volunteer for the non-religious causes.

Religious people, especially the devout, are appreciably more charitable than others, but their motivation is social, not theological.

Are religious people more inclined to help others?

The relation between religion and personality has been studied by V. Saroglou (2005). Among religious people, their stated beliefs and their behaviour are discordant when it comes to gratitude, forgiveness and vengefulness. While the religious rate themselves highly on being universally helpful, they are more likely than the non-religious to help people who are known to them and less likely to help strangers. Katja quoted Freud (1921): “A religion, even if it calls itself a religion of love, must be hard and unloving to those who do not belong to it.” Perceiving other people in terms of in-group and out-group is however a common human trait, not restricted to the religious. The by-stander effect is much studied.

  • Are religious people more generous than others?

Regular churchgoers in USA gave slightly smaller tips than others did. More work is needed.

Are religious people more honest than others?

Austrian churchgoers were notably stingy in paying for a newspaper employing an honour box. Again, more study is needed.

In conclusion, prosociality is correlated with religion only in certain domains, not generally.

Further reading:

Epiphenom, Tom Rees blog

Report by Stephen Stuart

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