A study supposedly shows that atheists are more motivated by compassion than are religious people. Atheists have used this in various ways to show that atheist can be moral, that religion doesn't produce compassion and so on. The study is "My Brother's Keeper: Compassion Predicts Generosity More Among Less Religious Individuals." First published in Social Psychological and Personality Science, 00 (0) April (2012) 1-8. The authors were Laura R. Saslow and Bob Willer, et al. It was published on line before print and can found in a pdf:
They want to know, if religion makes people more pro-social does it make them more compassionate? If not then can non religious people be more compassionate? They use giving money to charity as the benchmark, and thus decide that non religious are more compassionate not because they give more money but because they have fewer motivations to do so in addition to compassion. So they see non religious motivation as being compassion that is left after other motives of religious people are stripped away, motives such as doctrine and teaching. Religious people, on the other hand, have more than one motivation. Let's look at the methodology and results.Past research argues that religious commitments shape individuals’ prosocial sentiments, including their generosity and solidarity. But what drives the prosociality of less religious people? Three studies tested the hypothesis that, with fewer religious expec-tations of prosociality, less religious individuals’ levels of compassion will play a larger role in their prosocial tendencies. In Study 1, religiosity moderated the relationship between trait compassion and prosocial behavior such that compassion was more critical to the generosity of less religious people. In Study 2, a compassion induction increased generosity among less religious individuals but not among more religious individuals. In Study 3, state feelings of compassion predicted increased generosity across a variety ofeconomic tasks for less religious individuals but not among more religious individuals. These results suggest that the prosociality of less religious individuals is driven to a greater extent by levels of compassion than is the prosociality of the more religious.
Across three studies, we compared the influence of compassionon prosocial tendencies among more and less religiousindividuals. In Study 1, we examined whether religiosity wouldmoderate the relationship of trait compassion on prosocialbehavior. We hypothesized that trait compassion would bemore critical to the generosity of the less religious than themore religious. In Study 2, we tested whether a compassioninduction (vs. a neutral video) would increase generosityamong less religious individuals, but not among more religiousindividuals. In Study 3, we assessed if momentary feelings ofcompassion would predict increased generosity across a varietyof economic tasks for less religious individuals but not morereligious individuals. By measuring and manipulating compas-sion, and measuring various forms of generous tendencies andbehavior, across three studies we test our hypothesis thatcompassion is more integral to the generosity of the lessreligious versus the more religious
They used a scale. Items include:
• "When I see someone being taken advantage of, I feel kind of protective towards them."
• "Other people’s misfortunes do not usually disturb me a great deal." (reverse-scored)
That's how they measure compassion.
Study 1 yielded evidence in suport of our main hypothesis: religiosity moderated the relationship between compassion and pro-social behavior such that the compassion-to-pro-sociality link was stronger for less religious individuals than it was for more religious individuals. Further, these results held while controlling for gender, political orientation, and educational attainment--variables that might otherwise account for our findings. IN sum, these findings indicate that although compassion is associated with pro-sociality among both less religious and more religious individuals this relationship is particularly robust for less religous individuals.That's the result for study 1. The others are similar.
Obviously there are definitional issues that need to be addressed. There is a methodological problem involving the nature of their definition of religion. How do they define religiosity? They say more religious are more conservative, but are they just saying religion = conservative thus not counting liberals as motivated?
Participants indicated the strength of their religious identity. The scale was recoded so that higher values represent greater religiosity: 1 (no religion), 2 (not very strong religious identity), 3 (somewhat strong religious identity), and 4 (strong religious identity), M¼2.99, SD¼1.03. Single-item measures of religiosity have been found to have sufficientreliability and predictive validity in other work (Gorsuch & McFarland, 1972).
That's a pretty shallow understanding of religious faith. That's going to be a problem for them. It's not just a matter of 'either you are religious or you are not'. There are levels of commitment. It's not too absurd or hard to prove that those who are more deeply convicted and who have had spiritual encounters would take the teachings more seriously and be willing to live by them. This has major import in two ways. First of all because it means that there's more involved than just feeling compassion and giving. Their major study says that non religious people have compassion as a motivator more so than religious people. That doesn't prove that religious people are less compassionate. It means that religious people might have three or four motives for giving and compassion might not be the main one (like doctrine or teaching might be more important). Non religious people will have mainly just that, compassion. This is the way the study has been understood by critics. "That doesn't mean highly religious people don't give, according to the research to be published in the July 2012 issue of the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science. But compassion seems to drive religious people's charitable feelings less than it other groups." One of the study co-author's says:
"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," study co-author and University of California, Berkeley social psychologist Robb Willer said in a statement. "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."In other words it's not that the religious people are less compassionate but that they may not use compassion as the top of the lexically ordered value system they go by.
