• Strange Notions Strange Notions Strange Notions

Atheists More Motivated By Compassion Than The Faithful?


The title for this article was swiped, word-for-word, from a Live Science press release. This is important because the point I wish to make has to do with how the press and publicity treat papers.

HotAir.com featured another headline concerning the same paper: "Confirmed: Atheists more motivated by compassion in charitable giving than believers are".

Now pause and consider just these two headlines, the only words of a story likely to be read by most folks. What would your conclusion be? Why, that atheists are more generous and compassionate than theists!

But suppose I told you I conducted an experiment with 100 atheists and 100 theists and asked them to self-report how much money they donated and the attitude they had whilst doing so. Say that 90 out of the 100 theists made charitable donations and all claimed their activity was a duty. Further, say that just 10 out of 100 atheists gave but that each of these 10 reported doing so because they were moved by compassion. What would your conclusion be? Obviously, "Atheists are more compassionate than theists." But is the conclusion really supported by the evidence?

Let's turn back to the paper in question. It was written by academic sociologists Robb Willer and Laura Saslow. In it, so the press release informs, they conducted three studies.

In the first, they looked at an old survey with this result:

"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."

In other words “atheist” as defined by this first study included “not-atheist” or “some atheist, some religious.” The lumping is suspicious and might indicate their statistical correlation did not produce a publishable p-value when they compared actual atheists with actual theists. The study reports on the number of “generous behaviors” (whatever these are) which were correlated with some definition of compassion. There is no word about the fraction of theists who engaged in “generous behaviors” versus the fraction of atheists who engaged in these.

Here was the result of the second study:

"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."

The description is not clear, but it appears that participants saw both videos but in random order. It's not clear if just as many theists as atheists saw the “emotional video” first, or whether the researchers lumped some theists in with atheists to round out their numbers.

And did you notice that the fake dollars were given to a stranger? Why not real dollars to real children in actual poverty? Or money to a suffering relative or friend? The study involved an specific, odd, and unrealistic situation.

And then the third study:

"[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."

How does one gauge somebody’s “momentary current level of compassion”? And what does fake money have to do with real-life giving? None of this is clear.

Live Science ends with a quote from Willer: "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." Now why bring up that atheists are "less trusted"? What does that have to do with any of these studies? Might Willer be subject to a little confirmation bias?

And did you notice the qualifier? Atheists, when feeling compassionate, may be more inclined to "help" (with fake money, of course) their fellow citizens. What about when atheists are not feeling compassionate? Do they feel compassionate more or less often the theists? Who gives more? Who is in more generous in real life?

These are the real questions, and unfortunately the study did nothing to answer them. For that reason, we should be wary of the the bold assertion made by mainstream headlines.
Originally posted at William M. Briggs' blog. Used with permission.

Dr. William M. Briggs

Written by

Dr. William M. Briggs is an Adjunct Professor of Statistics at Cornell University, where he acquired both an M.S. in Atmospheric Science and a Ph.D. in Statistics. In addition to teaching, William works as a consultant with specialties in medicine, the environment, and the philosophy of, and over-certainty in, science. He blogs at wmbriggs.com.

Note: Our goal is to cultivate serious and respectful dialogue. While it's OK to disagree—even encouraged!—any snarky, offensive, or off-topic comments will be deleted. Before commenting please read the Commenting Rules and Tips. If you're having trouble commenting, read the Commenting Instructions.

  • Phil

    Given that the largest charitable organization in the world, by far, is the Catholic Church I'd also hold this as suspect. (Now this isn't to say that there aren't both theists and atheists motivated by both selfishness and compassion.)

  • Richard Norman

    From the 3 studies above the only conclusions supported seem to be that atheists are more likely to brag or publicize their giving than theists, atheists are more easily manipulated by unsubstantiated emotional appeals from unknown agencies than theists, and atheists are more likely to give away other people's money than theists.

    • th3rdsurfer

      This is the greatest reply! Yes.

    • John Gonzales

      Or at least those would be the conclusions gleaned by someone predisposed to aggrandize the faithful and denigrate the compassion or charitable impulses of those who reject the groundless faith in an ethereal divine being. It's hard to imagine a weaker and more flawed conclusion than one that credits theists with more criticism and skepticism when confronted with "unsubstantiated emotional appeals from unknown agencies," which encapsulates the call to religiosity quite nicely.

  • Sounds like Dr Briggs has a lot of questions, he seems quite annoyed that the websites he visited did not provide sufficient information for him about the studies and trials. He should first read the actual papers these websites report on. As it stands, he is really just criticizing LiveScience.com and hotair.com for failing to provide his level of science reporting.

    The study of the relationship between faith, religion, theism and pro-social behaviour seems to be really complex. It depends on what you mean by the above terms. I would say the Doubcasters have been quite good on this, Luke Galen of course.


  • jakael02

    Personally I give significantly more after seriously practicing my Catholicism than prior to seriously practicing.

