Why Non-Religious People Act More Out of Empathy

Scientific research suggests that empathy works more strongly on the non-religious to motivate generous behavior. Religious people are guided more by doctrine and community. 

What's the Latest Development?


Recent sociological research suggests that non-religious people are motivated more by compassion when acting charitably than those who self-identify as religious. In one experiment, non-religious adults who were shown an emotionally powerful video were more likely to give money to strangers than those affiliated with a religion. "The compassion-inducing video had a big effect on their generosity," said UC Berkeley social psychologist Robb Willer, a co-author of the study. "But it did not significantly change the generosity of more religious participants." 

What's the Big Idea?

The results of the experiments challenge the assumption that charitable behavior is necessarily driven by feelings of compassion and empathy. While a non-religious person may need some emotional prompting to engage in generous behavior, "the more religious may ground their generosity less in emotion, and more in other factors such as doctrine, a communal identity, or reputational concerns," said Willer. And while some may assume that religious people act more charitably than their secular brethren, the studies suggest that when motivated by empathy, the non-religious among us may be quicker to act. 

Photo credit: Shutterstock.com


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