The other reason knowing the depth of commitment matters, is because "religious" covers a lot of ground. It includes people who don't feel the love and those who do. If you don't examine them in separate groups the averages will probably be dragged down by the less committed group. Like having bad students brings down the class average. There is a lot of evidence that those who experience the real spiritual side of their faiths are more giving and have more social consciousness than those who don't. Andrew Newberg says the kind of faith is what make the difference in terms of the result of faith upon the subject.
h+: In your new book, How God Changes Your Brain, you argue that religious fundamentalism can actually be good for you. How do you figure?
AN: It really depends on the nature of the belief. Fundamentalism, per se, isn’t bad or good. It all depends on the nature of one’s beliefs. We’ve found that if one’s beliefs are positive and loving and compassionate that can have a very profound effect on one’s health and happiness. But the opposite is true. If you believe in a punishing god, or if that fundamentalism preaches hate and anger — then the effects are going to be bad. Anxiety levels will go up, a stress response can occur, and like any stressor, if that continues for long enough, it’s going to impact health outcomes in a negative way. The real point is that what we believe has a very direct effect on the quality of our lives and we need to remember that.Two major studies of mystical experience found that those who experienced the form of spirituality known as "mystical" or "peak" experience tended to have increased sense of social consciousness and became more giving. These studies are by Greely and Wuthnow.
Other positive consequences of religious experience include being less authoritarian and racist, less materialistic and status conscious, and showing more social concern and more self-assurance (Greeley 1975, Wuthnow 1978). In fact, it is in large part because of such consequences that scholars continue to acknowledge the importance of the experiential dimension of religion, even if not many study it.There are some studies that show religious people either have a high level of pro social behavior and/or generosity and compassion. John Lieff reports higher moral development among mystics.
It's important to understand that just doing the two hours a week in chruch and hearing that we should love and be good to people is not enough to change one into a Mother Teresa. Those who have had actual spiritual encounters with the divine have been changed. They will always be the minority and so the average is drug down. There are studies from scholarly sources that show not only giving and compassion associated with religious belief, but pro social behavior in general. The Society for the Scientific Study of Religion finds:
An important discrepancy seems to exist between self-reports and laboratory studies regarding prosociality among religious people. Some have even suggested that this involves moral hypocrisy on the part of religious people. However, the assumption of the four studies reported here is that the impact of religiousness on prosociality is limited but exists, and does not reflect self-delusion. In Study 1 (N= 106), religious young adults tended not to use indirect aggression in dealing with hypothetical daily hassles. In Study 2 (N= 105), female students' religiosity was associated with willingness to help close targets in hypothetical situations but the effect was not extended to unknown targets. In Studies 3 (N= 315, 105 triads) and 4 (N= 274, 109 targets), religious targets not only reported high altruistic behavior and empathy, but were also perceived as such by peers (friends, siblings, or colleagues) in three out of four cases. Other results from the studies suggested that the prosociality of religious people is not an artifact of gender, social desirability bias, security in attachment, empathy, or honesty.
One critique against the kind of study Saslow conducted with laboratory conditions, is a study of Israeli Jewish women published by McGill University that seems to indicate the short comings of laboratory conditions. The study indicates that religious prompts have to be backed by real world cues that reinforce the religious training.
We may conclude based on the results that reports show higher charity and volunteering among the religious not because they are more altruistic, but rather because these individuals live in an environment that more often pressures them to give, in accordance with popular moral codes. As explained previously, worship rituals and holidays often contain cues to give money and time (Shapiro 1971; Bird 1982; Cascio 2003). Without exposure to customs designed in part to solicit donations, it is possible that the non-religious inclination to give often lies dormant.
Those findings might seem to be anti-religion as a force for giving, but it must be pointed out the atheists would have the very same motive to exaggerate giving. They have social cues and a social movement (many tend to be politically liberal) that endorses compassion and giving. In those studies that involve self reporting there would be a motive to exaggerate one's own giving.
