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Religion and Generosity

Studies question whether religion makes people more generous.

Does religion make people likely to help others? To many the answer is self-evident. After all, making people moral—and generosity is an important marker of being ethical—is a major function of religion, they say. Religion directs people to be pro-social. Without religion, society would be a pit of selfishness, a hell on Earth.

Others reach an opposite conclusion regarding the utility of religion, pointing to the long history of cruelty associated with it, from the Crusades to witch burnings to present-day atrocities committed by Isis and militant Hindus. From this perspective, religions have brought misery to humanity and we would be better off with none at all.

A few studies have helped resolve this dispute. The University of Indiana Lilly Family School of Philanthropy finds “a substantial connection between religion and giving.” Those with a religious affiliation were twice as generous as those without such a connection.

This is consistent with other studies that demonstrate a connection between church attendance and giving. Weekly church attendance played an important role in generosity. While there was no difference in the giving of those who attended within the last month and those who attended who hadn’t attended in the previous half-year, those who attended weekly were considerably more generous.

An experiment by psychologist Ara Norenzayan, of the University of British Columbia, seems to confirm these findings. He found that priming people with religious language made them more generous. Here is what he did: some subjects were asked to correct the grammar of sentences, a few of which included religious words, such as ‘God’ and ‘divine.’ Others were directed to correct sentences that didn’t contains such words. Upon leaving the room, subjects found ten dollars in coins on a table with a note saying that they could take what they like. Whatever was left, would go to the next person. Those who were primed without religious words left, on average, less than $2; those who read the religious terms left over $4.

An interesting aspect of the study is that it didn’t matter whether the person who was primed with the religious vocabulary was religious or not. In fact, about half answered that they had no religion, yet they were as generous as those who were affiliated. The words themselves seem to have made the difference, not an individual’s religiosity.

Norenzayan’s explains that “Watched people are nice people.” Encountering religious words likely caused people to think that God saw and judged them.

Another study by Norenzayan tested whether it was religious language that contributed to people’s generosity. In a subsequent experiment instead of words suggesting religion, subjects encountered the words associated with good citizenship, such as ‘civic,’ ‘jury; and ‘court.’ Those exposed to these words also outperformed those whose test did contain such words. Those exposed to the civic-minded words left, on average, almost exactly the same amount as did those who had seen the religion-associated words.

Being watched (or even thinking that you are being watched), may be the key factor, as demonstrated by an experiment conducted by behavioral psychologist Melissa Bateson, from Newcastle University. At her university, there is an honesty box next to the canteen from which people can take drinks. Each week for ten weeks they placed an image next to the suggested drink prices. At the end of each week, they counted the amount of money left in the box and the cost of the drinks consumed. Bateson finds, “"We found that people paid 2.76 times as much money when we put a notice on the wall that featured a pair of eyes as opposed to when the image was of some flowers.” She continues, “Although it was just a photocopied black and white poster, we know that people's brains are set up to process faces and eyes, and that is probably because it is very important for us to know if we are being watched by other people."

What these and other studies demonstrate is that while religion may make people more generous, religious beliefs alone that doesn’t make them so. Neither is religion a requirement for being generous.

Modern life undermines our face-to-face encounters within a stable community, thereby making it easy to escape the watchfulness of others. The more distant the community, the larger it is, the easier it is to forget that others care about what we do; we don’t think anyone is watching. Contemporary life makes it easy to hide from view (but, ironically, not from video surveillance, which is another matter). But there is a longing to reconnect to others. Historian Molly Worthen thinks this is the reason for the surge in popularity of wellness-guru podcasts, who she terms “spiritual entrepreneurs who are filling the gap left as traditional religious organizations erode and modernity frays our face-to-face connections with communities and institutions.”

Evidence shows that religious organizations can play a useful role in encouraging generosity, although it should be added that nearly 75% of charitable giving went to congregations and nonprofits with religious affiliations, according to The Chronicle of Philanthropy. What is also clear is that secular affiliations can serve the same function. What is not clear is whether virtual communities, such those found online or via podcasts, can play this important social role.

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