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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

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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.

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