Hardly a week passes, it seems, without yet another “scientific” study disparaging people of faith.
This week’s study, ginned up by researchers at the University of California at Berkeley, dubiously concludes that the “highly religious” are less compassionate toward the needful than non-believers.
Published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, the study defines “compassion” as an emotion felt when people see the sufferings of others which then motivates them to help, often at personal risk or cost.
The study’s lead author, Laura Saslow, says she was inspired by an atheist friend who told her he donated to earthquake recovery efforts in Haiti after watching a video of a woman being rescued from the rubble.
“I was interested to find,” she said, “that this experience – an atheist being strongly influenced by his emotions to show generosity to strangers – was replicated in three large, systematic studies.”
Well, I have no doubt there are some non-believers, like Saslow’s atheist boy pal, who are so moved with compassion after watching videos of victims of earthquakes, tsunamis and other natural disasters, that they donate to recovery efforts.
But it is absurd for Saslow to suggest that people of faith, particularly the highly religious, are not similarly moved, if not more so.
To make such a claim, the Cal Berkeley researchers relied on three highly-questionable analyses.
In the first, they looked at data from a 2004 national survey of roughly 1,300 adults. They determined that those who agreed with such statements as “when I see someone being taken advantage of, I feel kind of protective of them” were more inclined to show generosity.
And extrapolating from the survey results, they figured that non-believers were likelier to be charitable in such ways as giving money or food to a homeless person than people of faith.
In the second analysis, 101 adults watched one of two videos. One was neutral. The other was heartrending, showing portraits of impoverished children. Next, the participants were each given a hypothetical $10 and directed to give any of it to a stranger.
Wouldn’t you know it? The least religious gave the most of their money.
The third of the “systematic” analyses on which Saslow’s based her putative scientific findings involved more than 200 college students who were asked to report how compassionate they felt at the moment. Then they played a game in which they were given hypothetical money to share – or not – with a stranger.
In one round, they were told that another person playing the game had given a portion of their money to them, which had since doubled in amount. They were free to reward them by giving back some of the money.
Once again, those who were deemed least-religious proved most generous.
Of course, there is a much better way than abstract surveys or videos or games to get a true-to-life measure of how compassionate the faith community is toward the needful – just examine the list of America’s largest charities.
Indeed, of the ten largest charities serving the least among us – the poor, the hungry, the sick, the homeless – nine of those were founded by people of faith. That includes such well-known charities as United Way, the American Red Cross, Goodwill Industries and Habitat for Humanity.
As to Haiti relief, which prompted Saslow to concoct her highly suspect study, faith-based charities made up three-quarters of the list of those receiving top ratings by CharityWatch, the respected watchdog organization, for their work on the ground in the earthquake-ravaged island nation to ease the suffering of its people .