Are People Who Are Deeply Religious More Altruistic Than Secular Controls?

CLAHRC WM takes a large interest in the clinician-patient relationship – the Director has a special interest in the doctor-patient relationship. Moreover, CLAHRC WM has developed a research protocol (led by Prof Julian Bion) to evaluate methods to augment compassion in acute medical care. But the doctors and clinicians are under broader influences than their immediate work environment and their post-professional education. Despite a similar education and environment some give much more of themselves than others. There are broader personal and cultural influences at work. So one may suppose that doctors who are very religious might give more than their secular peers. Well, any research on that lies in the future. But as far as human beings as a whole are concerned, the Economist provides a synopsis [1] of a fascinating study.[2] They studied altruistic responses using a variant of the well-studied Dictator Game, which is a validated test of altruism. The investigators interviewed 1,170 children, one per family, across six countries. About half of the families turned out to be religious, and half of these were ‘highly observant’. So were the children of pious families more altruistic than their peers? Were they equally altruistic? Could it be that they were less altruistic? Well it turned out that children of non-religious families were more altruistic than their peers. What’s going on here? Is there a flaw in the study? If not, how can the results be explained? The CLAHRC WM Director is surprised by this result and has no answer to these questions.

— Richard Lilford, CLAHRC WM Director

Reference:

  1. The Economist. Matthew 22:39. The Economist. 07 Nov 2015.
  2. Decety J, Cowell JM, Lee K, et al. The Negative Association between Religiousness and Children’s Altruism across the World. Curr Biol. 2015; 25(22): 2951-5.
Advertisements

5 thoughts on “Are People Who Are Deeply Religious More Altruistic Than Secular Controls?”

  1. There are a number of possible explanations, including:
    1. Non-religious people do not believe people are “in God’s hands” and hence may be more inclined to assume a duty to help others in need since there is no divine back-up.
    2. Highly observant people may be more inclined to interact primarily with like-minded people, may regard the wider population as somewhat alien or irretrievably flawed, and may be similarly regarded by the wider population. These factors may inhibit social bonding and discourage a sense of mutual obligation and community.
    3. These factors may be exacerbated if the religion in question makes claims of supremacy: the non-adherents’ misfortune may be perceived as just desert and hence unworthy of altruism.
    4. If observance is time-consuming (a lot of prayer and ritual), the time available for altruistic behaviour may diminish.
    5. It could be that secular people have moral codes that are more focused on altruism since they tend to assign greater importance to lived experience, have no religious authorities to absolve them of their sins, and believe that human intention and community are all there is to combat the vast unknowability and randomness of the universe.
    6. The study involved only Islam and Christianity, two religions whose texts and teachings appeal to the full range of human conduct, from love to hatred, and generosity to vengeance. The results may have been different among Buddhists and Unitarians.

  2. It may be that people who practice religion are satiated by the act of going to their place of worship, whereas people who do not have religion in their lives feel a need to be more altruistic to make themselves happy and feed their social instincts.

  3. If the probability of an event being random is 1 in 1000, then the probability of two such events occurring randomly is 1 in a million. This is GCSE level statistics. However we are not talking about a purely academic discipline. We use data to inform action. Should drug prescribing guidelines be changed? Should the suspect be charged with a criminal offence? Is the insurance company obliged to pay the claim? If two such ‘1 in 1000’ events take place in short order then the curious investigator should have their interest stimulated. After three, or more, such events alarm bells will be sounding. What possible explanations exist?
    1. An external influence is at work: i.e. the events are not truly random For example
    1.1. There is a magnet under the roulette wheel, or the dice are loaded (simple bias)
    1.2. There is a Dr Shipman type figure is at large (malfeasance and mischief)
    1.3. There is a common cause, such as genetic or hormonal factors for repeated miscarriages
    2. The data is flawed (How many ‘once in a century’ floods have there been in the last five years?)
    3. The population under consideration is atypical
    4. The population is not homogenous
    It may be argued with some justification that numbers 2, 3 and 4 are related. The base data may be correct for a subset of the total population. Equally the population under investigation may be a known, or unknown, subset of the total population. The entire concept of sampling relies on an assumption of homogeneity. Let us return to a post in the News Blog dated 24th March.
    About half of the families turned out to be religious, and half of these were ‘highly observant’. So were the children of pious families more altruistic than their peers? Were they equally altruistic? Could it be that they were less altruistic?
    Well it turned out that children of nonreligious families were more altruistic than their peers. What’s going on here? Is there a flaw in the study? If not, how can the results be explained? The CLAHRC WM Director is surprised by this result and has no answer to these questions.
    This writer suggests that “religious families” do not comprise a homogenous population. It is a Type 4 problem using the classification given above. There are many religions. Furthermore there are distinct groups within these religions. Judaism has its liberal and orthodox elements. Wikipedia identifies six different types of Hinduism. Christianity encompasses liberals and evangelicals, Catholics and Calvinists.
    The outworking of these religious beliefs varies enormously. Some groups and individuals feed the hungry on a regular basis, others only occasionally. (Go into the centre of Birmingham of an evening to see practical examples.) Some run schools, orphanages and clinics. Some involve themselves heavily in politics. Others withdraw as far as possible from the potentially corrupting influences of the everyday world. The skills of the social scientist are more applicable here than those of the pure scientist. No doubt social scientists would love to be able to conduct double blind trials and then have these repeated and peer reviewed. It is seldom possible. However a rigorous approach to the data is still required. The evidence will (or certainly should) shape policy. So, what can be done with the study of 1170 children? (Lacking an Athens password, this writer does not have access to the full article.) If sufficient data has been collected, then the analysis could be re-run to see whether levels of altruism vary across religions. If that data was not collected, then there is scope for further research. This conclusion should please most researchers!
    Keith Stanley, SME Engagement Manager, UHB, Birmingham

  4. (although I wonder why the authors/journal didn’t retract or publish a correction given that this does look like someone made a genuine mistake which has led to incorrect conclusions…)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s