  • Loreen Lee

    Is there not a passage in scripture where Jesus 'warns?' his followers not to be like the Pharisee's who want to be seen in their acts of 'generosity', but cautions them rather to give without being seen, in the what? privacy of their own conscience? There is also an example of a woman who gives little, but according to what she has, whose 'gift' is thus recognized as being a greater act of generosity than those whose alms exceed what she is capable of.
    These examples are given as 'evidence' that perhaps statistical analysis, or indeed science in general may not be capable of a methodological or quantifiable analysis of what constitutes 'generosity', and perhaps also that generosity and indeed compassion cannot always be analyzed in terms of what is 'given' materially', or specifically limited to gifts or tokens of 'currency'.

  • I give more to charity now than when I was a Catholic, But I am only one data point.

  • The questions Briggs asks seem reasonable. One question seems missing:

    If the results are accurate and the interpretation is correct, what does that mean for theism and atheism?

    If the results are inaccurate or the interpretation is incorrect, what does that mean for theism and atheism?

    • Loreen Lee

      You're the scientist!!! Perhaps you could elaborate on the limitations/scope of science with respect to 'necessary' effects or outcome. Also, to what extent science is able to make predictions for the singular/individual case.

      • My opinion is that the results say nothing about atheism or theism, even if interpreted correctly. Atheists may be more compassionate because they are more likely to be feminists or vegetarians and maybe feminists or vegetarians are more compassionate. Or maybe there are lots of other underlying causes. Correlation is not the same as causation, and the results would be too hard to disentangle from other possible causes.

        • Loreen Lee

          Thanks Paul. I think scripture could be interpreted to be making a similar kind of case, but of course in a more abstract and ironically in a more 'personal' language.

          Edit: I pressed thumbs up, cause it was the only way I could find out who had left the previous one. Thanks, Paul.

        • Loreen Lee

          I was thinking about the difficulties of the correspondence theory of truth in a recent post. Correlations/correspondences between ideas are possibly easier to make than between ideas and facts; A thought that maybe distinguishes between the respective 'domains' of philosophy and religion, etc. in contrast with science??? Just wondering here. Added another edit below. Thanks.

          • Loreen Lee

            On reading the article again in more detail it seems like a deontological ethic (i.e. duty) is associated with the theists, while a Humean:i.e. a sympathy or sentimentally based ethic is associated with the atheists. But these are studied only respect to giving within the context of monetary donations. Could this science of the personality extend the scope of its thesis and examine the relation of duty vs. empathy to other criteria: like offering advice, helping someone out of a jam, (indeed when it would be best to do same or not do same) and the decisions within all of the continually occurring dilemnas that we find in others in our daily and ongoing interaction with them.

          • All these things seem very fuzzy and hard to test in any scientifically rigorous way.

          • Loreen Lee

            Yes, but science generally tends to improve on any particular issue they tackle. And I think they could provide an interesting prospective to the human condition. It could even encourage people to be more 'self-reflective'[; even if only in defense of a particular conclusion that any particular study comes to. I do believe however, that literature is a far better vehicle for exploring the 'individual', whether a person or a context. Like I said the hardest correlation/;correspondence to find is that between idea and fact. My look at this relationship within this context has put the ideas of 'the word made flesh', and the 'living word', within a new light, as well. I also find it interesting to attempt to figure out 'how' I 'think', or whether indeed it can be called that!!!!! grin grin..

          • The thing about science, the reason there's improvement, is that the question has to be very clear, clear enough and connected enough to physical reality that some test of that physical reality can clearly answer the question.

            Does information travel faster than the speed of light? Set up a relay, separate it by a great distance, send a message, track how fast the message takes. If you get the message fast enough, then information can travel faster than the speed of light. If you don't, then it's unknown whether information can travel faster than the speed of light.

            Are there black swans? Same thing. Go out and find a black swan.

            What's the clear question that we'd be answering, and how does it connect to physical reality? Will Humean behavior have particular properties that Kantian behavior never will?

          • Loreen Lee

            Thanks for your help in dealing so generously with my lack of understanding regarding science. But when I reread the article I perceived for the first time that they actually seemed to be interested in the study of the relationship of morality, etc. to personality. Is it not 'possible' that someone could actually think up questions that could be addressed. That's what I thought they were attempting in my last reading. I perhaps was right in my original instinctive response that something was wrong with the method, or something. Granted, it may not be possible to be specific enough. But on my second reading, thinking of the possibility, I merely thought 'wow'! (After all they do 'soft?' research in psychology, etc.)
            There's also the problem of interpretation. Would Humean behavior be some sort of soft sentimentality, or would it be closer to one of many definitions of affection, love, etc? How would one distinguish scientifically between self-interest and altruism? Is it possible to 'connect' an idea to a fact in these cases. I appreciate I'm 'way out' on this, and of course I'll bow to your better judgment, but once upon a time there was no idea let alone a fact of flight. (And yes, maybe I'm resorting to metaphor for this crazy thought of mine).

  • Kirk Baker

    Actually, the logical take-away is that Atheists are motivated primarily by compassion, whereas Theists are motivated by a variety of emotions/reasons. This does not say that Theists are less compassionate, or less motivated by compassion, merely that Atheists are _only_ likely to give if they feel compassion.

    Given that other studies find people who put their faith into practice (active participation in worship communities) tend to outgive those who do not several times over, the headline is accurate, just misleading and slanted.