Scientific Study: God Leads to Altruism

In June, I wrote a brief essay about the new poll from Barna that had determined that atheists were less charitable and satisfied than theists which I titled (not surprisingly) Poll: Atheists and Agnostics are Less Charitable and At Peace. According to the story, Barna polled a cross-section of the general public asking questions about (among other things) religious preference and charitable giving, and used the data collected to draw a correlation between the amounts people gave and their stated religious preference. The data, when analyzed, revealed that atheists and agnostics were significantly less charitable than theists. The news report ofn the Barna poll read:

Additionally, when the no-faith group does donate to charitable causes, their donation amount pales in comparison to those active in faith. In 2006, atheists and agnostics donated just $200 while believers contributed $1,500. The amount is still two times higher among believers when subtracting church-based giving.

Naturally, some thought that the results of the poll were too inconclusive because there was no control group. As one commenter put it:

These are what you call "confounding variables." If ANY of these other characteristics - youth, being male, being single, earning more or being a college graduate are correlated with being less charitable then it will give the false impression that atheists are less charitable. That's why any study worth it's salt CONTROLS for confounding variables. Without such controlls [sic], the results of the study are completely worthless.

Of course, the poll was not intended to be a scientific evaluation so the criticism is somewhat unwarranted, but the commenter did have a valid point. This was simply a poll and used statistics based upon the size of the sample to reach a conclusion. Everyone who has ever read the polls prior to an election knows that polls are not as accurate as scientific tests, but they are overall pretty darn accurate.

Still, if a person hopes for "scientific proof" in the form of some type of lab test to become satisfied that religion leads to more altruism, their hopes may have been answered. According to an article entitled Thoughts related to God linked to altruism in Science Daily, a scientific study has provided evidence that when people think about God they become more altruistic. According to the article:

More than 100 study participants were randomly assigned to do a word game to unscramble sentences with words such as spirit, divine, God, sacred and prophet -- while a control group was given the same task with non-spiritual words. Afterward, all participants played an anonymous dictator game, whereby subjects were given $1 coins and asked to decide what to keep and what to share with an anonymous recipient.

The study, published in the September issue of Psychological Science, found 68 percent of subjects from the religious word game group allocated $5 or more to anonymous strangers, compared to 22 percent from those using neutral concepts.

"These are compelling findings that have substantial impact on the study of social behavior because they draw a causal relationship between religion and acting morally -- a topic of some debate," [researcher Azim] Shariff said in a statement. "They by no means indicate that religion is necessary for moral behavior, but it can make a substantial contribution."

This study, of course, is not the final word on the subject. However, it does add to the growing mound of evidence that suggests that atheists -- despite all of their talk about how one doesn't need God to be altruistic -- are not as altruistic as their theistic neighbors. This does not mean, as Azim Shariff makes clear, that atheists cannot act morally. Anyone who says that atheists are incapable of acting morally simply ignores reality. But what it does mean, if this study is confirmed by further tests, is that Christians are right when they say that atheism's failure to provide an intellectual warrant for moral behavior will eventually trickle down to the general public if the Christian base is eroded resulting in less charitable giving.

Ideas have consequences. The idea that God does not exist makes morals relative and takes away a strong intellectual warrant for commiting acts of altruism. The failure of atheists to give as much to charity as theists is simply the result of their worldview.


Joel said…
Heh, at first I misread the header as "God leads to atheism." XD
JD Walters said…
Well, that's certainly interesting, but remember that 'scientific' atheists will take this to mean that 'God' is just a good evolutionary strategy for enhancing in-group cooperation.
Anonymous said…
Your "mounting evidence" highlights data that paint a negative picture of the non-religious. In the case of the poll, the data were gathered by a religious organization that looked only at a particular type of charity (individual charity/alms) promoted by Christianity and given tax incentives in the US.

My guess is you're not going to highlight the data on which countries give the largest amount of foreign aid as a % of per capita GDP and compare it to the data on which countries have the highest percentage of atheists/agnostics/unbelievers. There seems to be a high correlation (especially in Scandinavia) between non-religious voters and giving aid to impoverished countries.
Layman said…

You seem somewhat confused about the subject here. Altruism and charity have to do with giving one's own money to help others, not voting to coerce the giving of other people's money. It seems obvious that the former is a better indicator of character than the latter.

Yes, personal giving is something promoted by Christianity. As point out here, the concept received a tremendous boost by the spread of Christianity.

And it is to the U.S.'s credit that tax incentives are granted for personal giving.

As for "foreign aid," Americans do not give less in foreign aid because they care less. Far from it. They actually give much more personally to assist people in foreign countries. But that is not counted by your metric. As for government coerced foreign aid, Americans are largely suspicious that is effective. Being reluctant to force others to give to foreign aid that will not likely be effective is not uncharitable, it is pragmatic.

In any event, metrics of "foreign aid" are usually designed to ignore much of what America contributes. From a previous post of mine:

"Additionally, measurements of U.S. “foreign aid” are misleading. The fact remains that the United States government gives more money in foreign aid than any other nation. More to the point, private charitable giving in the United States for overseas assistance is double that of U.S. foreign aid. McKibben is dismissive of this fact, but surely this is the point. It is what the Christians themselves that are giving which is the best measurement of their fidelity to Jesus’ teaching. “Most developed countries in Europe lag far behind the United States when it comes to charitable giving by individuals. Philanthropy Magazine reported a German study that found the average American contributing around seven times what the average German contributes.”

Also, the definition of “foreign aid” is underinclusive and especially slanted against real U.S. contrinbutions to combating poverty and international lawlessness. For example, when the tsunami in the Indian Ocean killed hundreds of thousands and left millions homeless and vulnerable, the United States provided the most immediate practical assistance of any nation by sending more than 20,000 soldiers and sailors, including a Naval fleet, to help. That fleet included(s) the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln (a nuclear-powered Nimitz Class aircraft carrier), the hospital ship U.S.S. Mercy, and the U.S.S. Essex (a helicopter aircraft carrier). The U.S. Pacific Command delivered over 24 million pounds of relief supplies, flew almost 4,000 missions including delivery of supplies and damage assessment recon, provided thousands of gallons of drinking water, thousands of tons of food, and medical care for thousands of victims. How much does this assistance add to the off-cited calculations of of U.S. foreign aid? Not a dime. And when the United States under President Clinton’s leadership lead NATO in its military intervention to stop genocide in the former Yugoslavia at a cost of billions, how much of that counted as foreign aid? Not a dime."
midacamp said…

Also remember that 'scientific' atheists may also deride religion as bad for everyone, everywhere.

Oops, looks like it's an advantage in this case...
BK said…

I'm not sure I understand what you mean by your final comment, but the first part of your comment points out that the so-called scientific atheists go both ways. They claim that religion evolved because it provided an evolutionary advantage, but then they also claim that religion spoils everything (what happened to the evolutionary advantage?). Regardless, both positions are wrong.
midacamp said…

That was exactly the contradiction I was attempting to point out.

An atheist attempting to explain this study as an "evolutionary advantage" cannot also claim that religion is bad for everyone, everywhere.

Thanks for spelling it out clearer than my attempt. Highfive!
BK said…
Then it was an excellent point IMHO since I hadn't thought of it before reading your comment. High five back at'cha.

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