A study by Einlof in Sociology of Religion Quarterly consisting of life narrative interviews from midlife in the United States, "examines how religious values, ideas, and language motivate prosocial behaviors." This includes giving and self sacrifice and living up the teachings of Christ.
Using ratings from independent coders, statistically significant relationships were found between most of the themes and prosocial behaviors, particularly for respondents who engaged in multiple helping behaviors. In addition to documenting the relationship between religious ideas and values and helping behaviors, the study demonstrates how language mediates the relationship between the social and personal aspects of religion.
A reader of this blog, Yonose, had a cogent criticism:
I saw the Brothers Keepers' study from the link. It is interesting nonetheless. If there's a positive correlation between compassion, empathy and prosocial behaviour, this would actually imply that, somehow, less religious people need to be fed of compassion more consecutively, to do any good deed with our human brethren, by applying constant sense data by stimuli and induction. All of the above seems to be correct. I don't see anything weird about that by now. As a consequence, this would also mean that less religious people are easier to be lied to with political propaganda e.g. like SOME extremist environmental alarmists. Where I believe the study is somehow flawed in context, is the linking of a positive correlation between prosocial behaviour and the making of good deeds per se as universal, because many people who love to be vocal about their lack of religiousness, just like to do good deeds in a preferential way: most probably they will help non-religious people only. Such behaviours have been demonstrated by themselves over and over. It is just overly simplistic to have a positive correlation with compassion, by induction, lack of religiosity, and then conflating such, with the actual making of good deeds to people. There is not a single trace in that study that confirms which types of people they had helped, whether religious or not.
This would also imply that the idea of correlating actual charity with lack of religiousness is not a universal statement, and that it is completely falsifiable, and in consequence, it is not possible to make a proof that "Atheists have more compassion than religious people".That's where I agree that there's a double standard with these types of Atheists. This is just reduced to a mere political game. Have these types of Atheists forgot about their intellectual roots??
These high integration states were also correlated with peak experiences including inner calm, maximum wakefulness, alertness, lack of fear, effortlessness, a sense of perfection, and a sense of being “high.” In an unusual finding these people also had higher moral development, better self-image, better sleep and a better reputation. - See more at: http://jonlieffmd.com/blog/extraordinary-mental-states-5-spiritual-and-religious-experiences#sthash.tr6LYxOk.dpufThese high integration states were also correlated with peak experiences including inner calm, maximum wakefulness, alertness, lack of fear, effortlessness, a sense of perfection, and a sense of being “high.” In an unusual finding these people also had higher moral development, better self-image, better sleep and a better reputation. - See more at: http://jonlieffmd.com/blog/extraordinary-mental-states-5-spiritual-and-religious-experiences#sthash.tr6LYxOk.dpuf
 Laura R. Saslow, Robb Willer, Mathrew Feinberg, Paul K Piff, Katharine Clark, Cacher Kelntner, and Srina R. Saturn. "My Brother's Keeper: Compassion Predicts Generosity More Among Less Religious Individuals."Social Psychological and Personality Science (April 26, 2012) 1948550612444137
 Staff Writer, "Atheists More Motivated by Compassion Than the Faithful," Live Science. (May 1, 2012) online resource
 Andrew Newberg quoted by Steve Kotler, "The Neurology of Spiritual Experience," h*, Sept. 2009
 Encyclopedia of Religion and Society, William H. Swatos, Jr. editor
 John Lieff, Searching for the Mind, Online resource.
 Vassilis Saroglou, Isabelle Pichon, et al. "Prosocial Behavior and Religion: New Evidence Based on Projective Measures and Peer Ratings" Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion
 Salomon Israel and Maoz Brown, "Faith, Fellowship, and Philanthropy: Giving Rates as a Function of Religiosity among Israeli Jewish Women," McGill Sociological Review, Volume 3, February 2013, pp. 36-54.
On line versoin posted by McGill University: http://www.mcgill.ca/msr/volume3/article3
 Christopher J. Einolf. "The Link Between Religion and Helping Others: the Role of Values, Ideals, and Language." Sociology of Religion Quarterly Review (2011) doi: 10.1093/socrel/srr017
first published online April 6, 2011.