Does religion really mean compassion?
By David Wardrop
What makes people give? Is it out of compassion, empathy, sympathy? A survey by the University of California, Berkeley, has revealed that the atheists and agonistics – i.e. humanists- are more driven by compassion when they donate than the religious. This has created heated debate online, the details of which are predictable and need not be repeated here. But the findings of the survey do offer some interesting and relevant points. By moving to a political perspective, this article will primarily look at how the findings of the survey regarding compassion and faith can be correlated to the role of religion as invoked by the UK’s Coalition Government.
The findings from Berkeley offer an illuminating insight into the precise reasons as to why the non-religious and religious donate to charity. It came about following an intriguing point made by a non-religious donator to the Haitian earthquake appeal, whose response to the emotional footage of someone being pulled from the rubble was to donate immediately. Was compassion really the overriding factor? Indeed, was this a response shared between both the non-religious and religious? The results were notable. One experiment during the survey had religious and non-religious watch two videos on child poverty, the first mild, even anodyne, the second emotional and provocative. A bundle of false dollars was subsequently given to the two groups for them to give. The second, haunting video provoked the non-religious group to give generously, whilst the donation from the religious group came despite of the second video. Berkeley social scientist Rob Willer sums it up-
“Overall, we find that for less religious people, the strength of their emotional connection to another person is critical to whether they will help that person or not. The more religious, on the other hand, may ground their generosity less in emotion, and more in other factors such as doctrine, a communal identity, or reputational concerns.”
Another experiment asked the participants to share money to a stranger based on their feeling of compassion. Once again, the non-religious gave the most, which immediately begs the question. If you remove compassion from the purpose of giving, would it make people less inclined to help a stranger in everyday life? After all, if you have done you’re supposed ‘bit’ for charity or the church, why should you give up your seat on the bus later on? Willer corroborates-
“Overall, this research suggests that although less religious people tend to be less trusted in the U.S., when feeling compassionate, they may actually be more inclined to help their fellow citizens than more religious people”.
Willer’s description of a religious yet less inclined to help category brings us to politics. The role of religion in politics in the UK really hasn’t had a long history – a handful of Prime Ministers have even regarded themselves as agnostics, a notable example being Clement Attlee. But the role of religion in public policy has been invoked increasingly by politicians in the last few years. Today’s Coalition Government, particularly within the Conservative side, has made some unsettling noises regarding the role of religion in society, with both the Prime Minister and Party Chairman espousing religious values as an idealistic remedy for a supposedly ‘broken’ society. A notable example of this was witnessed in David Cameron’s speech last December, which claimed, in Daily Mail like terms, that the ‘moral collapse’ of today’s society was the direct result of a decline in traditional ‘Christian values’, values perceived by the PM to be of tolerance and compassion. Of course, the irony of Cameron’s speech boils down to the fact that it highlights the existence of the religious yet dispassionate category that Weller states. Weller’s statement that religious people may be less inclined to help is proved politically with the Coalition’s favouritism for small government and an agenda of public service cuts that will affect primarily those furthest from the party base. Cameron’s donning of the cassock hasn’t prevented his government from cutting down on public services and cutting the top tax rate, two policies that show a distinct lack of empathy for the neediest who look set to bear the brunt of the government’s austerity drive. Government drives against the unemployed and unwell show a definite sign of intolerance. Willer’s finding of a defined communal identity reveals another political parallel. Cameron’s December speech included an attack on a ‘do as you please’ mentality perceived by the PM as an attack on his Anglican identity and his perception of British ‘Christian’ society. In part this was a barely disguised (and ill informed) attack on secularism. However, it highlights the fact that any identity with a self important perception of itself will feel, if not outright hostility, a want to isolate itself from other groups perceived as incompatible. Such paranoid parochialism hardly bodes well for universal compassion. Thus, the Prime Minister’s December speech and his government’s social policy become mutually comfortable companions when viewed in the context of the Berkeley finding, in particular the profile of the identity conscious, yet dispassionate religious person, less inclined than others to help their fellow citizens.
So what has this little wander through politics proved? Well, it has highlighted the Berkeley finding that disproves the simplistic notion of compassion being religion and religion being compassion. Indeed, as seen so often in politics, there is generally a disparity between the religious minded politician and the compassion of the policies they espouse, a fact seen amongst many of the Tories in the Coalition Government and the members of the Republican Party in the United States. Indeed, the secular society that David Cameron accused of moral laxity gave millions to charity in Sport Relief earlier this year, despite the gloomy economy. For compassion really isn’t a reserve of the religious.