in Things that make you go "hmm"

Atheists, Compassion, Religion and Bad Science

“Atheists and agnostics are more driven by compassion to help others than are highly religious people” according to this article.

Except that it’s a misleading sentence in an article that’s just bad science. The article tries to suggest that the study demonstrates atheists to be more compassionate and generous than religious people, but in a classic example of misusing data to support an unconnected position, that’s not really what the study says.

What the article and the study it quotes actually reveal, is that religious people base the way they help others, such as giving to charity, on their religious beliefs. They’re not very much affected by emotional appeals. In contrast, atheists react more strongly to emotional appeals, as shown by their greater increase in charity after watching a heart-wrenching video to inspire them.

It’s possible that overall, either atheists or religious people could be more generous or compassionate, but that’s not what this particular study revealed. It really just showed that religion works as advertised.

The ethical role of religion is largely to take the emotional guesswork out of good behaviour. It’s intended to remove the subjective element–the way you might help one old lady across the street because she has a nice smile, but not her dour looking neighbour. Or the way you might give your spare change to the homeless guy who reminds you of your brother, but not to the one who looks like one of the bullies from your high school.

Religions have ethical rules–such as Judaism’s requirement to give 10% of your income to charity, preferably anonymously, or in general the Golden Rule[1]–to emphasize that doing the right thing shouldn’t depend on your mood or whether or not you just watched a sad video.

On a related note, however, other studies[2] have shown that people are more honest shortly after reading the Ten Commandments or similar reminders of ethical behaviour. Interestingly, it’s not about religious belief; it’s about being reminded of what good ethical behaviour is. Where ethical systems can have an effective role is by providing constant reminders of the right thing to do.

It’s fair to criticize religions where they’ve gone astray, advocating hurtful or unethical behaviour. But it’s also important to recognize that the powerful mechanisms of religion are effective in positive ways, too.

  1. The Golden Rule was formulated by the great rabbi Hillel as “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn.” About fifty years later, it was promulgated by a young rabbi of Hillel’s school, who we know today by the name of Jesus, with this formulation: “Do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.”
  2. See the Ten Commandments study quoted in Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational, Revised and Expanded Edition: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions

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