Burning Question

Are highly religious people less compassionate?

A new study suggests non-believers are more likely than the faithful to be generous when they see a stranger in need

Here's a new study that might not go over well in church: Researchers from the University of California, Berkeley, say atheists and agnostics are more likely than highly religious people to show compassion for strangers. Are the faithful really less generous than non-churchgoers? Here, a brief guide:

Why do researchers think non-believers are more generous?They looked at the results of three studies: In one, people's attitudes about compassion were measured against the frequency of their own acts of generosity; in another, participants were shown one neutral video and one showing children in poverty, then given the option of giving money to strangers; in the third, 200 college students were given money to keep or share. In all three experiments, the less religious participants were more inclined to show generosity to strangers.

What explains this phenomenon?Less religious people tend to be driven by their feelings of compassion, says Berkeley social psychologist Robb Willer, a co-author of the study, which is to be published in the July issue of the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science. "The more religious, on the other hand, may ground their generosity less in emotion," and instead make their decisions on whether to help others based on other factors, such as the desire to fulfill a moral duty described in religious doctrine.

Isn't that debatable?Absolutely. In fact, a 2008 University of British Columbia study came to the opposite conclusion, finding the faithful to be "more helpful, honest, and generous." In that study, researchers looked at decades of data, and found that people who pray frequently and attend religious services were more likely to donate to charity and do volunteer work, and less likely to cheat in games.

Sources: Christian Post, Daily Mail, Death and Taxes, LiveScience, UC Berkeley

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