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Study: Religious members more generous, even to other faiths

US money in envelope

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J-P Mauro - published on 05/11/23

It was unclear if faith in God made people more generous, or if generous people were more inclined to gravitate towards religion.

Differences between religions can be vast and sometimes seen as a source of disputes, but a new study is flipping the script, suggesting that belief in God can directly influence a person’s generosity, even to those of different faiths. 

A recent study titled “Thinking About God Encourages Prosociality Toward Religious Outgroups” measured the generosity of religious devotees to those of other faiths. The study was conducted on some 4,700 people in the United States, the Middle East, and Fiji, who belong to a variety of faiths. The most common faiths of those who participated in the study were Christian, Muslim, Jewish, and Hindu. 

Participants were given two envelopes, each containing an undisclosed amount of money. One envelope was labeled “Mine,” while the other was labeled “Give To Another Person.” In this portion of the exercise, each participant was instructed to divide the money between envelopes in any way they chose. Then, the experiment was repeated, but this time they were instructed to think about God and how He would wish for the money to be divided.

According to the study, published in SAGE Journals, it was found that adherents to a religion were more keen to give money away. After thinking about what God would want, participants gave away an average of 11% more than they kept. Furthermore, this increased giving was not restricted to members of the participant’s own faith.

Azim Shariff, one of the lead authors of the study, noted that previous studies had shown that thinking about God spurred greater generosity, but this study gave him a chance to measure this generosity towards outside faiths. He said that the study found there was no difference in the donations that were given to people of the same religion and those of other religious groups. 

Shariff went on to note that the findings of the study were contrary to many of the opinions of his researchers. Many went into the study believing that donations sent towards members of the participant’s own religious group would be higher than those sent to members of other faiths. Shariff commented, provided by RNS, that these preconceptions were not necessarily based on fact.

“One of the problems in science is that you have to get rid of confirmation bias,” he said. “That is really hard to do when everyone believes the same thing.”

He went on to say that he found that it was important to ask how God would want the money distributed, rather than asking how an upstanding member of their faith would divvy it up. Although he did note that it is hard to isolate the “God-bit” of any particular religion, because the habits and tendencies of a religious devotee are generally also influenced by ethnicity and culture. 

Overall, it was found that religious people tend to give more to both secular and faith-based charities. It was hard for researchers, however, to determine if those who have religion are more generous or if those who are more generous tend to gravitate towards religion. The study’s findings suggest that the belief in God is less related to interreligious discrepancies than one’s culture or ethnicity. 

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