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Are Atheists More Inclined to Help Their Fellow Man Than Religious People?


"The more religious...may ground their generosity less in emotion, and more in other factors..."

It's a finding that most believers will likely find disheartening. Atheists, on the other hand, will certainly relish in the results. According to research published in the July 2012 issue of Social Psychological and Personality Science, atheists are more driven by compassion to help their fellow man than are highly religious individuals.

Robb Willer, a co-author of the study and a social psychologist at the University of California, described the findings in a recently-released statement.

"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," Willer said. "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 repetitional concerns."

At the root of the study is the overall question of whether logic, emotion or other factors serve as motivating forces in the decision to help others. But beyond that, the complex nature of religious adherence -- or lack thereof -- comes into play.

It is these elements that served as the focal point for study, which was assembled by Willer and fellow academic Laura Saslow. Saslow says that she began thinking more about these issues after a non-believing friend told her he had donated to a Haiti relief project after viewing a moving video clip. Curious about what was driving this act of giving, Saslow set in motion with her team to better understand these elements through scientific inquiry.

LiveScience.com explains the study's methodology and phases:

In the first study, Saslow and her colleagues analyzed data from a national survey of more than 1,300 American adults taken in 2004. They found that compassionate attitudes were linked with how many generous behaviors a person was likely to report. But this link was strongest in people who were atheists or only slightly religious, compared with people who were more strongly religious. [8 Ways Religion Impacts Your Life]

In a second experiment, 101 adults were shown either a neutral video or an emotional video about children in poverty. They were then given 10 fake dollars and told they could give as much as they liked to a stranger. Those who were less religious gave more when they saw the emotional video first. [...]

Finally, a sample of more than 200 college students reported their current level of compassion and then played economic games in which they were given money to share or withhold from a stranger. Those who were the least religious but most momentarily compassionate shared the most.

It was from these experiments that the results were derived.

"Overall, this research suggests that although less religious people tend to be less trusted in the U.S., when feeling compassionate, they may actually be more inclined to help their fellow citizens than more religious people," Willer alleged.

While atheists may jump for joy over the prospect that they are seemingly more compassionate than believers, more research is needed to understand this disparity. As in all human behavior findings, there are likely factors that are unseen laying at the root of religious peoples' giving -- factors that will need deeper exploration.

(H/T: LiveScience.com)

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