Are religious people nicer?

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I read this report some time ago and have been stewing on it since.

The writer, Simon Smart, Director of the Centre for Public Christianity, sheepishly quotes a new report which finds that:

On every measurable scale, religious Americans are more generous, more altruistic and more involved in civic life than their secular counterparts.

They are more likely to give blood, money to a homeless person, financial aid to family or friends, a seat to a stranger and to spend time with someone who is ”a bit down”

He also quotes studies/reports in Australia to support the findings.

All well and good, but Simon undoes his report by taking the opportunity to take a swipe at Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, as follows:

But this research is in stark contrast to claims by prominent authors such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. After reading their works, you’d swear that religion makes you immediately abandon rationality to become an inward-looking extremist. What Putnam’s book does at the very least is to bring a bit of balance into the conversation

Simon then reveals that maybe religion is not necessarily a pre-requisite for being a good-guy:

A sobering note for believers is that this study reveals that the content of a person’s belief isn’t what matters so much as their level of involvement in a religious community.

An atheist who comes to church to support her partner will rate as well as any believer on these scores.

So, I ask – if this is what the study reveals, then why make the claim about religion at all? Why the provocative headline?

The comments to this piece are fascinating – all 403 of them. While I haven’t read them all, there’s a strong reaction against the article, generally resentful of the ‘we are good, you are bad’ tone. But hasn’t this always been the way with the faithful? Haven’t they always been holier than thou? Well, maybe not always, given the mayhem strewn throughout the bible and the history of mankind.

A few commenters raised the point that many of the faithful would be doing public services out of the fear of their god – rather than any sort of altruism. And of course, the faithful are also selective of the targets of their ‘kindness’ – gays need not apply, nor women seeking support for an abortion, and so on.

This is a complex area, but for an in-depth discussion, I commend this episode of the excellent Reasonable Doubts podcast. As the show notes describe it:

In this presentation, Dr. Galen, PhD, Associate Professor of Psychology at Grand Valley State University, will consider the root of morality and pro-social behavior. Are we kind and considerate of others because religion creates a set of rules and “commandments” or are these behaviors a natural result of our evolutionary need to live in community? Dr. Galen will also cover related topics such as why humans construct religions and how religion can create prejudicial beliefs and behaviors.

Well worth a listen, to delve beneath the headlines and spin.

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2 thoughts on “Are religious people nicer?

    Blamer .. (@blamer) said:
    September 27, 2011 at 4:58 pm

    After reading their works, you’d swear that religion makes you immediately abandon rationality to become an inward-looking extremist.

    Actually what Dawkins and Harris are telling nice religious people is that cultures that promote “us against them” are increasingly inappropriate for a world of skyscrapers, air travel, and world trade.

    Morality as an evolved trait « rationalbrain said:
    June 28, 2012 at 1:01 am

    […] usually said with a supercilious grin, that atheists have no basis for morality (see here, here and here for a […]

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