Religious People Give to Religious Charities

From Tom Rees of Epiphenom:

The link between religion and charity is a fascinating one—not least because the assumption that the religious not only give more to charity but are more “generous” as a result really does beg the question: Even if they report giving more to charity, which charities are they giving to, and why?

Ben Johnson, a master’s student at the University of North Carolina used data from a nationally representative sample of 5,000 families. He crunched these through some fairly hefty statistics to see which religions were associated with higher reported giving—after controlling for education, children, stock ownership, income, volunteering behavior, and other factors (full report here).

He found that the religious were indeed more likely to report donating and, on average, donated more:

On average, Catholics give $523.00 more than people with no religious preference, Jews give $2679.67 more, Protestants give $199.69 more, and non-Christians give $1425.97 more.

So far, it looks like a gold star for religion.

Then he looked at where people were sending their charity. The survey data breaks down the recipients of charitable giving into several categories: religious, combination (like the United Way), those that help the needy, health, education, youth or family services, arts and culture, neighbourhood improvement, environment, international aid and world peace, and other.

As you can see in the table, what he found was that Catholics and Protestants only gave more to religious charities, and not to secular charities. In fact, Protestants were actually less likely than the nonreligious to give to cultural and environmental charities. Jews were more generous on educational and cultural donations, while the other non-Christians donated more to the environment.

Back in 2010, there was a similar analysis of the same survey data (although including earlier years) by Mark Ottoni-Wilhelm at Indiana University. He found that Christians and the nonaffiliated were equally likely to give to “basic necessity” organizations (i.e., ones that help people in need of food, shelter, or other basic necessities). Jews were again more generous.

To me, these results support the idea that religious generosity is really about supporting fellow members of your tribe, rather than humanity in general. A recent cross-cultural analysis found that both Catholics and Muslims report that their charitable behavior is primarily stoked out of a sense of duty or love for their god.

In contrast, research published earlier this year suggests that when the nonreligious are motivated to give, they primarily do so out of a sense of compassion.

Face Recognition in Christians and Atheists

From Tom Rees of Epiphenom:

Christianity, many people would agree, encourages adherents to think less about themselves and more about their group of co-religionists. Yina Ma and Shihui Han of Peking University in Beijing wanted to know if these teachings actually had meaningful psychological effects.

They recruited pairs of students: 10 pairs of atheists and 10 pairs of Christians. All the pairs were matched for age and gender, and each pair of friends had known each other for at least two years during which they were roommates or classmates.

They did two tests, one of which was quite straightforward. They flashed up photographs of either the subject’s own face, or their friend’s. The task was to recognize them by pressing an appropriate key: Fast reactions on this one indicate that it was easy to recognize the face.

The second was a version of the Implicit Association Test. In this test, the subjects had to match either their own or their friend’s face with positive (e.g. “good”) or negative (e.g. “bad”) words. The theory goes that if you have a good opinion of yourself, or your friend, then you will find it easier to match the face with a positive word and harder (i.e. take longer) to match it with a negative word. So this test is a measure of your gut feeling toward them.

Ma and Han found that atheists and Christians were equally fast at recognizing friends’ faces. Atheists were faster at recognizing their own faces but, remarkably, Christians weren’t.

They also found that atheists and Christians had equally positive feelings about their friends. However, while atheists were even more positive about themselves, Christians weren’t.

They went on to show that the results of the Implicit Association Test explained the results on the first test. In other words, the relatively low opinion Christians had of themselves was linked to their relatively tardy reactions on the self-recognition test.

Ma and Han note that previous research has shown that Christian belief and practice that emphasize human sinfulness seem to weaken positive attitudes toward the self, and suspect that this is what their results have shown:

… our results suggest that the implicit positive view of the self can be reduced by Christian belief and practice that repudiates the distinctness of the self and friends and this in turn can eliminate the advantage of self-face over friend-face in the believers.

Of course, Christianity is very much a minority religion in China, and the Chinese have a collectivist culture, compared with Western individualism. So we can’t necessarily extrapolate these results to Christians and atheists elsewhere in the world.

Nor can it be assumed that all Christian sects have the same effect. Other research has shown that Calvinists seem to be ulta-individualistic compared with both atheists and Roman Catholics, for example.

However, it is intriguing to think about these results in the light of theories that propose that religions were invented as a tool to increase group cohesion.

