Religion makes people helpful and generous -- under certain conditions: UBC researchers

October 2, 2008

Belief in God encourages people to be helpful, honest and generous, but only under certain psychological conditions, according to University of British Columbia researchers who analyzed the past three decades of social science research.

Religious people are more likely than the non-religious to engage in prosocial behaviour – acts that benefit others at a personal cost – when it enhances the individual's reputation or when religious thoughts are freshly activated in the person's mind, say UBC social psychologists Ara Norenzayan and Azim Shariff

Their paper "The Origin and Evolution of Religious Prosociality" appears in the October 3, 2008 issue of the journal Science.

The two-part paper first reviews data from anthropology, sociology, psychology and economics. Norenzayan and Shariff then go on to explore how religion, by encouraging cooperation, became a factor in making possible the rise of large and stable societies made of genetically unrelated individuals.

To date, says Norenzayan, the public debate whether religion fosters cooperation and trust has largely been driven by opinion and anecdote.

"We wanted to look at the hard scientific evidence," says Norenzayan, an associate professor in the Dept. of Psychology.

The investigators found complementary results across the disciplines:

-- Empirical data within anthropology suggests there is more cooperation among religious societies than the non-religious, especially when group survival is under threat
-- Economic experiments indicate that religiosity increases levels of trust among participants
-- Psychology experiments show that thoughts of an omniscient, morally concerned God reduce levels of cheating and selfish behaviour

"This type of religiously-motivated 'virtuous' behaviour has likely played a vital social role throughout history," says Shariff, a Psychology PhD student.

Shariff adds, "One reason we now have large, cooperative societies may be that some aspects of religion – such as outsourcing costly social policing duties to all-powerful Gods – made societies work more cooperatively in the past."

Across cultures and through time, observe the authors, the notion of an all-powerful, morally concerned "Big God" usually begat "Big groups" –large-scale, stable societies that successfully passed on their cultural beliefs.

The study also points out that in today's world religion has no monopoly on kind and generous behaviour. In many findings, non-believers acted as prosocially as believers. The last several hundred years has seen the rise of non-religious institutional mechanisms that include effective policing, courts and social surveillance.

"Some of the most cooperative modern societies are also the most secular," says Norenzayan. "People have found other ways to be cooperative – without God."

Source: University of British Columbia

Explore further: Why do pivotal cultural differences among countries exist?

Related Stories

Why do pivotal cultural differences among countries exist?

May 26, 2011

In today's world, conflicts and misunderstandings frequently arise between those who are from more restrictive cultures and those from less restrictive ones. Now, a new international study led by the University of Maryland ...

Recommended for you

Chimpanzees shed light on origins of human walking

October 6, 2015

A research team led by Stony Brook University investigating human and chimpanzee locomotion have uncovered unexpected similarities in the way the two species use their upper body during two-legged walking. The results, reported ...

The hand and foot of Homo naledi

October 6, 2015

The second set of papers related to the remarkable discovery of Homo naledi, a new species of human relative, have been published in scientific journal, Nature Communications, on Tuesday, 6 October 2015.

Who you gonna trust? How power affects our faith in others

October 6, 2015

One of the ongoing themes of the current presidential campaign is that Americans are becoming increasingly distrustful of those who walk the corridors of power – Exhibit A being the Republican presidential primary, in which ...

The dark side of Nobel prizewinning research

October 4, 2015

Think of the Nobel prizes and you think of groundbreaking research bettering mankind, but the awards have also honoured some quite unhumanitarian inventions such as chemical weapons, DDT and lobotomies.


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet Oct 02, 2008
I think most if not all major religions could be seen to have served a very practical purpose, and continue to for some.

However the people who believe religion is a prerequisite for morality have such a skewed worldview that I believe it hinders them from treating people with basic dignity and respect in their own minds if someone has different religious beliefs, and there is no place for that kind of prejudice in modern society. It's a wholly arbitrary distinction that IMO rarely speaks for the character of the person being judged.

As with most things... proper moderate application is beneficial if actually needed, harmful if overdone or not needed.
not rated yet Oct 02, 2008
Yes, right on the nail head fuchikoma. I see religions having a circle of the faithful and if you are in the circle it is good. If you are not in the circle it is bad. In essence it is us and them. This is not an inclusive domain and the domain they preach we will enter at death will be full of nothing. But as long as they deceive themselves and leave 'us' alone 'they' can play whatever games they want. Why should religions care what others don't believe in? I think they need others to join up and affirm their choice as good or correct.

For me there is only 'us', the humans. We breed, we live, we die.

In the Big Inning (baseball for the unknowers)
Eve stole first, Adam stole second, Cain struck-out Able and the Prodigal son came home.
not rated yet Oct 02, 2008
I am glad to see this article!! Thank you!!
not rated yet Oct 03, 2008
As a Dane I certainly agree, that there are alternatives for a modern society. The Scandinavian countries are some of the best functioning in the world, but Scandinavians are much less religious.

I am religious myself, but I don't see any problem in this. Actually it makes it possible for the individual to have a much more personal and mature view on his own religion.

Tip: read "Societies without God" by Phil Zuckerman.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.