From Prof. Massimo Pigliucci
) I learned about a new study that just appeared on Science
: “The Origin and Evolution of Religious Prosociality
“, authored by Ara Norenzayan
and Azim F. Shariff
]. In the study the authors “examine empirical evidence for religious prosociality, the hypothesis that religions facilitate costly behaviors that benefit other people.” And a most interesting study it is!
Unfortunately, the article is not available to non-subscribers, but in any case Massimo does a good job
of conveying the juice of it, so I will merely quote him and urge you to read his post
. And if you have access to the Science magazine
read the original article (and don’t forget to send a copy to me yes?)
First off, Massimo is particularly excited about this study, and this can only mean that it is indeed a hugely interesting piece of research:
The article is chockfull of fascinating, empirically based, insights into the relationship between religion and prosocial behavior, and is a must read for anyone seriously interested in this topic
Moving on to the article itself, on the issue of religiosity and charitable behaviour
we have (all emphasis in all quotes mine):
A series of “Good Samaritan” studies found that people’s actual (as opposed to self-reported) charitable behavior shows no correspondence whatsoever with the degree of religious belief. Secular people are just as likely (or not) to help someone in distress as are religious people.
On the issue of religiosity and morality and altruism
In a control group that was not “primed” with a god-like concept, people behaved selfishly (most pocketed an available sum of money without sharing). When participants were primed with a god reminder, however, the modal behavior switched to fairness (they split the money). So, does religion trigger altruistic behavior after all? Nope. Here’s the kicker: people that were primed with reminders of a secular moral authority were just as altruistic as the religiously primed ones! It isn’t religion, it is the presence of a moral authority that does the trick.
And on the stability and prosperity of religious societies
[is there] a positive relationship between the size of a society and the moralizing of their gods [?] Sure enough, researchers found that although most societies do not, in fact, worship gods that dictate morality, all large groups switch to moral-dictating deities. Does that mean that religion is, after all, necessary for the stability of human groups? Again, no, because modern secular social contract-enforcing institutions (police, courts, etc.) efficiently replace the original function of “big gods,” as plainly demonstrated by the case of most western societies, which are both highly secular and stable.
Norenzayan and Shariff have accumulated empirical evidence and demonstrated that religion is not necessary in promoting altruistic (or prosocial) behaviour
in people. Secular “mechanisms” are just as efficient to this end but without the negative side-effects religion has (dogmatism, grounds for discrimination, cult behaviour, believing in unsupported irrational ideas etc.).
As many atheists and secular humanists have argued before, we do not in fact need God to dictate our morality
- Ara Norenzayan, Azim F. Shariff, "The Origin and Evolution of Religious Prosociality". Science 3 October 2008, 322 (5898), 58-62 [↩]