The Evolution Debate Isn’t About Science Literacy

From Dan Kahan of the Cultural Cognition Project:

A few days ago, Gallup released a poll showing that 46 percent of Americans “hold creationist views.”

The almost universal reaction—among folks that I have contact with; I am very aware that that sample is biased, in a selection sense—was “what is wrong with our science education system?!”

Well, lots of things, but the contested state of evolution is actually not a consequence of any such deficiencies—or at least not of deficiencies in “science education” understood as the propagation of comprehension of what is known by science.

In this sense, the evolution controversy is very much like the climate change one, which, we concluded in our Nature Climate Change study, also is not a consequence of low science comprehension.

Those who study public understanding of science have a better way to investigate the impact of science comprehension here than simply to correlate science literacy and “acceptance” of evolution. They examine whether those who “accept” have a better grasp of the basic science of evolution than those who “reject.”

They don’t. There is simply no correlation between “accepting” evolution and understanding concepts like natural selection, random mutation, and genetic variation—the core of the “modern synthesis” position on evolution.

That is, those who “reject” are as likely to understand those concepts as those who “accept” evolution. In fact, those who accept aren’t very likely to understand them in absolute terms. They “accept” what they don’t really understand.

This isn’t really cause for alarm. Individuals can’t possibly be expected to be able to understand and give a cogent account of all the things known by science. Yet they accept zillions of such things that are indeed essential to their living a good life, or even just living (antibiotics kill bacteria; drinking raw milk can make you very very very sick; a GPS system can reliably tell you where you are and how to get someplace else … ).

But the critical point here is that scientific comprehension isn’t what causes those who accept evolution to accept it or those who reject it to reject it.

What does is their willingness to assent to science’s understanding of what’s known here as the authoritative account of what’s known. Those who “accept” evolution are accepting that. Those who resist aren’t.

Moreover, those who resist it on evolution aren’t resisting across the board. They accept plenty of things—orders of magnitude more things—as known because science says so than they reject.

Evolution is a special kind of issue. The position you take it on it is an expression of who you are in a world in which people are many diverse sorts of people and in which there is a sad tendency of one sort to ridicule and hold in contempt those of another.

So here is an interesting moral question, I think. Is the goal of “science education” to impart knowledge only or should it aim to propagate acceptance, too?
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Belief in Life After Death and Belief in a Just World

From Tom Rees of Epiphenom:

Religion and afterlife beliefs are pretty tightly bound together, and there are several ideas why that might be. One is that belief in an afterlife might help people to be more relaxed about threats and adversity in the here and now.

Kevin Flannelly at the Spears Research Institute in New York and his colleagues assessed data from the 2010 Baylor Religion Survey to see whether belief in the afterlife was linked to different worldviews. He found that positive beliefs about the afterlife (belief that the afterlife means a union with God, a reunion with loved ones, and/or a life of eternal reward or eternal punishment) increased the likelihood of believing that this world is just. In other words, people who believed in an afterlife were more likely to think that “Anything is possible if you work hard” and that “Everyone starts out with the same chances in life.” They were less likely to agree that “The world is controlled by a few powerful people” or that “Finance is a field where people get rich without making a real contribution to society.”

Flannelly also found that people who believed in a just world had less anxiety and other psychiatric symptoms, such as paranoia, obsession, and compulsion.

Plugging these results into a statistical model, he found that the lower level of psychiatric symptoms seen in religious people in the Baylor survey can be explained as a result of their belief in the afterlife, moderated by its effects on their beliefs in a just world. He interprets this in terms of evolutionary threat assessment systems theory, which hypothesizes that hypersensitivity to threats in your environment (real or imagined) is a fundamental cause of many psychiatric symptoms.

Now, these results are interesting for a few reasons. Firstly, they support other results that suggest that religious people are more likely to believe that the world we live in is just—that people succeed or fail because of their own attributes, and dumb luck has little influence (and that, in turn, may help to explain the link between religion and opposition to the welfare state).

Personally, I’m not convinced that this is caused by belief in the afterlife. It seems to me that these attitudes are more likely to come about through a belief that a god is intervening in this world—and that any beliefs in the afterlife are part of the package, rather than a direct influence.

The other interesting thing to speculate about is how these beliefs might play out in other parts of the world. Although in the United States modern Christianity has reshaped itself to pretty much guarantee a life of eternal bliss to all believers, that isn’t the case for religion in other parts of the world. Muslims are pretty freaked out by their prospects in the afterlife, for example.

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