Faith in God is supposed to promote altruistic behavior and good deeds of various kinds. But are these aimed by believers only at members of their own religious group or does it extend to helping those of a different religion?
University of Illinois Chicago social psychologist Michael Pasek, psychology Prof. Jeremy Ginges at the New School of Social Research, Assistant Psychology Prof. Allon Vishkin at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa and six colleagues studied this question through field and online experiments involving more than 4,700 religious people from diverse ethnoreligious populations in three political and cultural contexts.
American Christians (including Evangelicals), Israeli Jews, Palestinian Muslims and Hindus, Muslims and Christians in Fiji in the South Pacific were given the opportunity to share money with anonymous people from different religious groups. A total of 395 Israeli Jews, 55% Ashkenazi and 34% Sephardi and the rest mixed were tested; there were 373 Palestinian Muslims.
The 13-page study that appears in the journal Psychological Science under the title “Thinking About God Encourages Prosociality Toward Religious Outgroups: A Cross-Cultural Investigation” found that participants showed more generosity toward strangers when prompted to think about God. In addition, participants’ giving increased equally no matter if recipients were members of the same religious group or a different group.
“Religion is often thought to promote intergroup conflict and fuel hostility between people who hold different beliefs. Quite to the contrary, our findings suggest that belief in God, which is an important aspect of most world religions, may sometimes promote more positive intergroup relations.”
“Religion is often thought to promote intergroup conflict and fuel hostility between people who hold different beliefs. Quite to the contrary, our findings suggest that belief in God, which is an important aspect of most world religions, may sometimes promote more positive intergroup relations,” said Pasek.
“We gave people money to divide between themselves and a stranger. Sometimes the stranger was from the same ethnic-religious group, sometimes they were from the other group. Sometimes they just completed the task, other times they were asked first to think about their God,” Ginges told The Jerusalem Post. In general, people gave more money to a stranger from their own group than from the other group – which was expected.
Testing generosity among religious people
The researchers had participants play multiple rounds of a real economic game in which they divided a sum of money between themselves and different individual recipients. Participants were asked to think carefully before making their choice during the initial rounds. In the latter rounds, researchers asked participants to think about God before making their choice.
Thinking about God led to an 11% overall increase in giving (relative to what they gave at first) across experiments and sites, regardless of conflict levels or perceived threat.
However, Ginges continued, “when religious people were asked to think about their God, they gave more money – and it did not depend on whether the stranger was a member of the other group or not. To the extent that faith encourages generosity, they seem to do so regardless of identity. And in no case did thinking about God reduce generosity to the religious outgroup; it only ever increased it. This is our big take-home message.”
In the Middle East, an examination of Israeli Jews and Palestinians in the West Bank showed that overall, they gave more money to the outgroup when thinking about God.
“The trends for both Jews and Muslims were the same. Looking at each population separately, the increased generosity was statistically significant for Muslims. Palestinians gave more money to Israeli Jewish strangers when thinking about Allah,” Ginges noted.
“Our sample included Palestinians living in refugee camps. The increased generosity to Muslim Palestinians after thinking about God was not statistically significant for Israeli Jews, but the difference in effect size for Jews and Muslims was quite small and not statistically significant, so differences in effect size for Jews and Muslims need to be interpreted with caution.”
“In the US, where we studied Christians’ prosociality toward Muslims and atheists, groups share a common national superordinate identity. Although there is significant bias against Muslims and atheists, violence is relatively rare,” they wrote.
The results suggest that thinking about one’s God may promote cooperation across religious divides, rather than assumed antipathy, but it is unlikely that such beliefs always promote harmony, the team found.
“Belief in God may encourage cooperative norms that help us trade goods and ideas across group boundaries, which is essential to human flourishing. Of course, we are also a parochial species. Our team is now investigating how moral and supernatural beliefs help people balance their parochialism with their need for intergroup cooperation,” Ginges said.