Religion Not the Only Path to Altruism

A man praying. (Image credit: stock.xchng)

Religion and its promotion of empathy get undue credit for our unselfish acts. Instead, it’s our less-than-virtuous psychological perception that a moral authority is watching us that promotes altruism, a new review essay suggests.

The essay is based on two psychologists’ re-examination of dozens of studies that have dealt with the relationship between religious participation and so-called prosocial behavior, a term that includes charity, cooperation, volunteerism, honesty, trust and various forms of personal sacrifice. The Biblical parable of the Good Samaritan is a classic example.

The upshot is surprising: While religion can play a role in fostering altruism, it is far from the only institution capable of doing so and it might not work the way we assume, says review co-author Azim Shariff, a graduate student at the University of British Columbia.

To the extent that religion does promote altruism, it might actually be effective because adherents think that some authority figure is watching them to make sure they “do the right thing,” or because they want to maintain their reputations as righteous followers of religious teachings. Also, studies that do show a link between altruism and religion are often based on self-reports — subjects saying they did something unselfish, rather than direct observation of them doing so. This type of data is notoriously unreliable.

“We found little or no evidence that empathy plays any role in religious prosociality,” said lead author Ara Norenzayan, a UBC social psychologist, adding that jury is still out. Religious types might engage in unselfish generosity coming from a place of empathy or compassion, but there is currently no data to support this, he said.

Humans are evolved to be acutely sensitive to our reputations as do-gooders in our social groups because this promotes strong cooperative bonds that help the species. This psychological mechanism was originally unrelated to religion, the authors write in the Oct. 3 issue of the journal Science.

The review also shoots down the idea that religion is necessary to make people choose to engage in altruistic behavior — or do something that benefits others at your own personal expense. Religion has no monopoly on good behavior today, Norenzayan said.

In fact, the courts, police, cameras, credit records and other justice-related authorities can serve the same purpose nowadays, encouraging proscial behavior among large groups of strangers.

“The fact that many non-religious people act as cooperatively as religious ones, and that many predominantly secular states are as (and often more) stable and functional as predominantly religious ones, attests to this,” Shariff told LiveScience.

Not to mention that not all religiously inspired prosocial behavior is good — it can have a “dark side,” the authors say. Charity is obviously for the good of all, but giving for the group at your own expense is very undesirable when taken to extremes, as in the case of suicide bombers, who make the ultimate sacrifice. Similarly, kamikaze pilots in World War II made a prosocial sacrifice with their fatal flights — it was for the good of their nation’s war effort but they killed and bombed others, which is very antisocial. Also, altruism is sometimes extended only to the “worthy” or excludes certain people.

Shariff stresses that he and Norenzayan have no axe to grind with religion. The essay they wrote "is only out there to help understanding,” Shariff said. The desirability of religion and its ability to get at the truth is an issue best left to philosophers and theologians, Norenzayan said. The writing of the essay was supported by a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada grant.

Richard P. Sloan, a professor of behavioral medicine at Columbia University Medical Center who has done research on spirituality and medicine but was uninvolved in the new review essay, said he agreed that empathy, compassion and altruism can be induced in society without religion.

“I don’t believe there is any evidence to support the necessity of religion for prosocial behavior,” Sloan said. “There are people who make the argument that altruism and prosocial behavior evolutionarily preceded the development of religion for a long time. You can see evidence of altruistic behavior in humans dating back for a long time.”

Robin Lloyd

Robin Lloyd was a senior editor at and Live Science from 2007 to 2009. She holds a B.A. degree in sociology from Smith College and a Ph.D. and M.A. degree in sociology from the University of California at Santa Barbara. She is currently a freelance science writer based in New York City and a contributing editor at Scientific American, as well as an adjunct professor at New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program.