The idea that religion is in any way responsible for causing people to be less compassionate is certainly a provocative notion, but based on the results of several studies this may in fact be the case. Those participants, for whom the primary motivation for doing good deeds was compassion, identified themselves as being less religious.
Compassion is generally the emotion people feel when they witness the suffering or pain of others and they are moved to act. It is commonly thought that acts of kindness are inspired by feelings of empathy and compassion but this link, according to the studies, was much stronger in those who were either non- or less religious. For these individuals it is this emotional tie or feeling of empathy that determines whether or not they will act in a charitable fashion.
Those who identified themselves as more religious tended to base their philanthropy on reasons such as doctrine, being part of a community, or even their self-image and reputation. The researchers suspected that those who were highly religious had a stronger moral obligation than those identified as non-religious.
In summary, all of the studies found that those who were identified as non–religious were more likely to be moved into action by an emotional response to another person's suffering. In fact, in one study it was determined that witnessing the suffering of others had a much more profound effect on the behavioral responses of those identified as non-religious than it did on their religious counterparts. Compassion and generosity seemed to be very linked for those who were non-religious.
It is possible that those who are more religious have a more structured notion, based on their religious beliefs, of what is worthy of charitable feeling and consequently donations. Those who are not religious, and are therefore not constrained by preordained religious restrictions, may be more open to immediate empathetic feelings and responses including genuine human need and desperation.
Every person’s charitable responses are unique to them as an individual and what moves us to action varies based on our own experiences and beliefs. Nevertheless, these studies and their results are a good starting place for a discussion about how religion, or the lack of it, informs our decisions regarding how we feel towards others in need.
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